Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hello Context, my old friend

Lately, I've been using my spare time to pick up my study of the Japanese language again.  Using an iPhone app, I've been learning the vocab that would show up on the JLPT Level 5 (the most basic difficulty level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test).

I started studying the vocab several months ago, taking 10-20 new words at a time, and finally worked my way up to the entire set a couple of weeks ago.  All in all, there are 714 vocab words at this level.  I've taken the full quiz on my iPhone three times now: The first time, I scored 708/714; the second time, 709/714; the third time, 710/714.  The words I've gotten wrong have been dumb mistakes--I try to finish the test quickly and so either push the wrong button or fail to read the options carefully enough when I rush.

Still, I'm improving: I've gotten a higher score each time, and the test has gone from taking me over an hour to taking just under 40 minutes (I was really flying through the questions this last time).  The challenge now is to take all of this vocab and commit it to working memory.  I need to start using the vocab that I know, and perhaps just as importantly, listen for the words I know when someone is speaking to me in Japanese.

I had an opportunity to listen at church today.  Everything at my church--announcements, songs, readings, preaching--is in Japanese, with English translation provided via headset.  This is great, except for when the headset doesn't work, like today.  Instead of listening to a very faint English translation under a distracting amount of static, I opted instead to test out my Japanese listening skills.  Though I certainly did recognize vocab words that I had learned, I had difficulty understanding how they fit into what the pastor was saying, and what the point of the sermon was.  This was very discouraging and I was just about to put on the head-set and suffer through the static when the pastor mentioned "Hachiko".  For those who do not know, there's a very famous (and true) story from Japan in the 1920s about a dog, Hachiko, who would meet his owner, a professor, at Shibuya station at the same time every day.  Even after the professor died suddenly, the dog continued to faithfully venture to the station to wait at his post every day.  The touching story has even reached American pop culture, as it was adapted into a movie (set in the U.S. rather than Japan, and butchered in the way that only Richard Gere can ruin something good).

Anyway, I digress.  I recognized the mention of Hachiko, and decided that based on this basic familiarity with the story, I'd try my luck in listening without translation.  It was a night-and-day difference.  The pastor wasn't speaking any slower, wasn't simplifying his language, wasn't speaking any differently... I just happened to know the story he was telling, so I had a rough idea of what I was listening for.  I understood maybe 80% of what the pastor said as he re-told the story as all the random vocab I knew suddenly slid into place and took on purpose contributing toward a greater meaning.  Had I not known the story of Hachiko, I would have been just as lost as I was the rest of the time.  I should note that the sermon was on Psalm 92, so I didn't have the contextual benefit of a familiar Bible story to follow along with.

Though I missed out on a lot of the content of the sermon by listening in Japanese, I feel like I have made progress in my ability to listen and in the scope of what I understand.  Being able to pick out words I know actually helps me to pick out words I do not know as well.  So, in the margins of my sermon notes (which were very brief and written in hiragana today), I jotted down the words I didn't know that came up the most.  I'll look them up before next week and then hopefully be able to understand even more the next time I happen to not use the English translation.

In the meantime, though, context is everything.

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