Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Rainbowhill Retrospective for 2009

Almost to the end of another year, and what a big year it has been. I have a lot to be thankful for, good health, family and friends, and the support of you my readers and students. Thanks for following. If you've read more than a few posts then you hopefully you'll have noticed that blogging for you is also a learning process for me.

If you have been here for a while and haven't commented, the invitation is always open. There are also many other ways to connect, become a fan on Facebook, follow me on Twitter. If this is your first time here this post will thread a path for you through the archive, and is probably a good way to get to know me better. If you like what you read, please pick up the feed.

Teacher/Pupil: Twitter 19/365
Teacher/Pupil: Twitter 19/365

Got to know where you've come from to know where you're going.

I started January with Japan Blog Matsuri post about keeping yourself open to possibilities when travelling to Japan or preparing to live there. The inspiration for getting back into blogging was provided by Chris from Nihongo Notes who blogged about getting over your perfectionist streak. Thanks Chris, your insights helped unblock my inner blogger and helped get this blog back on track.

The message I have is still pretty much the same, maintaining an open mind and understanding your motivation is most important if you want to make the most of the Japanese experience. Any experience you have is yours alone to have, so I asked you what's your flavour of Japanese? A post by Jon on the Kurosawa classic Rashomon had me thinking how inseparable culture and language are. Your perception invariably influences your version of reality.

Get your blog on.

One of the most commented on posts of the year asked if learning Japanese loanwords make you lazy. The post actually lay dormant for quite sometime until I submitted it to JapanSoc and it got picked up on Twitter. I was responding to a mothballed review written in 2001 of Giles Murray's entertaining book of techniques for learning Japanese reviewed elsewhere on this blog. It showed me how a little controversy can go a long way to getting some posts noticed.

In February I posted three ways to enjoy Japanese curry rice, another Japan Blog Matsuri organised by Deas from Rocking in Hakata. Mid month I spent two weeks in Japan before coming back for more eduFire where I learnt that teaching in more than one time zone can be tough. With the exception of Field Mice and Japanese Mnemonics most of my lessons since have been at times that make it hard for those in Australia and Japan to take part. So hello North America and Europe, the Middle East and South Asia!

In March I investigated how reading Manga can be good for your Japanese and how there is always room for humour with some bad Japanese puns. I followed up in April with a guide to learning Japanese through manga with the help of my Twitter friend @natuskigirl.

One thing that I must learn how to do well is some kind of weekly link post. I toyed with the idea of sharing links that my students share in the eduFire classroom and did a photographic retrospective of Spring Sumo tournament. These kinds of posts probably should happen more often, but they also need to contribute a more to the blog than just an automated dump of delicious links or a Flickr feed. April was also the where I tapped into 6 ex-pat perspectives on Japan, a theme I continued with 7 J-bloggers far from Japan in June.

The rise and demise of Superpass.

Superpass was launched in June, and discontinued in December. In that short time it provided me with enough momentum to attract over 300 students to my classes on eduFire, so I'm grateful for it. I'll be exploring new ways to maintain that momentum in the new year, and will continue to produce top content and articles relevant to studying the Japanese language. I'll be looking for ways to offer exclusive discounts to existing students and readers of my blog. Get in early for a subscription to my email newsletter, launching in the new year where you can learn about these discounts first.

Moving forward.

Part of the formula for attracting and supporting new students has been the goals I create on I blogged about the introduction of colloborative goals in July, and not much else. I got back in to the swing of things with a guest post on Caught*Red-handed about the history of written Japanese and organised a forum for students of Japanese students on eduFire. There was also a bit of fun with bottom grabbing on Twitter.

In September it was all about the JLPT and test preparation with a five step series to ace the JLPT. The five posts outlining the five steps were also completed in 5 days, which was a bit of an experiment in speed blogging. I was also lucky enough to be able to give away a free month of SuperPass to @aggettzz who was overjoyed. I found posting a series of blogs to complement my classes on eduFire helped maintain my motivation. In October I began a book review of 13 Secrets for Speaking Fluent Japanese, a text I've been using in my Fast Track to Fluency classes.

My network on Twitter has been a fabulous source of inspiration for blogging, and even a source of answers where I am unable to provide them to my students. I find every time I'm asked a question that people really want to know, like "what are the best apps for learning Japanese on iPhone?" I get the best answers from my Twitter friends.

Again in November I asked if my friends were using a monolingual Japanese dictionary and came up with 3 good reasons to use a Japanese only dictionary. I had previously written an article for eduFire How to Choose the Best Japanese Dictionary, but I wanted to go into more detail about discovering new vocabulary using a Japanese monolingual dictionary.

By the end of November most people studying Japanese were preparing for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I could probably do a lot better at rounding up resources for the JLPT, but it's a long way off now and there is plenty of time. At least I have a game plan for how I'd like to approach the JLPT in 2010.

Thank you for reading.

It has been a big year, and I have lots of people to thank. I'm planning to have an even bigger year in 2010 and I want to get things of to a good start. Why don't you become a fan of the Rainbowhill Language Lab on Facebook or follow @rainbowhill on Twitter. If you have done a lesson with me on eduFire, please tell me what you think, I want to get to know you better. If you haven't already, Get in early for a subscription to my email newsletter. In it you'll find discounts on lessons with me, specific tips for preparing for the JLPT and of course all the best content on Japanese language and culture.

All the best for 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Japanese Language Proficiency Test for 2010

No Test Content Specifications for New JLPT 2010

Earlier in December the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (JEES) released further detail about the New Japanese Language Language Proficiency Test. As has been reported elsewhere this marks the first time the test has been offered with five levels, with a extra level intended to bridge the large gap between the previous 3rd and 2nd levels.

Other bloggers were quick to point out other major departures from the the previous test format, including the intention not to publish test specifications or past tests, and the requirement to pass each section of the test for an overall pass. It seems that the Japan Foundation have moved to modernise the test to measure both “Japanese language knowledge, including vocabulary and grammar,” and “the competence required to perform communicative tasks using language knowledge.”

There are also other small changes to the presentation of test sections, and the types of questions within them. Under development is a 'can-do' list of proficiencies which will be provided to help examinees and other better understand the test in practical terms.


What does this mean for you if you want to take the test in 2010?

Some things never change, like the need to do hour upon hour of mind numbing study, but if you want to know if the test is right for you here are some answers to questions I get asked all the time.

Who is it for? The JLPT was devised in 1984 to respond to a growing demand among students of Japanese to evaluate and certify Japanese language ability. It has grown in to a internationally recognised test the results of which have been used for employment screening and evaluation for pay rises and promotions. In 2008 well over half a million people took the test in centres all over the world.

Why should I do it? You should do it if you want to certify that you have passed a standardised test which measures Japanese language proficiency. The Japan Foundation have expanded the aims to inlcude measuring “the competence required to perform communicative tasks using language knowledge”. I don't think a paper based test will never come close to testing your communicative ability without a spoken section. Having said that though, it's always good to have something to aim for and if you need some reason to break open your text books this is as good as it will ever get.

What does it test? Test levels N5 (beginner) through to N3 (lower intermediate) are broken in to three sections; vocabulary, grammar/reading and listening. Test levels N2 (intermediate) and N1 (advanced) include vocabulary and reading/grammar in the first section, and lsitening in the second. Speaking and writing are not measured directly. Answers are machine scored multi-choice as in the current test. More details are provided in the New Japanese-Language Proficiency Test Guidebook - Executive Summary (pdf).

When is it held? In 2009 the JLPT was held on the first Sunday in July, but the level 1 and level 2 tests were held only in Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan. The first Sunday in December is known to most who have taken the test as a day of dread all over the world. If you plan on taking the test this year, nothing less than your full comittment from day one is needed to pass at the level appropriate to your perceived ability now. There is a handy table in the executive summary (pdf) of linguistic competencies required to pass each level.

Where is it held? The test is held in over 150 locations outside of Japan, however in 2009 the July test was only held in China, Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan. Locations for the test are not normally confirmed until test vouchers are received but you can get a good idea if one is close to you by looking at the list of local host institutions. Application forms are not normally published until a few months before the test date either, and outside of Japan they can be a bit hard to come by. Host institutions are the first place you should ask, their phone numbers are published on the same list. For those of you wanting to take the test in Japan here is the list of test sites, and a link to bookstores where you may purchase the application form.

How should I prepare? The Japan Foundation have determined that it is inappropriate to publish "Test Content Specifications", a major departure from previous years. Their reasoning is that rote memorisation of vocabulary, kanji and grammar does not guarantee you are capable of using Japanese for communication. It does go a long way however. I have written about the best way to prepare for the JLPT, and have run some online training on how Ace the JLPT at any level. I plan to run similar training in 2010 and tailor content for the select group of people that sign up for my newsletter that launches in the new year.

How will I know what is on the test? The executive summary (pdf) contains a “Composition of Test Items” at each level of the test, which is something you can use to structure your study. Other things that could prove useful include the “A Summary of the Linguistic Competence Required for Each Level” found in the executive summary (pdf) and the "New Japanese-Language Proficiency Test Sample Questions" found on the official website of the Japanese-Language Proficiency test.

Which level should I take? Since the new test levels correspond to the past test levels past tests are always going to be the best way of establishing your current level. The only grey area is with N3 where the number of kanji and vocabulary required fall somewhere between the old level 3 and 2. Jonathon Waller has created an excellent comparison of the old versus the new JLPT with descriptions drawn from the JEES to help you decide which test to take.

After all that, if you still want to take it, please read on.

Let there be no illusions.

This test takes a fair commitment of time and energy, you must make sacrifices. There are few excuses on test day if you rock up unprepared, and the pit in your stomach is bottomless when you realise all that time has gone to waste in March when results are released. If you want to know how others who have just taken the test are spending their time right now see my light hearted attempt to infuse some joy in to the long wait for results.

It is also clear from reading the executive summary that you must come to the test a well rounded student with no obvious weaknesses.

"examinees must now exceed the minimum acceptable score for both the total as well as each scoring section. Failure to exceed the minimum acceptable score in any scoring sections will result in a fail for the entire test."

I'll be going into much greater detail about how to prepare for the test for those that sign up for the newsletter. In the meantime check out past posts on preparing for the JLPT, including an hour of exam preparation training on eduFire, and the series 'Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level'.

5 Steps To  Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level 5 Steps To Ace The Japanese Language Proficiency Test At Any Level is a Free Online Seminar at eduFire

How will this change your approach in 2010?

Are you taking the test this year? Do you plan to do things differently this time around?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Get Your LangFreq On Twitter

New Tool LangFreq Helps to Uncover the Most Common Words on Twitter

Everybody loves Twitter for the people, but not many people know how useful the bots can be. When Evan Williams talked about the impact of persistant communication on being social at LeWeb03 in December 2007, it was in the context of Twitter as a command line interface.

The idea had been around for quite some time and came about as Twitter began to open up the API, heralding the rise of Twitter as a mobile applications platform. A whole ecosystem of apps and bots sprung up around the api, now inhabiting the Twitter fan wiki in various states of (dis)repair.

One of the points Ev liked to make was that too often we ask "What can we add to a product to make it better?" He thought rather we should be asking "What can we take away to create something new?"

The new austerity.

Many of the bots that have sprung relate to productivity or novelty, but there is also a small handful devoted to languages. One of the most recent additions to this burgeoning hive of activity is LangFreq by Zyaga. LangFreq is set of language tools including word frequency, phrase rank and comparison, language translation and identification.

Zyaga and I first talked about his ideas in my Japanese classes on eduFire as he was developing these web tools to compare word frequency across a few languages. During an exchange of emails I suggested that Twitter would not only be a good source of data, but a good platform for a command line interface to his web work.

A Twitter bot is born.

The LangFreq suite of language learning tools is in beta so there is still plenty of work to be done, already it's showing lots of promise. LangFreq is built on the simple premise that someone studying the 100 most frequent words in any language would be much further ahead than someone studying 100 words at random.

Linguists have long been aware that there might be some advantage to learners in identifying a core vocabulary[1]. There are a certain number of high frequency words in each language that cover a large proportion of words in common use[2]. The notion of a core vocabulary has also become a central principle of some language learning systems, notably Pimsleur.

LangFreq addresses the need to know these most frequent words simply and cleanly on the website for English and Spanish. For Japanese however, the situation is a little more difficult. The trouble with Japanese is that it is difficult to define where one word ends and another begins[3]. Although it is possible that breaking words down into smaller units makes it easier to work with, doing so limts the applicability of the tool.

Japanese is a language largely built on compunds of two or more kanji and the okurigana that helps identify the nature of the verb conjugation or adjectival inflection. It will be interesting to see how Zyaga solves this computational problem. It might be worthwhile taking another look at Jim Breen's classic Japanese dictionary WWWJDIC, or looking at the work of Rick Noelle and his Japanese Sentence Parser which uses the MeCab morphological analyzer.

Taking a closer look at the bot.

Please go and take a closer look at the bot @langfreq, I'll be doing an indepth comparison with some other similar bots in the next week or so.

It's pretty easy to get started. There are only four commands including help, rank, translate and identify. The bot is an elegant way to get this kind of information about core words when you are out and about.

Have a play around with it and tell me what you think. Do you use bots like these?

1. Carter, Ronald. “Is there a Core Vocabulary? Some Implications for Language Teaching*.” Applied Linguistics 8, no. 2 (February 1, 1987): 178-193.

2. Nation, I. S. P. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge Univ Pr, 2001. [pdf]

3. Douglas, M. O. “Japanese Cloze Tests: Toward Their: Construction.” [pdf]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Blogger Disclosure and Food for Thought

Recently the FTC said that it would revise rules about endorsements, testimonials and advertising to include blogging and social media. Although this blog falls well outside the FTC's jurisdiction the NYT article has provided me with food for thought about the kinds of endorsements I make on this blog and how my relationship with advertisers may affect my relationship with you the reader.

Although I've been blogging for years, I first started taking this Japanese language and culture blog seriously about the same time I started teaching Japanese on eduFire. I initially saw this blog as both a vehicle for promoting my lessons and establishing some credibility as a language instructor.

If you have taken lessons with me before, please tell me what you think, I want to get to know you better.

In the past year this blog has become much more than that. It has become part of a conversation I am having with you, and the broad community of people with an interest in the culture and language of Japan. I've made so many interesting friends and been exposed to many new ways of thinking. I have lots to be thankful for, well beyond any financial reward I could ever hope to gain from blogging.

So what's the occasion?

My motivation for blogging has always been about communication and personal growth, and it will continue to be. As 2010 the year of the Tiger comes around it provides me with the opportunity to renew my commitment to you, to continue to provide top quality content and opportunities to learn about Japan and the Japanese language. I'm also making a renewed commitment to blogging for fun and for profit.

I want to be upfront about my motivations for blogging with you. I have seen friends do this kind of personal disclosure well, and others with a sense of good humour, so I thought I too would take this opportunity to connect with you.

My blog and how I make money

Just so there are no secrets, I make money from teaching people Japanese. But you knew that already right?

I had one affiliate link for SuperPass which has generated a modest number of clicks but no conversions. Now with SuperPass gone I'll be looking for ways to offer exclusive discounts and subscriptions to readers of my blog. Get in early for a subscription to my email newsletter, launching in the new year where you can learn about these discounts first.

I also make money, not a lot, in fact a very small amount of money through an the Amazon Associates program. In future I may experiment with advertising, but at the moment I'm happy with the way things are on this blog without it.

Sometimes I am offered freebies to evaluate and blog about. In these cases, I'll let you know because I think it's important you understand the relationship I have with the people behind the product. Product reviews of this type are difficult to do, but I won't shy away from telling you if a product has faults. I have a responsibility to you my reader to tell it like it is. If a product is poor quality, or if the people behind it aren't behaving ethically I simply won't blog about it.

My ethical standards.

My golden rule for endorsements is "does what I promote have real value for readers of my blog". I am also less likely to promote something I haven't used myself unless there is a compelling case for doing so. If there is anything you think doesn't quite sit right with you, please bring it up with me, because chances are others might feel the same way too.

What's in it for you?

Thanks for making it this far through this rather dry post, I will return you to your normal programming soon. There has to be something it for you for sticking with me this far:
  • Expect more workbooks, this time focussing on grammar and verb conjugations, because you asked for it. 
  • Keep an eye out for greater integration between smartfm goals, eduFire lessons and the workbooks, because the combination has worked well in the past.
  • Look out for free themed lessons on eduFire that coordinate with the exclusive content found in the newsletter.
  • Anticipate courses and course-ware that use the very latest technology and have very clear outcomes for learning.
I'm looking more ways to connect with you, to understand your needs and tailor content to help you achieve your goals. So let me know about it! What would you like to see on this blog? What lessons would you like to take? I want to hear about it in the comments, or take the survey.

Become a fan on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, grab the blog feed and sign up for the newsletter. There are plenty of ways to join in the conversation!

Monday, December 07, 2009

How to put the fun back in to Japanese now the JLPT is over

5 ways to enjoy learning Japanese beyond JLPT

Congratulations! You've just come through the grinder that is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. It probably doesn't feel so bad now, but in the next few days you're probably going to have some withdrawal symptoms. Cramming for tests takes up a lot of your time and energy, and no matter how you look at it, it's not much fun. In this post we'll look at some ways to fill the time between now and test results, and hopefully put some joy back into learning Japanese.

Some of you may feel quietly confident at first but then the nagging doubt will creep in. Some of you will know that you botched parts of it, and now you're only waiting to find out by how much. I put the following question out there on Twitter yesterday because I know what some of you must be going through right now.

I'm looking for suggestions about what to do when the JLPT is over. Any ideas? Trying to bring the joy back into learning Japanese.

Thank you to everyone that responded on Twitter, I'm glad to have found a such an interesting bunch of people to follow!

1. Remember the reason you started studying.

When you started studying Japanese did you have a clear idea why? For some people its because they want to learn enough Japanese to read manga or understand anime, for others because they have work or travel plans that involve extended periods of time in Japan. For some, its just for fun and to keep their minds nimble.

@rainbowhill I suppose that depends on why you started learning it in the first place. Remember that reason, do it.

Studying for a test usually has the unwanted side effect of destroying your internal motivation. The constant repetition may be good for boosting your vocabulary, or aiding your kanji recall, but how well does it prepare you for interactions with people? My guess is not very well.

If you rely on an external motivator to achieve your goals, when that external motivator changes or disappears, you  risk losing focus on why it is you started studying in the first place. Kevin's advice is simple, rediscover your motivation for learning Japanese. What is your version of Japanese?

2. Read stuff.

Preparing for a test is different to using Japanese naturally to engage in culture. Reading is one of the most direct ways to experience culture, and even more important if you can't immerse yourself in it physically.

@rainbowhill Read stuff from aozora bunko!

In the lead up to the test you may have wanted to read manga, but you probably focussed on reading lots of very boring textbooks with short disconnected passages and obscure grammar. This is good in the short term, but practice tests fall well short of what I call exciting reading.

Get back to basics, find something you really enjoy reading. You'll probably find that reading something for the second time you're able to get through it much more smoothly. There are lots of good reasons why reading can be good for your Japanese. Harvey came up with a fabulous link to an almost limitless supply of reading in Japanese with the 青空文庫 (Aozora Bunko). I'm a big fan of blue sky learning too!

3. Find something fun to study.

Chill out, relax, spend the evening on YouTube Japan or ニコニコ動画 (nico nico douga). Have a good laugh, so it brings you back to earth. Play games, learn like a child, do a bit of bottom grabbing on twitter.

@rainbowhill After cramming for the JLPT, take the time to study something a bit more fun and enjoyable. Expand on what you crammed for.

Do something a little different, it will help you find new ways to explore your new found confidence with Japanese. Be creative with your time and remember, learning is meant to be fun. Thanks Katie!

4. Concentrate on a weakness.

Having now done the test you will have an acute sense of where your weaknesses are. Use this to refocus your attention on improving these weak areas when you turn back to the books. Doing so will not only provide you with fertile ground for improvement it will help you weed out bad habits in your study technique.

@rainbowhill I will be concentrating on kanji kanji kanji after jlpt ... Without kanji will never really know Japanese

Outline a plan to improve in this area, remember that hard won gains in an area of weakness unlock large gains in other areas. Tone has identified clearly her weakness, and isn't afraid to share it. Where do your weaknesses lie? What are you going to do to correct them?

5. Start studying for the next level.

Have you heard the best way never to fear falling off a horse is to get right back on after you fall off? It might be painful initially, but now that you have the momentum why waste it?

@rainbowhill Studying for the next level ... that's what I'll be doing :)

Make sure you have some measurable goals, but never lose sight of why you started studying in the first place. Matigo may seem the masochist here, but I bet he makes good ground on the next JLPT level while the rest of the world is sleeping.

Update: Go on! Get away from that computer and get out of the house already!

I noticed this response from Philip a day after the original post went up. It is worth mentioning because of its sense of urgency. My sentiments precisely, get out there and use it! Its not Latin you know!

@rainbowhill Try to actually use the language! Stop cramming kanji, go out and talk, read & write using what you already know...

How will you spend the next few months before results are released?