A linguistic utility belt

As I mentioned previously, Japanese can be a bit difficult to get your head around. Here’s the kit I’ve built over the last few months to survive day-to-day:

1. Rikaichan: web page and email translation

Rikaichan is magical. Here is what it does:

And all courtesy of a free plug-in for Firefox! The blue box has been overlaid by Rikaichan. You can mouse-over characters on any web page to get both their meaning in English and their pronunciation in Japanese. It even works for email too, using Thunderbird! Without it, email would be unfathomable.

The downsides are that it’s slow and requires a basic understanding of grammar, since you work through text word by word rather than as a whole. It would still take me a good portion of the day if I translated every email I received, even with Rikaichan. However, it does let you quickly translate enough to let you know if the rest is worth translating.

On the plus side for a learner, this helps you to understand what you’re reading more fully, rather than blindly accepting Babelfish’s instant and often hilarious translation attempts.

Oh, and if you want to read Chinese, check out Chinesepera too – the same thing, but for Chinese to English.

2. Nintendo DS: everything else translation

There’s a “game” you can buy in Japan called Kanji Sonomama Rakubiki Jiten, but I have fondly titled it “I Am So Freaking Glad Someone Invented This”. This is maybe the most useful thing I own in Japan:

You can input Japanese characters (any of the three alphabets), or English characters to get the translation between the two. It’s the only way I’ve come across to find out what’s written on signs, forms and menus and the like. Based on my until-recently successful restaurant strategy of blindly asking for the most popular thing on the menu – sometimes, you really do want to know what you’re about to order. This software comes kitted out with the Genius dictionary, which is very popular in Japan and very comprehensive.

A couple of downsides though. Firstly, to translate Kanji (picture characters), you’re got to be able to draw them. No, and not by affecting a jaunty beret and getting the charcoals out. There is little room for artistic interpretation here. Japanese characters have a set stroke order. Deviate too far from the stroke order, and the software gets confused (though it helpfully offers up some possible alternatives to whatever you scrawled too). All is not lost though! If you follow a few basic guidelines like moving from top to bottom, left to right, you can work out most of what you need. Of course, the kanji above is quite simple – many kanji are significantly more dense and complex than this one, requiring some experience.

Secondly, this software is designed for students of English who already speak Japanese. So, all the menus are in Japanese, the definitions for some Japanese words are also unhelpfully in Japanese, and you can only hyperlink between English words, not Japanese words. At least you’ll learn some more Japanese as you trial-and-error navigate your way around.

Either way, a great way to justify buying a DS. And it even plays games on the odd occasion when you might remove this software!

3. Oxford Japanese Minidictionary: translation with character

While the DS is great and features Technology, sometimes it’s nice to have the tactile sensation of a well thumbed dictionary. I can still flip to a page and show it to a shop assistant faster than I can look up a word with my DS, and of course, they can point out words back out to me. Even if you can’t speak the same language, the dictionary becomes your important conduit for relating with one another.

There’s something reassuring about having this with me. It already bears the marks of experience after a few months, and it’s building up a healthy store of character. I can feel its character appreciating even as we speak.

Of course, one thing all three of these tools share in common is their lack of speed. Actually learning Japanese would be even better, possibly. Of course, before you can learn, you have to learn how to learn.  A story for another time, perhaps….


3 thoughts on “A linguistic utility belt

  1. This is a really great blog!

    Thanks for the Rikaichan plugin tip. This will really help with translation while surfing the web.

    I’m intrigued by your “learn how to learn” statement. Lets hope it is your next story. It would make a great adjunct to this one.

  2. Send me that DS cart post haste! I need to translate some old manga I’ve got lying around, and you’re supposed to be learning by immersion anyway.

    OK, you can keep it until I finish Resident Evil….

  3. Thanks for sharing, I’m glad you drew attention to two very important points. The first is that you need to surround yourself with the tools that you need to progress in a language – your utility belt. And secondly, you need to sharpen your sword by learning how to learn.

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