Switching locale (Gnome 3, Fedora 20) and making sure all the menus switch too

In the spirit of immersion, I switched the laptop's language to Japanese, however most of the Gnome menus remained in English even after switching the System Language altogether, logging out etc. Another profile on the laptop shows the menus for Activities, etc in Japanese just fine so it wasn't a missing package. I found the following in ~/.profile, which seems a bit heavy-handed but does do the trick. For future reference:

LANG="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LANGUAGE="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_CTYPE="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_NUMERIC="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_TIME="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_COLLATE="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_MONETARY="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_MESSAGES="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_PAPER="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_NAME="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_ADDRESS="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_TELEPHONE="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_MEASUREMENT="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_IDENTIFICATION="ja_JP.UTF-8"
LC_ALL=

Note on restarting X one is asked if they want to change the names for the default folders like Documents, etc. Personally I find it makes using the CLI a pain and don't recommend it.

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Japan

I'm taking a year out to travel in Japan on a working holiday visa, starting with a couple of months of studying the language some more. I landed about 2 weeks ago. The school put me at a slightly higher level than I had dared to hope and I am now learning new words, new expressions, new nuances every day and generally having a tremendous time :) I'm exactly where I want to be, doing and learning what I want to.

I'm experimenting with posting pictures on Flickr as I go, we'll see how that works out!

Also, note for future-self and other folks who are about to travel with a cold: the so-called "ear planes" work great to avoid painful ear pain on descent. I put them about 1h30 before landing on the second flight and it was painless, quite a contrast with the previous flight 10 hours earlier. Nasal spray helps a bit for comfort too.

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DK House Sapporo

I wanted to take a few minutes to give a shout out to DK House in Sapporo, as a great option to get affordable housing for mediumish to longer stays in Japan. I spent a month there in September.

DK house front

They specialise in short-term accommodations, normally starting from 3 months but if you want to stay for a shorter time like I did, you can get in touch with them in advance and ask if it's ok. Despite sending my queries in both Japanese and English, they replied in English only so you don't need to be overly concerned about the language if your Japanese isn't up to snuff yet :-)

The facilities are clean and the staff is always really helpful. As I was staying only a few weeks I couldn't get a room with a private bathroom, but it didn't turn out to be a problem. I never had to queue for a shower. There's also a shared kitchen and a convenient laundry room.

The rooms have a desk and a LAN port and I didn't have any major issues with the Internet. As a backup I'd rented a "pocket wifi" and I was glad to have it for network-intensive operations (ahem, devstack) or when there was a bit too much contention. Also, there is no wireless in the rooms. (If you're planning to spend a lot of time at that desk, you may want to mentally prepare yourself for the fact that the chair was not picked for its ergonomic qualities!).

There's some totally optional activities from time to time in the common room, if you want to meet with the other residents. You're a few minutes away from the tramway (市電) which leads you straight to the city centre in 15 minutes, 3 konbinis (Lawson, Seven Eleven) and a super tasty ramen place (てつや - I recommend the しょうゆ).

Now if you're used to luxurious super comfortable hotel mattresses and spacious rooms I suppose you may be disappointed.

DK House - Room

Personally I'm really happy with my experience and heartily recommend the place :)

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Adventures in Japan

In the middle of May, I went away for a couple of weeks in lovely Fukuoka, Japan with the goal of expanding my knowledge of Japanese.

Every weekday, I went to a language school, GenkiJACS. On the first day, my level was accurately evaluated through a written test and interview, and on the same afternoon I was put into a small class (5 people, myself included) with students at a similar level from all over the world. The lessons were held entirely in Japanese, with students' chitchat also happening in Japanese -- a lovely atmosphere :)

Support from the staff, both by email during the preceding months and during my stay, was top notch. The school also offers all sorts of native language materials for students to borrow, though considering the building was right above Mandarake, a manga/video games/DVD/etc shop, I must say I mostly bought my own... :)

I stayed with a host family for the whole time, which was wonderful in terms of language practice, making friends and experiencing varied aspects of Japanese daily life. The perceived lack of independence made me a bit twitchy at times though.

The concepts and vocabulary I learnt in and out of class have stuck well so far -- the class format is very good, with lots of reviewing after a new concept is introduced. In the end though, 2 weeks isn't enough time to acquire that much new knowledge and I mostly treat the experience as a very thorough level check. There are lots of conversations I had I didn't realise were within my grasp. Because Japanese people are often reluctant or unable to speak English (but always so nice and helpful!), I had plenty of opportunities to practice in varied contexts and I'm now a lot less shy about speaking in Japanese.

With only 2 weeks, unfortunately there was little time for tourism, though what I saw of Fukuoka City (Canal City, Kushida shrine and many other temples, Oohori Park, my local yakitori izakaya and kappazushi...) and the Fukuoka Prefecture (Dazaifu, Abura yama...) was delightful.

Definitely a wonderful experience. Study-wise, it was good for building confidence and boosting motivation. It was also good for cheaply acquiring plenty of contents in the language for practice... and making new friends! :)

Wooden staircase in the forest

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Learning Japanese or, what to after the Michel Thomas Method

Since listening to the Michel Thomas Foundation Course, I've been intensifying my learning of Japanese. I'm not sure if I'm learning in a sustainable way, but I'm enjoying the journey and will ride the wave of motivation while it lasts :) In case I inadvertently take a break and later want to come back to it, I'm going to write down a few words on what I'm doing at the moment. Perhaps it'll be useful to someone else too. 

Audio

I just finished the Michel Thomas Advanced Course, listening to one lesson in the bus every morning for the last while. When I initially picked up the Foundation Course, I was hoping to learn some conversational Japanese without worrying about the writing system ; however I really enjoyed the Advanced Course, which taught me lots of things I either never learnt or more likely completely forgot about since my initial stint at Japanese 10 years ago.

The Michel Thomas Method is wonderful to build confidence, and the Advanced course introduces you to many interesting grammar structures using the -て and -た forms. I'm looking at Japanese Pod 101 to get my audio fix now -- their content seems very good, despite the spammy feel of their sign-up process. They actually offer a lot more than audio.

Grammar

To get back to writing, a text book seemed appropriate to start learning "proper." I'm using the kana version of Japanese for Busy People, mainly because I was eager to begin learning and it was available at my local bookshop, and the Amazon reviews are good. Don't use the romaji version. I'm enjoying it, there are plenty of exercises and they try to use pictures as often as possible to help with retention, there's a CD included with the book and some of exercises are audio (listen then answer the questions in the book). It doesn't expand on grammar rules a lot though, so one should make sure to go back to the grammar pages regularly. For those not in a rush and with the money to spare, the Genki series looks to be fairly good.

Kanji & Vocabulary

One of the things I'm determined not to be discouraged by this time is kanji. I got myself the very nice and sturdy White Rabbit flash cards...

...Unfortunately after 40 or 50 kanji the ideograms, readings and meanings stopped sticking into my head. It was time for context. See below! The cards are still good to have around for recall, just not as a single learning source.

For vocabulary, I'm also testing Iknow.jp, for which I luckily obtained a 4 month free subscription. It doesn't focus on kanji as much as I'd like, but you learn to recognise words and sentences with both audio and text, which is quite good. They have several courses that together teach thousands of words of vocabulary.

In general, to guide my learning of kanji I'm using the kanji list recommendations for the Japanese Proficiency Level Test. Weakest level is N5 and requires about 100 kanjis (reading a newspaper requires about 2000!). I'm also curious at the TextFugu approach of teaching the radicals first, which seems to make more sense to me and is another avenue to explore.

Kanji in context

I tried a bilingual manga, which was a mistake (the English sticks out more prominently than the Japanese, and probably doesn't encourage focusing as hard on recognising kanjis). What I will warmly recommend are the wonderful Japanese Graded Level Reader book series. I'm going through Volume 0 at the moment (300 words/story, about 300 words of vocabulary overall) which read like simple children stories and I find them as confidence building for reading as the Michel Thomas method was for listening. Each volume contains 6 booklets entirely in Japanese, in which new concepts and words are repeated a lot so that between the repetition and the pictures, the reader can figure out the meaning of most of the story. It's very cute, and you learn about Japanese culture as well. Very much recommended. There are many volumes for different levels.

After I read one of the aforementioned "Reader" booklets, I add the kanji and grammar expressions I don't yet know to a set of Anki flashcards, with the help of jisho.org and Tae Kim's guide to Japanese grammar if needed. Anki's a wonderful piece of software! You can synchronise for free between different machines to make sure the Spaced Repetition algorithm keeps up no matter where you go through the cards, and it has a Maemo port (ankiqt900), among many other platforms. I'm still figuring out how best to make cards ; sometimes having the kanji on its own, other times including context.

Finally, I bought the first volume of a manga I'm interested in that has furigana, and I'm still exploring what's the best way to read, and learn, and create flash cards out of it without ruining the flow, losing interest or having to make 20 flashcards out of every bubble... (ahem!) I don't expect the process to be fast in any case :)

勉強しましょう。(<- let's begin testing the unicode resilience of this lil' blog!)

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Michel Thomas Method: Learning a language Japanese Foundation Course

I've been using the Michel Thomas Method to learn Japanese lately, using this set of CDs (8 hours). It works wonderfully well. The method only claims to teach you basic conversation skills, no writing or reading, and does so without requiring you to learn long lists of vocabulary or really, do anything outside of listening to the lessons. Each CD is cut into short lessons lasting between 3 and 8 minutes, and all you need to do is listen carefully and make use of the pause button to think of your answer before hearing the correct way to say something. There're 2 other students on the recordings, sometimes making mistakes and asking questions. You play the role of the 3rd student.

Through non-boring repetition, you learn how to structure different types of sentences and slowly add new words to your vocabulary. It's very enjoyable and you get a great sense of accomplishment when you remember things and figure out how to express something new. I usually listen on the bus -- I found listening while walking didn't work as well because a pedestrian needs to pay a lot of attention to their surroundings in the city if they'd like to not die, so I wasn't focused enough and ended up forgetting more.

The leaflet that comes with the box is adamant that your learning is the teacher's responsibility. You shouldn't try to learn stuff off by heart, or force yourself to remember or pick up new things in your own time. That makes me wonder how this applies to teaching programming. How much responsibility am I putting on the students to understand concepts, and how could I judiciously apply repetition and questioning to make people learn whether they want to or not?

This is really how these language lessons work. If you're listening, you have no choice but to learn. There's a free sample of the Japanese version and other languages on Audible, if you're curious to hear how it works.

(Update: I also posted on what I did after the Foundation Course, and ideas on what to do after finishing the Advanced Course)

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