Monday, November 14, 2011

My Japanese Learning Plan

This upcoming December will mark the 12th anniversary of my beginning studying the Japanese language. I started learning Japanese back in December 1999. It's been nearly twelve years later, and I am unfortunately still not fluent in the language. To make a long story short, I actively studied the language between 1999 and 2005 and even attended a Japanese language school named Sakura Gakuen from 2003 to 2005. However, I took a sort of break during my undergraduate career at Cal Poly due to the demands of my coursework. But, upon getting an offer to do an internship at Fujitsu Labs in Japan, I started to take Japanese much more seriously. My Japanese skills improved dramatically during my time in Japan in 2010, and since I've returned to America I have spent a good chunk of my spare time studying Japanese vocabulary and kanji, as well as watching Japanese dramas and movies and also browsing Japanese websites (with the help of Rikaikun).

My goal is to become fluent in Japanese in 2014, which is around the time I should be finished with my PhD program. I am interested in working in Japan after I graduate, either in an industrial research lab or perhaps at a Japanese university (although I have a lot to learn about how academia works in Japan). Of course, I would need to be fluent in Japanese in order to qualify for a full-time research position out there. Suppose I become a professor at a Japanese university, for example. I would need to be fluent in Japanese in order to convey the course material effectively to my students.

Below is my study plan for the foreseeable future (not in any particular order):
  • Finish Remembering the Kanji I, which is a book that covers the basic 1,945 kanji taught in Japanese public schools, as well as some additional characters.
  • Study the "Core 6000" deck, which is a deck that consists of the 6,000 most commonly used Japanese words. I am almost done with studying the Core 2000 deck, which is the top 2,000 of these words (I only have about ~250 words remaining in my deck; I should be finished studying it next week).
  • Study All About Particles, The Handbook of Japanese Verbs, and A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar. After I pass JLPT Level N2, I plan on purchasing A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar and studying it.
  • Read the stack of manga, magazines, novels, and other Japanese books that I bought while I lived in Japan.
  • Continue watching more Japanese movies and dramas.
  • Study for the JLPT. I plan to take Level N2 of the JLPT in December 2012, and Level N1 of the JLPT in December 2013.
  • Take a trip to Japan on vacation sometime in 2013 (okay, so this isn't exactly "studying" per se, but I will get a chance to use my Japanese again).
Hopefully this works out!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Words with Similar Meanings in Japanese

Right now I am studying the Core 2000 Japanese vocabulary list, which consists of the 2,000 most commonly used words in Japanese. I have been working my way through the vocabulary list for almost a month; I spend about 10-20 minutes or so a day studying the list via a flash card program called Anki, which is an excellent program for studying Japanese (or any other language for that matter). While many of the words that I've encountered are words that I was already very familiar with, there are other words that I did not know until I encountered them when studying the vocabulary list. Right now I have gotten through the first 513 words in the collection; many of those words I am now comfortable with. I should be finished studying the word list by the end of the summer.

One very interesting thing I discovered through my studies is that Japanese has a lot of words that are very similar to other words, but have a slight variation in meaning. For example, back when I was at Fujitsu, I learned the difference between 完了 and 終了, which both mean "to finish" but have slightly different connotations (the former implies that a task was completed, while the latter implies that something ended [but not necessarily completed], e.g., プロジェクトを完了しました [I completed the project] and プログラムが終了しました。[The program ended]).

Here are some additional groups that I noticed:
考える (to think, consider) vs. 思う (to think) vs. 検討する (to consider)
仕事 (work, job) vs. 作業 (work)
完了 vs. 完成 (both meaning "to finish, complete")
去年 vs. 昨年 (both meaning "last year")
変える vs. 変わる vs. 変化する (all meaning "to change")
大統領 vs. 社長 (both meaning "president")
開く 「あく」 vs. 開く 「ひらく」 (both meaning "to open"; notice that they are written exactly the same but pronounced differently)
行く 「いく」 vs. 行く 「ゆく」 (both meaning "to go"; same situation as above)
見せる vs. 示す (both meaning "to show")
閉める vs. 閉まる vs. 閉じる (all meaning "to close, to shut")
必要する vs. 要る (both meaning "to need")

It would be very interesting to see the differences between these words.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Nebulousness of Graduate School (and Life in General)

Have you ever noticed that the further you go in your educational or professional career, the more nebulous the future seems?

Consider the following. In high school, there are clear, clean-cut requirements for graduation and clear, clean-cut requirements for getting into a university. I clearly remember being a high school student, stressing out about taking challenging courses, preparing for the SAT and stressing out over my scores, doing extracurricular activities, and making sure that my record was polished enough for me to get into the university of my choice. Obtaining an undergraduate degree and getting a job or an admission offer to graduate school is very similar. It essentially requires taking the right courses, earning the right GPA, networking with the right people, completing a few internships, and either doing a great job on the applications (for graduate school) or performing well on the interviews (for getting a job).

Of course, there are no guarantees in life. Having exceptional performance in high school does not guarantee admission to an exceptional university, and having an impressive CV or résumé does not guarantee a seat in a graduate program or a desk at a company. Competition for desirable universities and jobs is stiff, and the axiom of life not being fair also plays a role (you most likely don't know who are reviewing the applications and what their thoughts and possible biases are, after all). However, the probability that one could advance to his or her desired next step is high given that he or she fulfilled the requirements for that step. And the probability that one could fulfill those requirements, provided that he or she makes the necessary effort, is also high.

However, the path from graduate school to a research position, whether it is employment in an industrial research lab or a professorship at a research university, is a bit more nebulous, and the destination is more uncertain. Now, graduate school and obtaining a research position do have requirements. The coursework and examination requirements in graduate school are crystal-clear, and employers have expectations about what they want from prospective employees. However, there are a few of those expectations that are a bit nebulous, and sometimes being able to meet those expectations is uncertain. Even the ability to obtain a research position is uncertain.

One such expectation is that graduate students are known by the research community and that they make an impact in their fields. This can be determined by evaluating a student's publication record. If a student's publications tend to be frequently cited, and if the resulting research is adapted by other researchers, the student is deemed to have made an impact to the research community and thus has a better chance of obtaining a research position. However, if the student's publications are not cited much, did not generate much interest at the conferences that he or she presented them in, and overall seem to be ignored by the research community, then the student will have a harder time obtaining a desirable research position and may have to settle for a less desirable job.

Even though this expectation of making an impact in the field is known, the trouble is that there is no guarantee that one's research would make an impact on the field. While knowledge and hard work are necessities in pursuing any research topic and are exhibited in many researchers, luck is another important factor that could decide whether a researcher's work is deemed important enough to have made an impact on the field. Many factors that are outside of an individual researcher's control exist, from changes in the popularity of certain research topics to competition amongst researchers from different institutions. These factors play a role in determining the impact of one's research.

Another area of uncertainty is one's future employment. Unlike applying to graduate school, where there are a few slots open per year at nearly all graduate programs, not every university or company has research positions available each year. While in computer science (my field) the location of most industrial research positions is certain (the Silicon Valley, since most of the research labs of the world's major software companies are located here), for all fields a researcher hoping to be a professor needs to be prepared to make a move anywhere in the country where there is an open position. In some fields (such as the liberal arts) where there is very few industrial employment, demand for professorships is so intense that an advertisement for a position at a university in the middle of nowhere could receive hundreds of applications. It's a little less intense for computer science where there is a lot of industrial hiring, but there is still competition for professorships. But no matter the job, a researcher would have to stand out in his or her field in order to secure a position, and the researcher would need to be willing to move anywhere where there is a job.

Despite the uncertainties, I am still sticking to my plan. The major reason why I decided to attend graduate school is because I want to obtain a research position. I enjoy doing computer science research. To have a good chance at securing a research position in America, one must have a PhD. (I heard of people with MS degrees working in research labs, but they are the exception, not the norm.)

Besides, the nebulousness and uncertainties are not limited to the research world. Consider working in industry, for example. The criteria for being promoted may be nebulous at some companies, and, unlike school where there is "academic probation," one could be laid off or fired without warning at a company. My friends who are working right now are not shielded from this at all.

But, back to graduate school and the future, I hope that everything will work out for me. In the meanwhile, I'll work on doing research that will hopefully make an impact in the field. We'll see!