Daigaku Z: Tools of the Trade

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

I’d like to turn away from the actual learning of the language and get a little meta with this post. See, the last time I was in college, most of the technology I’m using on a daily basis was little more than a tiny spark in the back of some designer’s mind. I took the liberty of digging through my box of ten-year-old notes, and found some UI mockup sketches that, if I had the ambition and had recovered enough from my programming burnout, would look perfectly at home on Google Glass. Neglecting the fact that I don’t have nor do I want Google Glass, it surprised me to know how prescient some of those idle thoughts are turning out to be.

But it’s undeniable that the face of higher education is changing, and it’s similarly undeniable that the faces are typically buried in their smartphones as opposed to books. Students taking notes in tools like Evernote and Microsoft OneNote, and storing papers in cloud services like Dropbox and Box.Net, and using even less business-oriented tools like Facebook and text messages in creative ways, are commonplace sights on campus nowadays. In a sense, the role of student and the role of business collaborator are increasingly blending into each other (though grad students probably already had that blurring and are shaking their heads in mock astonishment).

Education is one of the hotbeds of technological innovation, and it’s only natural that these innovations would feed back into the ivory towers that spawned them. But even with the incredible wealth of gadgets and apps that we have at our very fingertips, there are arguments that students are not learning anything more valuable than how to tap their way to an answer. That’s definitely not the case with language majors, and arguably not the case with any other major. Tests still require the students to have retained and absorbed the knowledge they were exposed to, and all those wonderful toys go in the bag when the exams start.

So what, then, are those handy tools I keep mentioning? And what, if any, apply to the study of Japanese language and culture more than anything else? I already spoke a little about the biggest guns on my side, but I’ll go over them one more time and add a few more.

  • Evernote: Probably my go-to tool, Evernote is an online notebook service that allows you to collect, safeguard, and retrieve class materials from anywhere on the planet with an internet connection. It can store text notes as well as file attachments such as PDFs and audio clips. The basic service is free, but it’s very worth shelling out for the premium membership as it allows you to store your notebooks offline and greatly increases the amount of data you can store on a monthly basis.
  • Dropbox: Cloud storage services are a dime a dozen these days, but of the ones I’ve used I found Dropbox to be the most useful. Since the beginning the company has continually increased the value of the service by providing more storage space without increasing rates, although the basic service is rather generous as well.
  • Clear: I had originally used Evernote to collect my to-do list, until I remembered that I’d picked up this incredibly simple and clean list app when it was on sale a few years ago. With fast adding of items and syncing across devices, it’s been a great tool for keeping track of assignments and tasks. And, if you’re running iOS 8, it now has a Notification Center widget.
  • imiwa?: Every dedicated Japanese student needs a kanji dictionary, and imiwa is by far the best I’ve found. Not inherently a tool for learning the symbols (see the next item), imiwa instead is simply a replacement for a heavy paper version of the essential tool. It includes three different lookup methods (SKIP, multi-radical, and Chinese radical) along with English and Japanese direct searching. If you do want to use it as a teaching tool, though, it also includes the listings for the five levels of the JLPT as well as the grade-school kanji lists.
  • StickyStudy: This pair of apps, in kana and kanji flavors, is an excellent flashcard tool for rapid memorization and learning of both syllabaries and the kanji themselves. It was updated this past summer with audio vocalizations for every flashcard, recited by a native speaker, and while it had initially been slated to be a paid upgrade the developer decided to simply add it in to the base app. If Japanese isn’t your thing, there are also apps to learn Chinese or to create your own flashcard sets.

In addition to these tools, I also have a link on my devices to the NHK’s News Web Easy service. On mobile devices, the site shows the furigana assistance over the kanji without requiring any additional steps, making it an excellent way to test not just one’s ability to read kana, but also one’s vocabulary. Granted, at this early stage in my education, I pretty much can’t read more than a handful of the words on the page, but at least it’s an ambition.