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Investing big but wisely in Japanese study aids can reap dividends

by

Special To The Japan Times

I will freely admit to being a bit of a ケチなやつ (kechina yatsu, cheapskate). This is generally not something you should state in public, mostly because both kechi and yatsu are very casual and therefore very 荒い (arai, rough) language. A nicer way to put it would be 節約家 (setsuyakuka, frugal person).

I bring my own lunch to work every day. I use public transport and only take Uber on occasion. Chicago’s 公共 交通機関 (kōkyō kōtsū kikan, public transport) isn’t quite as impressive as Tokyo’s, but it gets the job done. And I borrow books and DVDs from the 公共図書館 (kōkyō toshokan, public library).

But recently I dropped serious cash on a mere アップ (appu, app): I paid $119.99 (¥13,800) for a Japanese-English dictionary on my iPhone. However, it has been worth every penny.

I’ve previously written (at bit.ly/jtgreengoddess) about my love for Kenkyusha’s 新和英大辞典 (Shin Wa-Ei Daijiten, New Japanese-English Dictionary), affectionately known as “the Green Goddess,” but I recently discovered that it’s available on the iOS App Store. As I made the purchase, I was reminded of a New York Times article, “The Financial Benefits of Buying What You Love” (bit.ly/buywhatyoulove), in which author Carl Richard writes about how spending $5,000 on a bicycle was one of the best financial decisions he ever made. “Don’t just buy nice,” Richards concludes, “buy what you love. If you don’t, you’ll end up hating, and replacing, until you do.”

I have to agree with him. Since I purchased the dictionary, I’ve used it almost daily, and I find myself looking up words with a certain glee that I didn’t have before. I 調べる (shiraberu, look up) when I might otherwise have glossed over words and left my understanding to what I could gather from context.

A quick example is 区々たる (kukutaru), a word I found in a piece of nonfiction by Natsume Soseki titled ケーベル先生の告別 (Kēberu-sensei no Kokubetsu, “Koeber-sensei’s Farewell”), which is available for free on 青空文庫 (Aozora Bunko), Japan’s public-domain digital library (bit.ly/koebersfarewell). While many dictionaries list 区々 (kuku) on its own and define it to mean “several, various, divergent,” the Green Goddess was one of the few that included the taru ending, which makes the word mean “petty, trivial, insignificant.”

This purchase made me think deeply about how my financial decisions have affected my Japanese study. Were there times when I could have spent a little more money and improved not only how effectively but also how contentedly I was studying?

This brought to mind the issue of テレビ (terebi, TV). When I studied in Tokyo I lived in a tiny room in a 学生寮 (gakusei ryō, student dorm), and I had no desire to spend any more time in it than I had to. Nor did I want to waste money on a TV.

In retrospect, this was a terrible decision. Television is the easiest way to mainline raw Japanese input. When I later taught English in the sticks, my apartment came with a TV. Every night after work I turned on the TV and left it on (つけっぱなし, tsukeppanashi) all evening. I flipped through channels and eventually found shows I liked.

NHK is the most reliable channel for news, and the Japanese penchant for including 字幕 (jimaku, subtitles) everywhere is great reading reinforcement. I also recommend finding at least one ドラマ (dorama, TV drama series) and one お笑い番組 (o-warai bangumi, comedy show) you like. Spending money on a decent TV might encourage you to spend more time watching Japanese shows.

There are other items that also fit this bill. If you don’t already have a スマホ (sumaho, smartphone), that might be a good item to grab. Just set the operating system into Japanese and you’ll be studying every time you use your phone. A Nintendo 3DS or the soon-to-be-released Switch could be good investments that might get you to play games in Japanese. And you can likely find an original DS for a nice price (Amazon has used DS listed at ¥1,630); the original DS are also notable because they are not region-locked.

If you’re not a digital person, consider treating yourself to a 全巻セット (zenkan setto, complete set) of a manga that you really love. In addition to being great reading material, they make striking bookshelf pieces. Just try not to get in the habit of 積ん読 (tsundoku, piling up books without reading them).

In an informal poll I took on Twitter recently, there were two clear answers for the best returns on expensive investments. 留学 (ryūgaku, study abroad) was the first — a big buy because it includes a 航空券 (kōkūken, air ticket) as well as your everyday living costs in Japan. But nothing beats being immersed, when every interaction has far more at stake linguistically than anything that can be simulated in a classroom.

The other response was 指輪 (yubiwa, rings) — several people said that their investment of time and money in their relationships with Japanese spouses had been costly but worthwhile. While I’m sure they meant this half-jokingly, it is an undeniably effective method of study.

Another friend had a simpler response: He said he bought breakfast at a cafe and would sit for an hour with two dictionaries and read a few pages of Japanese fiction. This proves that treating yourself doesn’t have to be exorbitantly expensive — it can be a special coffee shop, that extra scoop of ice cream, or even just going to a different part of town for an atmosphere that allows you to focus.

Studying a foreign language is necessarily hard on yourself. You’re always reaching for the next rung on the ladder. That’s why it’s critical to make it easy on yourself at times. Buying what you love will decrease the cognitive pain of having to part with money — and because you love it, you’re likely to make a conscious effort to use it in your studies.

And you can still keep your eyes open for great sales. As luck would have it, the Shin Wa-Ei Daijiten is on sale on iTunes (bit.ly/greengoddessdeal) until the end of March for only ¥7,400 ($59.99).