The Two Pillars of Success

There are two pillars to success when learning any language: vocabulary and grammar.

The thing about them is, they are actually rather orthogonal to each other. Even in Japanese, as long as you learn the dictionary form (or to some degree even the polite form of the word) you don’t need to worry too much about how to use it to know the word.

You need to know both, obviously, but you can work on both separately, and not lose anything when it comes to learning whatever language you’re trying to learn. Eventually, of course, you have to tie them together, but that actually happens rather naturally with exposure.

And each requires a separate way of learning. Vocabulary seems to work best through a combination of exposure and rote memorization, but grammar seems to work best mostly through exposure and immersion. Grammar is how you learn to think in a language, and vocabulary is how you learn to express the thoughts within the framework grammar teaches you.

I think this is one reason why Japanese is seen as so difficult: in order to learn either vocabulary or grammar, you first need to learn the framework in which both of those things are expressed. Such as hiragana, katakana, kanji, particules, etc. And you have to learn them before you can move on.

That’s the “hump” I was talking about earlier. Japanese is very much not an instant gratification language, if you’re starting from zero.

The Other

Western people know many Japanese place names. Osaka, Tokyo, and even for more unsavory reasons, Hiroshima, Nagasaki…

But what many western people don’t know is that these are actually very ordinary names in Japanese.

Hiroshima, for example, means “Wide Island”, and Tokyo means “Capital City” (or something similar).

The fact that the names are in a language we don’t understand makes them sound exotic, but they’re not exotic at all. Just like, for example, “Austin” might sound exotic, but it’s just a random guy’s last name, and “Round Rock” is named for a literal round rock in Brushy Creek.

How much learning another language makes the culture behind that language seem so much more ordinary.

But does everyone want to lose that otherness, that exoticism?

Japanese is Biased Against Beginners

As I have been learning Japanese, one observation keeps coming to mind, one I can’t shake:

Japanese is incredible, amazingly, spectacularly biased against beginners.

What I mean is this: when you start learning Japanese, there is a hump. The hump seems almost insurmountable. You have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about language – the grammar is exactly backwards from English, there are several different writing systems that are completely unfamiliar, and (at least for any practical purpose) you have to learn them quickly, because you’re not going to get anywhere with the language until you get over the hump.

In the community college class I took last year, half the class dropped out, because it takes a spectacular effort to get over that hump. It is very difficult and it seems insurmountable. And if you’re struggling with hiragana when the rest of the class has moved on to katakana, you may never recover – at least when it comes to that class.

But once you get over the hump. it realy is kind of like learning any other language. You learn vocabulary, you learn grammar, you learn pronunciation, and picking it up gets easier, because you’ve successfully bootstrapped the language.

I personally don’t really think Japanese is all that hard. Others disagree, and I absolutely understand why they think that, but other than there being an extraordinary number of words and characters to know, it really is just like learning any other language. But you have to get to the point where you understand the assumptions and the prerequisite knowledge first. And, frankly, I think that’s where most people stumble.

And with very good reason, to be honest.

I wonder, for Japanese people, if the English hump is as seemingly insurmountable.

Sometimes I Wonder…

As all of the symbols in Japanese start coalescing into individual meanings and pronunciations, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. I mean, there are tons of websites out there breathlessly proclaiming how cool Japanese is, giving you tips on learning different phrases and words, grammar points, etc. There are other sites out there that are breathless commentaries on different aspects of Japanese culture, and all of them seem oriented towards people who think Japanese is the coolest thing ever, and I think partly because it’s so exotic and foreign.

But as I learn more about the Japanese, their culture, and their language, it loses that breathless quality, it loses its exoticism, it loses that “other” quality that makes it so appealing, and it just becomes another group of people that I’m learning to talk to on their own terms.

All those websites, all those YouTube videos, all of which sell how strange and wonderful and amazing Japanese is, and once you start learning it, it’s just a language, and it’s just people.

There is a lot of beauty in the Japanese culture, please don’t get me wrong, but there is much ugliness as well, too. There’s a reason that many countries in the far east have ongoing issues with Japan – they can and have been a very cruel and warlike people. And at the same time, they’ve come up with kawaii culture and some of the cutest and funniest and strangest things, and it’s a paradox.

But they’re people. Just like me. They are born, they die, they go to school, grow old, fall in love, fall out of love, eat, sleep, and are everything I am, and everything I am not. They are beautiful and ugly and sometimes at the same time, just like me.

And so I continue to learn, words of love, words of hate, words of action, words of inaction, words of caution, words of recklessness. Most of the words I have in my own language, and some I don’t, expressed with different syllables, different pronunciation, different symbols, different grammar, but at the end of the day, the same language – the language of living, the language of existing, the language of being human.

As I go to bed, one hundred and fifty million people on a small island nation half the size of Texas are going about their Sunday, living, working, playing, being happy, being sad… and tomorrow morning, as they go to sleep, three hundred million people in my country will be going about their Sunday living, working, playing, being happy, being sad… we’re all just people.

What’s the point of making them something they’re not?

It goes both ways, though. The Japanese seem to romanticize Texas in much the same way. Our land is one of wide open spaces, cowboy hats, cows, pickup trucks, etc. And there is some of that, yes. But we are just people too. Our language is the same language – one of existing, one of living, one of being human.

How do we just be human with each other? Can we? Is it even possible?

Maybe we start one person at a time.

I see you, Japanese people. I don’t mean I see you with my eyes. I mean I see you.

Do you see me? Do you see me?



Drinking From the Firehose

I have been learning Japanese now for a little over a year.

One the one hand, I know more than I did. I can put together basic sentences, I know probably a thousand words (a hodgepodge of adjectives, nouns, verbs, and things I picked up from variety shows and songs), and I think a fair assessment of my skills right now is that I could probably find my way around Tokyo if I needed to. I am very familiar with hiragana and katakana, and I even know a few kanji, and even more importantly, how to use them.

Which is really no small feat, don’t get me wrong. I’m already ahead of most casual Japanese media consumers, and I have learned enough about Japanese culture to lose my unthinking admiration for all things Japanese. I see that as a sign of maturity.

But a year in, I find myself overwhelmed with a sense of frustration, because as much as I’ve learned and progressed, I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. It’s, as the title suggests, like drinking from a firehose, and theres just so much of it that I haven’t yet found a really effective study method. I don’t feel like picking up a few words a week is going to get me where I want, but I can’t seem to absorb them at a faster rate.

I definitely have a love/hate relationship with Japanese at the moment, to be honest. I think it’s a really cool thing to learn, but sometimes I step back, facepalm a little, and wonder what the heck I’ve gotten myself into.

A year in, I still find it interesting, I’m still learning a lot, and I’m still not convinced I’m not wasting my time and money.


I’ve been thinking some about Ariana Grande’s misadventures with tattoos and the Japanese language, and having learned a little more about the precise mistake she made, I have a little more to say, for what it’s worth.

The Japanese approach to language is maddening in some ways. Its compound words, or jyukugo, are not very intuitive, and figuring out the correct pronunciation from just the kanji is just an educated guess at best. Because they basically bolted the Chinese writing system onto the Japanese language, you have several different pronunciations and meanings for the same kanji, and good luck trying to figure out which are which.

That is not what Miss Grande ran afoul of, though. She ran afoul of the Japanese tendency to take common words and give them a colloquial meaning that no one could possibly guess unless they were already familiar with the culture.

Yes, 七輪 does indeed mean “seven rings”, if taken literally. But the problem is that that’s not how the Japanese use the word.

And if you know nothing about Japanese, you don’t know enough about the language to know that a word can mean something very diferent than its dictionary meaning.

This is the true danger of trying to use something from another culture because you think it’s “cool”. It’s cool right up until you figure out that you didn’t know what you didn’t know.

Honestly, I didn’t know that there was a whole story behind “shichirin” either. It’s news to me. The difference is that I know enough about Japanese to not plug random words into google translate and expect it to come out in anything remotely resembling anything of use except as a very general start to translation.

Japanese is a language you simply can’t mess about with. There are far too many landmines with regard to colloquialisms, politeness conjugations, word meanings, etc., to think that you can treat it glibly. Its a shame that miss Grande had to learn that lesson so publically and permanently, but t should be a lesson to the rest of us, particularly those who haven’t learned enough about Japanese to understand how much they don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fun and challenging language to learn. But you have to treat it with respect. Not because of any kind of PC nonsense, but in the same way a firearm demands respect. Treat it glibly and someone could get hurt.

Practice safe Japanese, folks.

What Feels Right

There are things in every language that only native people seem to know.

In English, the biggest example is the definite vs. indefinite particle.

In Japanese, it’s “wa” vs. “ga”.

In both cases, there are rules to follow and you can get there with some thought most of the time, but the difference between a native speaker and one who doesn’t have as great a command of the language is that what is right feels right.

I could tell you whether “a” or “the” or neither is appropriate simply by whether it feels awkward to say or not.  And a native Japanese speaker could tell me whether “wa” or “ga” is appropriate for the same reason.  My sensei has said several times, “ga” fits better here – but then she struggles to say why.  It just feels right to her.

I think we all know this.  The question I have is this:

What is the quality of these things that makes it feel right or wrong?