The Most Important Thing

Every now and then, I take a step back and try to reassess where I am and what I’m trying to accomplish, but even more importantly, how to get where I want to be. And frankly, there’s a lot of noise, and not much of it is helpful.

I’m on several sites. Each one of which claims that they all I’ll need to get fluent, which is essentially a lie with a little bit of truth. But they only teach the mechanics. Even if I were to be fluent mechanically, I’d only be speaking Japanese with an American “accent”, so to speak.

No, I think the most important thing is to let go of my American preconceptions and try to understand how the Japanese language works to a Japanese person. And maybe that’s the hardest thing of all, because I’m not one. But that’s probably the essence of learning any language – just doubly important in Japanese because it’s so different.

How, though, is perhaps the toughest question, short of going all in and moving to Japan.

Japanese Class: Day 5

Tonight was day five of the Japanese class I am attending at Austin Community College, and I have decidedly mixed feelings about it.

On the positive side, I am learning stuff, and I get to practice speaking a little.  And I am learning things I didn’t know.

On the negative side, it’s going very slow, and the process of learning is not in the way I learn the best.  Honest truth is, I do best when I’m exploring, and this is very structured and rigid.  I understand that that’s to be expected in a classroom setting, but I honestly wonder if it’s helping me move forward or if it’s holding me back.  And, honest truth is, I really don’t know!  I think it’s probably doing both at the same time – holding me back, at the same time it’s filling in the gaps brought on by teaching myself.  Maybe I need to resume my external studies just so I don’t feel held back, like I do at the moment.  Best of both worlds, with the cost being that of spare time.

I have other mixed feelings relating to having to spend time in a room with other people, but that’s just my misanthrope showing.  Sensei made that a lot harder today by having us draw lots to determine who our partner is going to be for the day.  I know that is going to bite me in the rear eventually.  But it is what it is.

But I’m in this class until it ends, I guess.  So I may as well see how it turns out.

Patterns

One of the phrases that I am required to know for Japanese class is “nani mo kakanaide kudasai”.  It means “Please don’t write anything”.

I could have just memorized it, but I find that really difficult.  So instead I broke it apart into its components.

First I saw “nai”, which I know is a negative.  I looked up “naide” and found that is a command word meaning “don’t do whatever it is”.  First thing I learned, stashed away for future use.  I saw that it also has a similar word, “nasai”, which is a positive command word, “do this”.  Stashed that away for further use.  I already knew “nanimo” means “anything”, especially with a negative, and that “kudasai” means “please” in this context.  So, I broke the sentence down into its components, and now I remember it.  So far, so good.

In Japanese class last night, we went over “oyasumi nasai”, which means “good night”.  But one of the classroom phrases we also had to remember was “yasumi masho”, which means “let’s take a break”.  One of the other students asked what “yasumi” means, and sensei said “break”.

Soooo…  I then asked, given what I’d discovered, whether “oyasumi nasai” means, literally, “take a break”.

Sensei looked a little taken aback, and then said “I’d never analyzed it, but I guess it does!”

If you can find a pattern, you should find the pattern.  Then you don’t have to memorize words.  Thankfully, Japanese has a few patterns that are really useful.  This was one.

Japanese class – second day

Today was the second day of the Japanese class, and we hit the ground running.

Most of the practice I’m going to need to do over the next few days is writing.  I need to practice writing some of the hiragana, even though I can recognize almost all of them by sight.  I can’t really write them.  So it’s good practice and I don’t mind doing it.  The rest of the stuff is really easy – or more accurately, stuff I already learned – so it’s really not going to be too much of a big deal to learn it.  It took me months to get this head start, but I’m rather glad I did.  I wonder if I should try to keep it.

I did embarrass myself a little in the class though.  The embarrassment was mostly centered around the fact that I heard a few variants in how sensei was pronouncing the words, and I wanted to make sure that I was hearing it right, or if we had to emulate her.  On balance, I probably shouldn’t have said it, but whatever, what’s done is done.  I kept quiet on quite a few other things, though, and I was right to keep quiet.  I decided from the very beginning that I wasn’t going to parade what little I know around, and I’ve been keeping to that – although I’ve also decided to say whatever I can in Japanese, and that is a bit more than most people in the class can say.  But that’s kinda the point of Japanese class, so I’m okay with that.  Several times today I heard “I have no idea what that means”, but they will.  I’m still caught off guard when sensei switches to Japanese without warning, so it’s not like I’m that far ahead.

But today was better than Friday.  I don’t think I’ve dealt with the underlying issues I was dealing with, but at least it’s tolerable now.  So there’s that.  Off to vacation!

Gaijin?

When I first created this blog, I had a nearly infinite choice of things to call it.  I could have called it, oh, I dunno…  “Musings on Japanese”, or “My Japanese Journey”, or a whole bunch of stuff.  But I settled on this one.  In fact, it really wasn’t even all that much of a decision.  This was the right name.

But why, when the word “gaijin” had less than savory origins, and some may still find it offensive?

The literal meaning of gaijin (外人) is “outsider”, or, literally, “outside person”.  (the two kanji separately would be pronounced “soto hito”, or “outside person”).  It is a word that was coined for people who are not Japanese.  It was originally a derogatory word, and even now, many Japanese don’t use it, but it’s mostly lost its connotations over the years and now many foreigners, such as me, use it to self-identify.  But for me, it has more meanings than just “someone who’s not Japanese”.

See, I was raised in an environment where I never felt like I belonged.  Ever since I was a small child, I was an outsider.  I never fit in school, I never really fit in church, I didn’t really even fit in my own family.  And, to be honest, none of that’s changed all that much.  I can think of no situation at all in this life where I really feel as if I belong.

I’m not just a gaijin in the sense of being an outsider from Japan, I’m a gaijin in the sense of being an outsider to everything.

So the name of this site has deeper meaning than just a once-offensive-and-some-think-still-offensive word that means an outsider from Japan.  It’s much more involved than that.  And you’d never know if I didn’t tell you.

If a Japanese person called me a gaijin, I might laugh it off – and depending on the tone of voice, I might not.  I do respond negatively to people who deliberately cause offense, and considering how agreeable many Japanese are, that would probably be someone who was deliberately trying to cause offense.  But, truth be told, I’d be just as likely to agree as to take offense.

And that is why I’m a “gaijin learning Japanese”.  For, in all honestly, I even consider myself a gaijin in the Japanese class I’m attending.

Gauging Progress

The very first thing I watched in Japanese – and the thing that made me feel like I wanted to learn it, was this video:

It is a rather cute video of a bunch of Morning Musume girls (this was 13 years ago!) taking a faux English lesson.

When I first watched this video, I was highly dependent on the subtitles.  By “highly dependent”, I mean that everything they were saying was, to me, utter gibberish.  You might as well have tossed me in front of a charismatic speaking in tongues for all the good it would have done me.  But it was the combination of this being gibberish, the fact that I discovered that the Morning Musume girls were actually funny, and all of the interesting symbols flashing over the screen like a secret code, that set me on this endeavor that has so far cost me over a thousand dollars and quite a few hours off my life.

But every now and then I revisit this video.  The reason is that each time I watch it, I understand a little more, and a little more, and a little more.  At first, I just picked up “chiisai”, “sensei, chiisai”, and was proud of myself for that! And then I picked up “eigo”, “daijoubu” (and I think I finally understand why Ogawa-san said “boo”, she was making a pun on “daijoubu”, which is very much not obvious).  And then I picked up a few more things, and a few more things, each time I watched it.

I listened to it again today and I could understand even more.  I may get to the point where I don’t need the subtitles – though whether that’s because I understand the words or have memorized the subtitles is a matter of some conjecture.

Subtitles really are not a good way of enjoying these videos, though.  I mean, if it’s all you have, they are satisfactory, but you miss a lot of nuance.  I don’t understand exactly how, yet, but Ogawa-san seems to have a slightly different way of speaking then Fujimoto-san, for example.  And there are even occasions where what is being said is not really what’s appearing on the screen (the Japanese language is so context dependent that the translators are almost required to take some editorial liberties with the translation).

If you like Japanese media, seriously, learn the language.  You’re kinda missing out.

Japanese Class: 1st day.

Today was the first day of Japanese class at Austin Community College.  For many reasons, I will avoid any mention of the other people in the class, other than to say there were other people in the class of varying ages, backgrounds and knowledge of Japanese.  As expected.

As for me, it is clear that there are gaping holes in my knowledge.  In my “introduction” (which I absolutely, positively, did not want to do) I said that I “know enough to be dangerous” – and I feel that more strongly now than when I began the class.  In some ways, I feel handicapped by the fact that we’re using romaji instead of hiragana and kanji, but in other ways, there are things I’m learning even now, and the holes are obvious.  I learned the mechanics of Japanese, but not how to think in it, or more accurately, not how to think on my feet.  I will have significant challenges in this class – but they’re not the challenges that most of the other students will have.  I will have little problem with grammar.  I will have little problem with kana.  I will have some problem with vocabulary.  I will have a huge problem with the fact that speaking to other people is a requirement.

Which leads to the obvious question:  Why, then, oh glorious blogger, did you decide to study a foreign language when the last thing in the world you want to do is actually use it?

That, dear readers, will have to be a mystery, I suppose.  Even to me.