Is Japanese a Waste of Time?

A couple of days ago, I got a pretty sweet invitation.  It’s the opportunity to go to Japan in a year or so, with a group.  The chance also possibly (depending on the ticket lottery) involves the chance to see the 2020 Olympics.

It is pretty much the chance of a lifetime.  I would have a chance to use the Japanese I’ve been working really hard on learning.  Maybe I’d even like it there…

… and I declined.  I’m not going.

The honest truth is, I have no expectation whatsoever that I will go to Japan before I die.

There are about three reasons that I had to refuse the invitation.

  1. I do not fly well.  By which I mean that I’m white knuckled on even the shortest of flights.  I cannot imagine flying fifteen hours and then knowing that my only way home is another very long flight.
  2. I will be in a country where I know almost no one, speak just enough of the language to get around, and if I get sick or something happens to be I’m screwed.
  3. Considering the amount of time such a trip requires, working around that with my job would be difficult.

I don’t know why I’m learning Japanese.  I don’t know anyone in Japan, I know few people from Japan, I don’t really consume anime and only a little bit of manga.  In the Austin area there are very, very few Japanese speakers – certainly not enough for it to be a necessary skill.  I basically picked the least useful, most difficult language out there just to do it.  And right now I’m having a crisis of confidence on multiple levels.

To be quite frank, there are better things I could and should be doing.  But I continue spending time on this interesting but dead-end pursuit.  It’s, frankly, no less a waste of time at the moment than staring at YouTube for hours on end.

I guess it’s a mystery and always will be.

Thinking in Japanese

Over the past week or two, I have found something happening, and I am not sure what to make of it.  On multiple occasions, I have found myself nearly responding in Japanese to an English question – and I have to consciously correct myself.  Sometimes that’s before it comes out of my mouth, and sometimes it’s not.

Yesterday, I was at a Sushi restaurant, and the waitress came up to ask what I wanted to drink.  I replied “Mi-er, I mean, Water, please”.  I very nearly said “Mizu kudasai”.

I’m not entirely sure why that happens, but it’s an interesting phenomenon nonetheless.  Maybe it means I’m starting on a long road to fluency.  Or maybe I just have an identity crisis.

Pronunciation

On a YouTube channel I watch, the person who made a video mispronounced the word “Hitachi”.  He pronounced it “Hai-TA-chi”.  I posted a helpful comment telling him the correct way to pronounce it.

Someone “took me to task” for correcting his pronunciation, with the rationalization “we aren’t Japanese”.  Of course, he devolved to calling me stupid in a roundabout way, so I ended the chat  But I’m going to explore that here.

He’s right about one fact:  we aren’t Japanese.  But that’s not important.  I think there are circumstances where it is okay to take a word from another language and change its pronunciation.  Say, for example, that the word contains a sound that does not exist in the “loanee” language.  Then it’s perfectly reasonable to alter the word so that it is easier to pronounce.  That is even more true if the meaning of the word changes significantly.

But there are some circumstances where I think that is not appropriate.  Specifically, proper names.  If you are going to say someone’s name, I think you should make an effort to pronounce it correctly.  Of course, the problem of the sound not existing is still extant, but otherwise, one should at least make an effort.  Because one’s name is one’s name, and it’s a sign of respect to pronounce it properly.

So, I think the commenter (setting aside their thinly veiled attempts at insults) was incorrect.  It’s pronounced “hee-ta-chi”, should be pronounced that way, and those who do not should be gently corrected.

This is why when I say, for example, “Takahashi Minami”, I first of all always say it with the given name first, and I always try to pronounce it the way a native speaker would (as close as I can get, anyway).  It’s just a matter of respect.  I’ll even add “san” when appropriate.  It is, to me, rather jarring when I read articles that try to “westernize” Japanese names.  It never feels right to me.

I will also attempt to say “kawaii” correctly, even if I’m using it as an English loanword (which it is now!).  It is not pronounced like “Hawaii”.  But I will not say the Japanese pronunciation of “typhoon” (taifu) because it is not only a loanword but has been significantly altered to the point where “typhoon” is actually an English word, and that is its correct pronunciation.

Apparently, some people believe that it is never appropriate to correct one’s pronunciation.

They can then ignore me.

I will not stop because they don’t like it.

So there.

Never Rely on Google Translate

My coworkers know that I’m learning Japanese, so today one got a bit cute and ran a phrase through Google translate:  “I am ready whenever you are”.

It translated to this:

あなたがいるときはいつでも私は準備ができている。

It translates back to something very similar, and one would never know that anything was wrong with this phrase.  And I don’t know enough Japanese to understand everything about what it translated, but I looked at it and said “that’s not right”.

See, it says, literally, “Whenever you are, I am ready”.  But that’s not what it means.  “Are”, in this case, is not a shortcut for “are ready”.  It’s the word いる (iru), which means, literally, “exist”.  So in Japanese, it means something more like “I am prepared, whenever you exist”.  I ran this by someone who is a little more advanced than I am just to be sure, and he agreed that the sentence was off.

So Google Translate produced a fairly accurate translation of an idiomatic phrase that meant nothing at all like what the idiomatic phrase actually means.

This is why you should never rely on Google Translate.  Sure, use it when you need to.  It will give you a rough idea of what a sentence means, and may even be useful for quick, everyday use.  But it is not to be trusted.  Sometimes – and if you don’t know the language, you don’t know when – it will spit something out that appears correct but is actually subtly very, very wrong.

There is, of course, one thing about that sentence that is not subtly wrong.  The use of “anata” (あなた).  There’s nothing subtle about that.  My coworker knows my name.  That is rude.  Of course, one must make allowances because… well… Google Translate.  But still.  It’s another pitfall that Google Translate cannot avoid.  It has no idea whether you’re talking to a stranger, and thus, cannot add the name.  And a non-native speaker would never know.

Know enough about Japanese to at least know when Google Translate has failed you.  I appear to know just about that much Japanese now.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Practice safe Japanese, folks.  And do not rely on Google Translate.

Progress

This morning was a very stormy day.  In fact, it was so stormy, that parts of I-35 were shut down because of flooding.  My Japanese lesson was scheduled for the morning.  It got cancelled.  But we rescheduled for the afternoon, so it was not necessarily a bad thing.

Sensei told us yesterday that she only wanted us to speak to her in Japanese in the future.  That did not work out.  But I think it sets a good direction, so I started sending messages to the group in Japanese – even if I had to look up words in Jisho to find words I didn’t know.

There was a little pushback from the group wrt the kanji I used that they did not know, but I showed one of the members how to look up unfamiliar kanji, and I pointed out that I prefer to use kanji rather than hiragana because the meaning is far more precise.  He seemed to understand.  I do not recognize words as easily when using hiragana as I do when using kanji, though maybe that is something I should also work on.

I am not the most competent in the group (I refuse to remark on where exactly in the group I think I am), but I am working on it, and my strength right now seems to be in memorizing kanji and the important readings.  In fact, when necessary, I can remember a kanji even after seeing it only once or twice, though it does depend on the kanji.  Some give me more trouble than others.  But I was drawing kanji on the whiteboard that no one else in the room except for sensei knew.  Perhaps I was showing off just a bit, but truth be told, I was just enjoying actually knowing something useful for once instead of feeling like I was just barely keeping up, as I usually do.

I still do not like where I am.  But for the first time, today, I felt like I could at least hold my own and contribute something of value to the group.  And that’s something, anyway.

I think a part of my issue, honestly, is that I am very good with the English language.  I’m not perfect, as it is a very difficult language, but I’m good at it even compared to other native speakers.  I spell well, I have relatively good grammar, and I manage to avoid most of the pitfalls that many others fall into.  But in Japanese, I have none of that.  I read and write on the level of a first grader, and frankly my vocabulary is much smaller than that of a first grader.  That is an uncomfortable place to be.  And the sad truth is that no matter how good I get at the language, I will never be as fluent as even the youngest grade school student.

But all that aside, and for reasons I don’t even understand, I’m not giving up.  And as I’ve mentioned, it gets easier.

My Gaijin Life

I have launched my new project.  Well, “launched” is a pretty hefty word.  Perhaps it would be better said, I have thrown my new project at the world, while holding out a faint hope that the world doesn’t throw it right back.

It can be found at https://mygaijinlife.com.

In the beginning, I fully expect I will be making liberal use of Google Translate and jisho.org.  I will not be using Google Translate to translate English phrases to Japanese, as that would be cheating and contrary to the purpose of the site.  But I will be using it to make sure that the phrase at least passes a “smell test”.  I assume I will need it less and less as I become more proficient in the language.

I think this may be the best way for me to learn.  The lessons are helpful, but I’m stuck.  And maybe this will help me get out of my stuckness.

The point of the blog is to describe life in Texas to a native Japanese person, from the viewpoint of a native American (as opposed to a Native American, which is a different thing entirely).  I’m hoping the entries will become more interesting and complicated as I learn how to express myself better.  But I guess you have to start somewhere.  I think I have just enough knowledge of Japanese to start to bootstrap this.

Japanese people can watch me grow in the language, I suppose.  Or ignore me.  Probably better off doing the latter, honestly.

Anyway, that’s my new project.  Enjoy or not.

Note:  I mentioned before that I use the word gaijin deliberately, even as some gaikokujin find it offensive.  I understand the difference.  I do not see myself as a gaikokijin.  I see myself as a gaijin.  And not just when it comes to Japanese culture, either.  I’ve posted about this before.  Just wanted to clear that up.

It is time.

It is a stormy day in Round Rock, Texas today.

My Japanese teacher has decided that she now only wants to speak to the small group of people I learn with, in Japanese.  I don’t like this, but I think it may be necessary.  I’ve been feeling a little stuck lately – and I have no confidence in anything but the most basic written and spoken Japanese – so I don’t want to.  But I’m going to see what I can do.

That means, I think that it’s probably time that I pull the trigger on the project I’ve been wanting to do for a while.  I want to create a blog, in Japanese, from the perspective of a gaijin living in the US.  The intended audience:  Japanese people.  In Japan.

It will be broken Japanese to begin with, but as I learn it’ll become less broken, hopefully.  There will be a lot of word looking up and probably a little help from Google translate too, but as I get better, hopefully my dependence on those tools will lessen and I will gain some amount of fluency.

I guess the only way to do it is to do it.  Let’s go…