Two Years In

I don’t remember the exact day that I decided to study Japanese, but I think I’m approaching the two year anniversary at some point in the next couple of months.  It’s been a lot of ups and a lot of downs, a lot of “I don’t know if I can do this” and a lot of “hey, this is starting to make a little sense now”.  To be frank, I’m not entirely sure where I am at the moment.  I think I could probably pass the JLPT N5 if I chose to take it, but I want to keep studying for right now.

If I had to go back to the beginning and tell myself what the most important thing about learning Japanese is, I’m not entirely sure what I’d say.  I’d say that certain parts of it are deceptively simple, but in Japanese, the devil is always in the details.  I’d say that trying to self-teach is a fool’s errand but that learning in a classroom setting may not be the best of ideas either.  I’d say that most people who claim to be able to teach Japanese don’t have the slightest idea how to teach it – even if they can speak it and promise up and down that they do.  I’d say there are zillions of online resources out there that claim to teach you Japanese and 99% of them absolutely suck.  It’s not that they’re bad, or wrong, or anything like that.  It’s just that they’re not good at teaching.  I’d say that you have to find all sorts of different resources and mesh everything together to even start to get a good grasp on how the language works.  And first and foremost, I’d say “do you really want to do this?”

Learning Japanese can be a “cool” thing.  It’s almost always an interesting topic of conversation.  It can also broaden one’s mind as to how language works, how culture shapes language and vice versa, and also how much of my own views of the world are constrained by language.  It is also a very difficult thing to which there is no easy solution, and the only way to really succeed is to find a way to learn that works for you and keep doing it until it sinks in.  Eventually it kinda does, but never immediately.

The logographs, or kanji, can actually be really pretty, and some can tell an interesting story on their own.  Once you understand the symbology, some kanji are striking in the stories they tell, such as 桜 or 休み.  But two years in, is it really worth it?

To be frank, I’m still not entirely sure.  It really hasn’t opened new worlds for me, and I’m starting to wonder if it ever will.  And isn’t that kind of the point?  But I still learn.

 

Two More Months Later…

Man, has this been a difficult blog to keep up.  My feelings about Japanese and Japan have oscillated over the past few months that I’ve gone from enthusiastic to “what’s the friggin’ point”, sometimes in the space of a few seconds.  I still don’t really know what my block is, but I remain with the theory that it’s just so overwhelming that I can’t find a way to get a handle on it.  It’s like trying to pick up the world’s smoothest basketball – with one hand – by the top.

And you know, people keep saying that the Japanese are some of the friendliest people on the planet, but so far…  no.  Not true at all.  Not in my experience.  Maybe I’m just a brash gaijin, but who the hell knows.

I did find an online service called wanikani, though.  I think it is superior to other online services in one very, very important way:  It teaches the on’yomi first.  One of the biggest struggles I’ve had is with jyukugo – compound words.  It seems nearly impossible to memorize the different on’yomi because it’s not something that’s emphasized when you learn kanji.  You learn “It has all these readings”, but until you encounter it on a jyukugo, you have no incentive to remember it.  And by then, it’s too late.  So in wanikani, you learn the most common on’yomi first, and only then are you taught the kun’yomi – as the vocabulary reading for the kanji, not the kanji reading for the kanji.  It makes all the difference in the world.  I’m probably going to plunk down money for a subscription if I can ever finish level three.

It also teaches by kanji complexity, and not by meaning complexity, like the kanken books do.  I’m not a Japanese schoolchild.  I don’t already know the words, but I know the meanings more than they ever will.

So that’s pretty much all I’m doing right now, and it seems enough, especially considering that I’m fighting off major depression at the moment.  But my studies persist, and I guess that’s something.

I’ll try to have more pithy and useless observations on Japanese in the future.  This blog isn’t closed.  I’m just having a hard time mustering up the energy to bother to write in it.

Three Months Later…

Posts like these are hard to write, because I never quite now how they’re quite going to turn out, and I never quite know how much of my soul I’m going to bare in the process.

About three months or so ago, I had a medical crisis that caused me to pretty much drop off the grid for two months.  Thankfully, I have good insurance and am in decent financial shape after having to take two months off of work, but many things in my life had to take a serious hit, and my Japanese study has been one of them.  I have been continuing to take classes after I was able to get stabilized enough to make it there, but that’s pretty much the only practice I’ve been doing.

I haven’t lost interest in the Japanese language, but after having taken a rather forced break from it for a couple of months, I no longer see it in the same way.  I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s just fact.

Japanese is pretty much everything English isn’t.  I think that’s a broad statement that I feel comfortable making.  Everything’s backwards in comparison to English.  The sentence structure is backwards.  We have twenty-six letters that come out to about fifteen thousand syllables.  They have about one hundred syllables and over 2,300 letters (I’m counting kanji as individual letters because, in my view, they are).  It’s not that it’s impossible to learn, it’s more that one’s thought patterns have to be almost completely wiped and all of one’s assumptions about what a language is or should be have to be put aside.  How many times in my lessons have I thrown up my hands in an only semi-joking manner and said something like “well, of course that compound word is pronounced differently and means something differently even though it’s written the exact same way depending on where and how it’s used!  It’s JAPANESE!”.

My sensei laughs, because even though she’s native Japanese, she gets it.  Every time you try to pull the language apart into its components so you can put it back again, it refuses, laughs at you, and pulls another exception out of its bag of tricks for no reason other than I’m a gaikokujin and it can.  How many times have I asked her why something is the way it is and gotten a shrug, I look online, and find a fascinating, halfways sensible, completely counterintuitive explanation so loaded down with exceptions and rules about when to use it and when not that you’re actually worse off than when you began?

I’m trying to get back into studying right now, I really am, but to be honest, even though the language interests me, I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of unforgiving kanji, and there are no lifeboats.

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.