This should be easy.

Here’s the thing about Japanese:  It should be easy.  It’s not really a hard language, to be honest.  It seems like one, but that’s only because I feel we approach it in exactly the wrong way.  If you try to memorize it, you’ll kinda fail, or it’ll be at least a lot harder than it needs to be.

The trick to learning Japanese is to accept it for exactly what it is, and leave all of your English preconceptions at the door.  Japanese is difficult only because we can’t let go of what we know.

Kanji is something almost but not entirely unlike anything in the English language, and this is because the meaning of each symbol, and the use and pronunciation of the symbol, are almost neatly divorced from each other.  We’re taught early on that kanji can have a multitude of different pronunciations, and that becomes very intimidating very fast.  That’s because we’re treating it like an alphabet, like hiragana or katakana or even romaji, and it isn’t one.  A kanji is a meaning upon which a word is built, and that’s all it is.

It’s not the kanji you have to memorize.  It’s the words.  Because here’s the not-so-dirty little secret of kanji:  the pronunciation of a kanji is always exactly the same when it’s in a word .  Even if it has eight different pronunciations on its own, that doesn’t matter – the pronunciation never changes when it’s a part of a word.

So you can have 生まれ (umare), which means something like “time of birth”, and 先生 (sensei), which means “teacher”.  Both contain the same kanji, which means roughly “life” or “birth”, but the kanji are used in two different ways, and have two different pronunciations.  If you just memorize the kanji, you’ll be utterly confused.  If you memorize the word, and accept that the kanji is pronounced differently each time, then you might have a bit more to learn but you will not be confused.

You can even end up with the same kanji twice pronounced differently in the same word, such as 日曜日 (nichiyoubi, or Sunday).  Just let go of the fact that they’re the same kanji.  It’s that much easier in the end.

Sometimes the kanji is itself a word.  Fine.  Then it has its own pronunciation in that case (kun-yomi), memorize it as a word, and move on.  But don’t then assume that that has anything to do with how it’s used in any other word.  Because it doesn’t.  It can, (such as 本 and 日本) but that’s more the exception than the rule.

This is the trap of learning Japanese.  Trying to understand it in terms of your language.  You can’t.  It’s different.  Accept the differences for what they are, and move on.

 

One third through…

Tomorrow is the first of four big tests in Japanese class (there are three tests and a final exam).  I must say that I’m dreading it, even though I’m pretty sure I have a lot of it down.  I wonder if it’s enough.

Last week I was sick with a cold and I hardly studied at all.  I rather miss being able to study at my own pace, and I’m not entirely sure that the structure is helping me.  It’s not hurting, don’t get me wrong!, but I feel like in some ways I was learning more when I was just studying on my own, though I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  Which means I was missing some important things, like how to tell time, etc.

Our sensei doesn’t waste time – the class moves at a breakneck speed (as classes go) and people are dropping like flies.  We started with 13 or 14 people, and last night there were seven.  A few were out for whatever reason, but I wouldn’t do that unless I had no choice, because missing even one class could set one back irreparably.  That, I guess, is what I don’t like about class.  You learn a lot but you’re always on a knife’s edge unless you really overstudy, and who has time for that?

Where I’m not satisfied is that I am very bad, still, conversationally.  I need to figure out how to address that.  I may even invest in some private tutoring just to find someone who will have a conversation with me without judgement.

I know what I want to do with Japanese – at least one thing – once I become conversational in it, but I’m not there yet, and I’m kind of chomping at the bit.

Proceeding Apace

Japanese class is proceeding apace.  It is going at a rather breakneck speed.  To be quite honest, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I’d studied ahead for a year, I’d be sunk.  Many students seem to be.  It’s been, what, four weeks now?  And we’ve already covered all of hiragana and are finishing up katakana now.

I don’t think all students are going to make it out of the class unscathed, to be honest.

I have noticed something odd, though.  I am able now to carry on simple conversations with Japanese speakers.  Nothing too complicated, and about half the time I can’t understand them until they slow down, but I am now able to carry on a conversation.  So that is absolutely a positive.  But that’s not the odd thing.  The odd thing is that whenever I speak to a Japanese person or practice Japanese with any intensity, for about two hours afterwards, whenever I say something in English, I’m also saying it in my head in Japanese.  There have been several times when I have almost (or have!) said “arigatou gozaimasu” to someone who has no idea what the heck I’m talking about.  I’m not sure if it’s cool or frustrating, but it’s very much unexpected.

I guess that’s good practice, in an odd way.

Hiragana isn’t that hard.  Katakana is a little harder.  Switching between them is hella difficult – I have to really think about it when switching between writing systems (when taking a quiz, etc).  Grammar isn’t that hard, but constructing the grammar from whole cloth on the fly is really difficult.  I need to find an effective way to practice.  There is a tutor over at the Northridge campus, I’m going to impose on some of his time for conversation.

Onwards and upwards!

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!