Karate – Babymetal

I’m not going to review this song.  We’ll just say I rather like it and leave it at that.  But I do want to point out something interesting about it.

One of the central musical themes of this song is a contrast between staccato and lyrical.  The part of the chorus that starts “hikasura seiya soiya” are very sharp, cut off, and aggressive, while the part that is “wow” is very lyrical.  These two things contrast off of each other to make the music more effective than it might otherwise be.  I think it actually represents the tension and release of the fight that is being described in the lyrics, and on the video.

But one of the things that makes this possible is the rapid fire nature of the Japanese syllabic structure itself.  I saw a video where a girl tried to do an English translation, and it was lacking.  Not because the words were bad, and she wasn’t even a particularly bad singer, but the rapid fire staccato didn’t translate well and she didn’t seem to understand why it was necessary to try to keep that character.  So, instead, she did it lyrically, and didn’t attack it hard enough, so her voice was wavering.  It didn’t work well.

When translating Japanese, things can be lost in translation, even when all the words are correct.

That’s the worst trap to fall into.  Japanese are people like me, yes, but theirs is a very different culture, and a very different way of looking at the world.  If one doesn’t see and accept that for what it is, one runs the very real risk of losing something important in translation.

The Shallowness of Exported Japanese Culture

A recurring theme of this site is my continued wonder at why I’m bothering to learn Japanese at all.  I mean, it is an interesting language, it’s difficult, it’s a challenge.  All these things are true.  But at the end of the day, as a gaikokujin, I find that my reasons for learning the language are really, at the end of the day, somewhat puzzling.

What I mean is this:  after learning Japanese, I’ll have the following abilities:  I’ll be able to read manga in its native language (yay!).  I’ll be able to consume Youtube videos and other media in their native language (yay!).  I’ll be able to…

Umm,  hmm.  What will I be able to do, other than that?

This became clear when I read that AKB48 is not going to have their annual elections this year, and I thought, oh hey, maybe I can post about that!  And then I thought… why would I want to do that?  What possible reason would I have to post about something so incredibly shallow as a bunch of (admittedly quite pretty and cute) Japanese girls getting up on stage and crying because they won a popularity contest?

And the answer came:  Because, as a gaikokujin, I’ve got nothing else interesting to post about!

So I’ll be able to read manga.  So I’ll be able to watch AKBingo videos, or “Gaki No Tsukai Ya Arrahende”.  Or maybe I can watch “Swing Girls” or “Gou Gou Datte Neko De Aru”.  Or some random anime that butchers the language but is interesting nonetheless.  And maybe I won’t need subtitles or translations.

And that’s all there is.

Is it worth the time and money I’ve been spending on it?

It’s an open question.

As of right now, I have no idea what I would even use it for.

Immersion

My first true exposure to Japanese language was Rosetta Stone.  In fact, I remember the first word I ever learned:  otokonoko.  I became very disillusioned with Rosetta Stone very quickly, and decided that it wasn’t worth it, particularly for the price.

But lately I’ve been studying the kanken books.  You see, in Japan, there are ten levels of kanji certification.  I could probably pass test 10 right now, but honestly, so could most first graders.  But what really interested me was the beginning of the book.  Because, you see, there is a section dedicated to practicing hiragana.

But there are no word definitions.  I wondered why, but it hit me quickly:  it’s because these books are for Japanese children, and they already know the words.  They just don’t know how to read and write them yet.

So the Japanese children already have a command of the Japanese language through immersion – they know the words, they have to know the words.  They have to know how to ask for food and to make their needs known, and they do so in Japanese.  Not because they want to, but because they have to.

When I realized that I looked back on my experience with Rosetta Stone, and I realized why I was so dissatisfied with it.

They were selling immersion, but it wasn’t immersion.  Because while you can repeat the words back, there’s no meaningful interaction.  You just get a multiple choice test, and while the creators of RS actually have the right idea, they aren’t doing it in a really useful way.  Japanese children know the words they know because these are words that they need in their lives to get through their days.  RS taught words that really weren’t all that useful, with very little context, and in some cases, weren’t even the correct words.  For example, I have only heard the word “otokonoko” used in every day language a handful of times, Japanese people would never say “o-genki desu ka” as a greeting, and “kanojo” actually means girlfriend in colloquial language.  But you’d never know that.  Especially from Rosetta Stone, which is, frankly, useless.

But it did have a kernel of the right idea.

And I think that kernel is this:  Learn through immersion, but find the words that children know.

So I’ve started making lists of basic children’s words.  Words like “monkey” and “elephant”, etc.  Words that children would know from childrens’ books, zoos, songs, etc.  And those are the words I’m prioritizing learning right now.  The other words are useful.  They’re even necessary.  But I think that those are the words that will give me the same foundation as Japanese children, and thus make the Japanese-oriented learning material, such as the kanken books, more useful to me.

And they’ll also give me a little insight into Japanese culture.  Because for conversational Japanese, us gaikokujin would never even know to look for those words.

How Would I Have Done It?

Let me preface this by saying: this is only a thought experiment. I have no illusions that this will ever happen. I’m not even seriously proposing it. But I do like to think about these kinds of things.

So, that said, how would I redo Japanese if I were God?

Well, my first thought is, expand the syllabary. Add a couple of vowels and a couple of consonants.

Then, redo the syllabary to something that is logical, something like the korean hangul. Make the rules regular and predictable – this part means this vowel, this part means this consonant, etc.

I don’t think I would get rid of kanji, because that’s actually kind of useful, but I would normalize the pronuncation. One kanji pronounced one, or at most two, ways. I’d also add a cue to the kanji – like some already have – as to how to pronounce them.

And then I’d make sure the kanji had a little more variety in the pronunciation. It’s like there are about 10,000 kanji right now that are all pronounced “doo”.

And then what I’d have wouldn’t be Japanese and no one would care.

See, that’s the thing. Japanese is a difficult language, with many different rules, some without rhyme nor reason, some contradictory, some counterintuitive, some bolted on from other languages, and all of which come together to make… Japanese. Change it, and you’ve got an easier, more intuitive, more logical and regular, more consistent, and just probably better in almost every way language that isn’t Japanese.

Weight it all in the balance, and it’s probably better just to keep it the way it is.

All that said, though, a guy can dream, right?

Maybe I’ll do that someday as a pure linguistic exercise, just for fun. But it won’t be Japanese and I won’t make any effort to pretend it could be. Still, might be fun.

If you were God and didn’t have to deal with a hundred and fifty million angry Japanese, though, what would you change?

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.