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.

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.

Ariana Grande’s BBQ Grill has Seven Rings

I’m sure, by now, if you pay attention to anything Japanese or related, you’ve found that a major US pop star with lots of beauty and very little talent has decided to get a tattoo with Japanese kanji.

It is supposed to say “seven rings”, which I assume is the title of either a movie or a song she darkened the door of, but instead, apparently, it says “BBQ grill”.

Even though Ariana Grande and I have little in common – she’s a beautiul young talentless star, I’m a balding middle-aged guy with more talent in my little finger – I understand why one would want to get a tattoo in kanji. It’s got that foreign exoticism to it, kind of a hidden meaning that only you and a few billion other people in the world might understand, and the logographs are actually rather pretty in many cases. So I understand the temptation.

But, seriously. If you don’t know Japanese, don’t.

Let’s set aside the issue of trivializing a beautiul and ancient language to make a fashion statement and focus on the fact that one is making a permanent or semi-permanent alteration to one’s body without fully understanding what the heck they’re actually drawing on.

Google translate is not a substitute for knowing Japanese.

Running it by a native speaker is only marginally more a subtitute for knowing Japanese.

Learning enough Japanese that you can be confident that a kanji or jyokugo means exactly what you think it does is the only way to be sure that what’s going on your body is what you expect is going on your body.

Plus if you learn Japanese, it gives you much more of a right, in my opinion anyway, to use the kanji in ways it was not intended. It’s much less disrespectful to a culture to first learn, understand, and appreciate the culture. After which, of course, you can go ahead and use the kanji as you will, secure in the knowledge that you’re neither embarrassing yourself or disrespecting a proud, ancient culture by being stupid and thoughtless.

Learn Japanese, miss Grande. Or at the least make some Japanese friends. Surely either of things are a better use of your time than whatever you do that makes you think it’s a good idea to look up “7 rings” on google translate and take that to a tattoo artist that doesn’t know any better either.

Our Japanese friends deserve just a bit more respect from you than that, don’t you think?

Kanji makes it easier?

One of the assignments given to us by sensei was to do a skit where we have to make up and memorize our lines.  I’m finding this very difficult and am rather annoyed by the whole idea.

Okay, “rather annoyed” is something of an understatement.  I’m closer to “royally pissed” on the scale, I think.

But it is what it is, and I have a partner I can’t let down, so here we go.

Anyway, as I’m studying, I have found that one of the biggest obstacles to my memorization of the words is the syllabic system.  No, seriously.  See, English letters are very different than Japanese syllables.  English letters sometimes do not have their own identity, and several letters blend together to make a syllable.  Even though there are 15,000 or so potential syllables, it’s really easy to see the words because the letters don’t really count for much by themselves.

With the syllabic systems – hiragana and katakana – that’s not really true.  While some vowels are unvoiced, entire syllables are never, and they have the same importance mechanically when recited (I said mechanically, not grammatically).  So if you can’t get out of the mindset of sets of hiragana/kanji/ofurigana being actual words and are stuck on the syllables, memorization and fluency becomes near impossible.  This is because you’re memorizing sets of syllables rather than words for themselves.

So kanji, while a formidable challenge in their own right, takes ones mindset off of the individual syllables and puts it on the words where it belongs.  There are some nasty rules when it comes to this as well – their pronunciation changes on a whim, depending on what the context is, but the pronunciation becomes secondary to the meaning of the word.  It’s still vitally important, obviously, but it’s what pulls you out of the syllabic mindset and into the word mindset.

The textbook I’m using starts with romaji, graduates to hiragana and katakana, and only then introduces kanji.  I absolutely understand why they do that – hitting students with kanji all at once would be incredibly intimidating – but I also think that level of intimidation might be the kick in the pants needed to understand that Japanese is fundamentally different from English.  What I mean is this:  if you exposed students to kanji from the very beginning and then had them start to swim out, maybe it would be easier to toss the conventions of English that we have a tendency to stick to for as long as possible, when they just don’t apply.

In fact, I think this is such an important concept that I created my own “study kanji”.  I have kanji now for desu, deshita, masu, mashita, deshouri, and a couple of others.  I’m also learning kanji for words like “iie” and “totemo”.  They’re only for my own use, of course, but the purpose of these is to focus my mind on the “wordness” of the words and particles, rather than what they’re composed of.  It seems to be bearing fruit.  Memorization has become much easier, at least when I have whole sentences to memorize.  Like I do for this kami-forsaken test.

Of course I will cuss myself out for that choice the minute I accidentally use them when I shouldn’t.  But it is what it is, I suppose.

Wait Just a Kanji-Pickin’ Minute

I realized something today that has been kind of simmering in my consciousness lately, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

Many words in Japanese are actually compound words.  For example, 美味しい means “delicious”, but the words separately mean something like “beautiful taste”.  電車 means “train” (or that’s how it’s taught in Japanese Level Up), but the kanji separately mean “electric train”.  But 大丈夫 is not really a compound word, it means something entirely different than the three kanji separately would indicate.

So is it reasonable to teach “oishii” as “delicious”?  Is it reasonable to teach “densha” as “train”?  Or are we losing something in translation because we’re trying to force compound words with separate meanings into one English word, and losing something in context?

“Beautiful taste”, for example, is rather poetic, and is something I would expect from a society that has a very well refined and historic sense of beauty.  It says a lot about how they see food, and even so, the human experience.  But “delicious”, to us, just means something tastes good.  Or even very good.  There’s no poetry in it.  So it feels as if we’re forcing their poetry into our language, and losing a major sense of the Japanese culture while we’re at it.

This is becoming a major frustration in learning Japanese, and I’m starting to think that learning it by translating into English (even using words like “delicious” or “train” just doesn’t work.  I’m not advocating an approach like Rosetta Stone, don’t get me wrong, as their approach is frustrating and insufficient in its own way, but I am saying that I feel like I’m losing something from Japanese by trying to force kanji (and compound words) into an English mold.

Why do we have to learn it as “delicious”?  Why can’t we just use it as “beautiful taste”?  Does that somehow make Japanese easier for us to learn, while blunting the impact of the cultural difference?  Or are we trying to find areas of cultural similiarity to lessen the culture shock (such as “genki desu ka?”) and instead screwing the pooch in the process?  Or am I just overthinking it are these translations perfectly fair?

This would go the other way too, but I’m not sure quite as easily.  To a Japanese, they might have the concept of “delicious”, but the translation to English is one word.  Perhaps they are missing the nuance in our language, that we don’t have a sense of beauty in the sensual aspects of food that they do?  Or again, perhaps I’m overthinking that too.

I don’t know the answer.  This is an exploratory post  But the more I’m learning about Japanese, the more I see some very difficult cultural differences brewing just beneath the surface, and I feel as if those differences may be being deliberately glossed over in the name of learning quickly.  I’m not sure I like that, honestly.

Still plugging along…

I feel as if, if I even come close to mastering Japanese, I’ll be able to learn any other language I want.  Japanese is hard.

Crazy hard.

But I keep encountering ways to look at it that make it easier, and sometimes it feels like you just kind of have to luck your way into learning these things, as there seems to be nowhere that has everything you need in one place.  Every site or book seems to have parts of it, but you have to spend months just piecing it all together until it just clicks.  I know I’ve said something similar to this before, but it’s still true.

Take learning kanji, for example.  When you first start Japanese, you have this big ol’ pile of thousands of characters in front of you, and you think the best way is to just pick them up one by one, stomp them into your memory, and then eventually you’ll master it.  But that’s really not how it works.

Here’s what kanji really are (for the purposes of memorizing):  They are a multivariate grid of a little over 200 different axes.  Each of those axes is a “radical”.  Kanji Damage (and “Remembering the Kanji”) gives each of those radicals a name, and that’s a really wise thing to do.  What I’ve been doing is just giving them my *own* name.  It’s probably not the wisest thing to do, but it works.

For example, 外, meaning “outside”, I call a “ta” and a “to”, because that’s what the two katakana characters look like.  時, or “time”, I call “sun temple”, because that’s the two characters.  And 寺, or “temple”, I call “ground on measurement”.  I make other mnemonics too…  “long ta” for one component of 各 (“long ta over mouth”, “half a give” for one component of 号, etc.  It works for me, but it may not work for most.

The point, though, is not so much what you call it – though most of those radicals do have names that it would be helpful to learn at some point, but that it works for you to help you remember where on that 200 and some dimensional space a particular kanji falls.  Obviously it works a bit for me because I called those up – even though I did have to look up the pronunciation.  That comes a bit later.

What I’m trying to say is, that it’s not insurmountable, but you can’t approach it as just a pile of kanji you sweep up into the middle of the room, pick one out, and hope that it’s useful to you.  You gotta organize them in a way that makes sense to you and use that to your advantage.

I’ll tell you, there’s a sense of accomplishment when you look at a name like “Takahashi”  (高橋), and think “hey!  I know that first kanji!  It means “expensive”!  Or “敦子” (Atsuko) and realize “hey!  I know that last kanji!  And I know how to pronounce it! Or a word like “気楽” and have a pretty good idea of how to pronounce it because you’ve seen both of the kanji before and recognized them!

The tools you use are important – some are better than others.  The books you use are also important – some are better than others.  But the most important thing is to figure out how to make it make sense to you, and build on that.  Because you’re not learning Japanese for someone else – you’re learning it for yourself.  And, other than whether people can understand you or not, You are the only one who gets to judge whether you are happy with your progress.

Hope this helps.

What Exactly are Kanji?

I think one of the most difficult things for a westerner to wrap their minds around is kanji.

I don’t mean memorizing the kanji or their readings, but exactly what they are in the first place.

We think of them as words, but I don’t really think that’s what they are, not really.  I think they are, instead, concepts, and those concepts are represented as logographs.  But I think you don’t really directly translate a kanji.  I think you take the concept that the kanji represents, crystallize a contextual meaning out of it, and then that is what you translate.

I think the different readings are, themselves, also crystallized out of kanji.  But the kanji itself is just an abstract representation of a concept with no definite meaning of its own.  That’s why it can mean many different things, and I think that’s also why kanji can modify each other where two or three of them together mean more than the sum of their parts.

We memorize the kanji when learning Japanese as meaning a word, but that’s not entirely the case.  We’re, instead, peeking into one representation of the concept represented by the kanji, and the actual underlying concept is often far broader and wider than the English word used to represent it indicates.

Perhaps this is another situation where our language forces us into a paradigm that isn’t really useful when trying to incorporate that of another culture.