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.

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.

Loan Words

Many words in Japanese are borrowed from other languages.  Many from Chinese, and quite a few from English and Portuguese.  A smattering from other languages as well.

The interesting thing about Japanese, though, as opposed to many other languages, is that the Japanese language doesn’t have the syllabic structure to migrate the loanwords over untouched.  So when they migrate a word into their language, even though it’s somewhat recognizable as the word they borrowed, it’s not the same word anymore.

For example, “Starbucks”.  In Japanese, it’s “sutaabukkusu”, or スターブックス.  For obvious reason, a native speaker would never recognize that as a loan word, and even when it’s spoken, it’s not the easiest thing to recognize it unless it’s spoken very quickly.  This works the other way around, too:  I saw an episode of “AKBingo” where a girl said “You can find me on instagram and twitter”, and the rest of the girls (who did not speak English past what they learned in school) did not understand the words “instagram” or “twitter”, even though those are loan words in their language.

I think one of the difficult things about learning Japanese is getting past the mindset that loanwords, in Japanese as opposed to most other languages, have stopped being words from the origin language, and are, in actually, completely Japanese words.  Which is also indicated by the fact that they’re written in katakana.

As I mentioned before, the Japanese never assimilate.  They adapt things into their language and culture, but in the process, they always turn those things into something specifically Japanese.  Loanwords are another example of this phenomenon.  Because arguably, if this was not the case, they would keep those words in roman characters.

There are not many Japanese words in American culture – I can think of only a handful.  While we do not use the Japanese character set for them, there are several possible reasons for this.  The first is that the English syllabic structure is lossless when it comes to Japanese – unlike the fact that converting from other languages to Japanese changes the phonetic structure of the word, this is not the case the other way around.  For words like “tsunami”, “shiitake”, etc., we have more than enough information in the transliteration of the words to keep the pronunciation.  Unlike the Japanese language, which does not contain enough information in its syllabic structure to keep the pronunciation of the foreign word.

Culturally, too, we tend to keep the “gairaigo” character of the Japanese word when we import it.  There are very few words that we have imported into English that do not either offer some homage to Japanese culture, or that describe a concept that we do not have in English.  So there is no reason for us, for the most part, to migrate Japanese loanwords into our language – it is already rich enough.  For whatever reason, theirs does not seem to be, at least partially.  Even for words like “taifu”, which we misspelled as “typhoon”, we have our own word for that, “hurricane”, so other than as an oddity, we have no reason to import that word.

There is a different kind of loanword, though.  This like of loanword exists because the people who import the word find the other language “cool” and import the word simply because they can.  Many words in Japanese fit this qualification, and a few in English do as well.  “Kawaii” is one example, and “nani” is slowly gaining popularity in the same way.  This kind of loanword is a cultural homage, and is never necessary for describing a particular concept that already exists in a language.  It’s mostly there just because we think using the words is “cool”.

I personally consider that kind of thing to be too “otaku” for my tastes, to be honest.  Use the language or don’t.

Anyway, loanwords are a very interesting aspect of Japanese culture, and seeing how they are used grants an insight into how the Japanese see other cultures and languages.  Hint:  they take what’s useful and make it Japanese.

This is probably, in my opinion, the most important aspect of Japanese culture for any language learner.  It’s not English anymore, even if that’s where the word came from.

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.

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?