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.

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.

Drinking From the Firehose

I have been learning Japanese now for a little over a year.

One the one hand, I know more than I did. I can put together basic sentences, I know probably a thousand words (a hodgepodge of adjectives, nouns, verbs, and things I picked up from variety shows and songs), and I think a fair assessment of my skills right now is that I could probably find my way around Tokyo if I needed to. I am very familiar with hiragana and katakana, and I even know a few kanji, and even more importantly, how to use them.

Which is really no small feat, don’t get me wrong. I’m already ahead of most casual Japanese media consumers, and I have learned enough about Japanese culture to lose my unthinking admiration for all things Japanese. I see that as a sign of maturity.

But a year in, I find myself overwhelmed with a sense of frustration, because as much as I’ve learned and progressed, I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. It’s, as the title suggests, like drinking from a firehose, and theres just so much of it that I haven’t yet found a really effective study method. I don’t feel like picking up a few words a week is going to get me where I want, but I can’t seem to absorb them at a faster rate.

I definitely have a love/hate relationship with Japanese at the moment, to be honest. I think it’s a really cool thing to learn, but sometimes I step back, facepalm a little, and wonder what the heck I’ve gotten myself into.

A year in, I still find it interesting, I’m still learning a lot, and I’m still not convinced I’m not wasting my time and money.

Throwing in the towel?

I just took my second Japanese test at ACC.  And while I think I did okay at it, I’m feeling very discouraged and I’m very close to giving the whole thing up.

I am pretty good at remembering kanji, pronunciations, and grammar, but it all falls apart when I need to actually put together coherent sentences.  Perhaps I’m not getting enough practice, perhaps I’m just not good enough.  But I really feel as if I have about hit the limit of how well I’m going to do if I keep going the way I’m going now.

But I’m really embarrassed to speak it.  I feel like I’m not good enough to hold even a basic conversation and that everyone I attempt to speak to would rather I just didn’t, but I also know that there’s no way I’m going to get better unless I find people to speak with.  So I’m in a position right now where I don’t know why I’m learning it, I find it interesting but I don’t have a really persuasive reason to continue, and every time I attempt to speak with someone it just leaves me embarrassed.

So, why try?

I recognize that learning a language is grammar, etc., second, and exposure and familiarity first.  If I can’t find that, then there’s no point in wasting my time.

I’m certainly not throwing in the towel until this class is over, but after that, I don’t know.  I don’t have a reason.

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.

Why Does One Study Japanese?

I’m sure there are many different motivations.

Some people study Japanese because they love anime and manga.  That is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because they want to go to Japan.  That is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because they love the culture.  That is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because they want to find a Japanese partner.  This is not why I study Japanese.

Some people study Japanese because it’s difficult.  This is not why I study Japanese, though it’s getting closer.

Why do I study Japanese?

Because I’m bored.  Seriously.

I picked one of the most difficult languages in human history to study because I had nothing better to do.

That is me, in a nutshell.

大丈夫

Learning Japanese has been frought with challenges – I mean it’s been really, really difficult.  I think one of the reasons is the scattershot nature of the resources I’ve been using to learn.  They all seem to emphasize something different, and each advertises itself as the only resource I’ll ever need.

That is, of course, bull-pucky.

But the word that is the title of this post is an example of why I feel this way.  大丈夫.  Pronounced “daijoubu”, this word seems to be one of the most commonly used words in colloquial and conversational Japanese, and is arguably one of the most useful.  I’m not saying it’s the most, obviously, but it seems to be used quite frequently and in quite a few different contexts.  I’ve seen it used multiple times in almost every single Japanese video I’ve watched since I’ve learned it.  And not only that, but by its nature, it tends to be used in particularly pivotal moments.

It means “okay”.  As in “I’m okay” or “are you okay?”.

And it took me months to find it.

And then you have resources similarly teaching Japanese words that are not used or are not used in the context that’s being taught (aishiteru, for example), people trying to learn Japanese from anime where that is probably the worst idea ever (don’t ever call someone “kisama” unless they’re literally a king) and basically all sorts of resources teaching you stuff that you find out very quickly is either useless or worse than useless.  And you wonder why it’s so easy to give up.

If I were to give advice to someone just starting out (and I mean much more of a beginner than me), here’s what I’d say:

  • Hiragana and Katakana are not alphabets, and don’t try to learn them as one.  Memorize them, but remember what they are.  They are a precise phonetic syllabary, no more, no less.
  • Don’t skimp on katakana.  Most resources don’t spend any time on it, but probably half the language are borrow words from different languages, and ten percent of the language is borrowed from English.  But you’ll never recognize it if you don’t understand katakana.  It’s not a skill you can afford to not have.
  • Kanji radicals are closer to an alphabet, and use those to your advantage – breaking kanji into their component parts makes it much easier to memorize them.
  • Kanji are not words.  Don’t try to treat them as words.  They’re concepts that can be turned into words.
  • Don’t rely on any one resource, textbook, website, or anything else.  Pick among a few and switch between them.  You are guaranteed to learn something from one that you wouldn’t have learned much later from others, and it’s usually going to be something very helpful.
  • Corollary: Just because someone is good at speaking Japanese, it doesn’t mean they’re good at teaching it.
  • Corollary #2:  Just because someone’s charging money for a lesson plan doesn’t mean it’s any good at all.
  • Learning conversational Japanese only takes you so far.  If you’re not trying to cram for a trip in two weeks, don’t fall into that trap.  Learn it right.  (If you are, of course, all bets are off)
  • The first time you try to speak with a native speaker, you are going to fail.  I had that experience today.  I hope it gets better.
  • Culture and language cannot be separated.  If you try to learn Japanese with an English dialect, your efforts will collapse the moment you meet a real Japanese person.
  • Anime is “real Japanese”, but you don’t know the difference between anime Japanese and actual Japanese that people use.  Don’t risk it.  Don’t try to learn from anime or manga.  Do it right.

Maybe this advice will help.

Oh, and if you want to see something cool, write a post on Facebook with 大丈夫 and watch what happens.  Not even kidding.