Three Months Later…

Posts like these are hard to write, because I never quite now how they’re quite going to turn out, and I never quite know how much of my soul I’m going to bare in the process.

About three months or so ago, I had a medical crisis that caused me to pretty much drop off the grid for two months.  Thankfully, I have good insurance and am in decent financial shape after having to take two months off of work, but many things in my life had to take a serious hit, and my Japanese study has been one of them.  I have been continuing to take classes after I was able to get stabilized enough to make it there, but that’s pretty much the only practice I’ve been doing.

I haven’t lost interest in the Japanese language, but after having taken a rather forced break from it for a couple of months, I no longer see it in the same way.  I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s just fact.

Japanese is pretty much everything English isn’t.  I think that’s a broad statement that I feel comfortable making.  Everything’s backwards in comparison to English.  The sentence structure is backwards.  We have twenty-six letters that come out to about fifteen thousand syllables.  They have about one hundred syllables and over 2,300 letters (I’m counting kanji as individual letters because, in my view, they are).  It’s not that it’s impossible to learn, it’s more that one’s thought patterns have to be almost completely wiped and all of one’s assumptions about what a language is or should be have to be put aside.  How many times in my lessons have I thrown up my hands in an only semi-joking manner and said something like “well, of course that compound word is pronounced differently and means something differently even though it’s written the exact same way depending on where and how it’s used!  It’s JAPANESE!”.

My sensei laughs, because even though she’s native Japanese, she gets it.  Every time you try to pull the language apart into its components so you can put it back again, it refuses, laughs at you, and pulls another exception out of its bag of tricks for no reason other than I’m a gaikokujin and it can.  How many times have I asked her why something is the way it is and gotten a shrug, I look online, and find a fascinating, halfways sensible, completely counterintuitive explanation so loaded down with exceptions and rules about when to use it and when not that you’re actually worse off than when you began?

I’m trying to get back into studying right now, I really am, but to be honest, even though the language interests me, I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of unforgiving kanji, and there are no lifeboats.

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 one thing that my semi-immersion into Japanese culture has taught me is that they are, truly, foreign to me.

This is not a bad thing, but it’s solidifying my theory that in order to understand a language, one must first make an effort to understand the culture that the language belongs to.

So I have not really been studying Japanese all that much – in the sense that I haven’t been intentionally learning new vocabulary or kanji.  Instead, I’ve been watching Japanese variety shows, etc., and just letting the language flow over me.  And I’m starting to realize something:  at least in Japanese, and by necessity, translators take a lot of liberties with the translation.

The reason is that the Japanese language is very contextual and very efficient.  So much meaning can be conveyed using just one word.  You could say “daisuke” and that could mean a lot of things.  It could mean “I love you”, or it could mean “I love it”, or I’ve even heard it translated “I like it a lot”.  The efficiency exists because of a shared contextual experience that is already taken for granted.

English does have this in certain, limited circumstances (you can hear “kawaii” by itself in Japanese, just as you can hear “cute” by itself in English), but in most cases English speakers prefer to spell out their assumptions as clearly as possible.  Japanese speakers do not do this – they take the assumptions that are already present and add information onto it conceptually.  In fact, this is such a linguistic difference that English speakers find it very hard to distinguish between “wa” and “ga” – where “ga” is used when new information is added to a topic that is already known about, and “wa” is used to introduce a topic.  English prefers to just keep using the topic and then adding information to it in the same sentence.

It’s far more precise, but also far less dense, for the same reasons.

It is, in fact, a similar struggle for Japanese people to learn how to use “a” and “the”, because they do not have the concept of definite or indefinite articles in their language. It’s second nature to us – “a” means “there are a bunch (class) of things, and I am referring to one of them”, where “the” means “there are a bunch (class) of things, and I am referring to a specific one of them”.  It’s easy for us.  Not so easy for them.

I honestly don’t think Japanese is confusing.  I only think I consider it confusing because I insist on seeing it from an English mindset.