Japanese: Uncovered

I am placed in a rather unique situation at work (for England at least) whereby there are something like 9 different languages spoken in our team of 10 people. There are, in no particular order, speakers of Urdu, Arabic, Gujarati, Greek, Swedish, Japanese, Russian, Belarusian and a Nigerian dialect of English. I may even have missed one or two. Certainly in all the English-speaking places I have lived and worked before most people will speak English, and only English; but that’s not to say that people don’t have an interest in learning other languages. People will often dreamily announce “Oh I wish I could speak another language,” or “I’d love to speak (Italian) but I just don’t have the time.” I had always said the same. I even went on an Italian course 1 night a week to try and kick-start things but the only thing I can remember how to say now is “Can I have a glass of red wine, please?” Useful, but hardly nearing the fluency required to impress a long-legged, olive-skinned Italian goddess with my in-depth knowledge of graphics cards and central processing units.

I failed at Italian because no-one had ever taught me HOW to learn a language and exactly WHAT to study and practice. Had I figured it out by going to Italy and being forced to learn the language I would have, perhaps, got much further in a much shorter space of time. But I wasn’t going to Italy; I was going to Japan, and I either had to learn Japanese or spend my entire year there confused and disorientated. As it happened I ended up doing both but I hope, in a slightly less confused manner than I would have had I simply remained in a little expat bubble.

To those who have never been lucky enough to learn Japanese, the written language is a mishmash of mystical symbols and pictures, and the spoken word just an endless stream of syllables where no-one takes a breath for 3 minutes at a time, and being too expressive with one’s voice is considered rather odd. The notion of ever being able to speak it, let alone read it, is a monumental task that most normal people leave up to the manga geeks and cosplay nuts. Look deeper however and you will find that it is endlessly fascinating, constantly surprising and actually, rather logical in its construction. For those cunning linguists out there with a passion for languages in general, or for those who would simply like to know what all those mysterious little pictures actually mean, read on. American/Canadian readers take note, you may need to put on your best Hugh Grant impression when pronouncing the letters/words in bold so that you get the right Japanese-equivalent sound.

NB: The rest of this post contains Japanese characters. If you’re on Windows XP, you may need to install language support from here. Most other operating systems should provide support.

The Alphabets

Yes that is alphabets, plural. Four to be precise (well, 3 really but we’ll get into that in a bit) and you already know one of them:

  • Romaji (or the Roman alphabet to you and me)
  • Hiragana
  • Katakana
  • Kanji

This means that there are also 4 different ways to write many words. The word ‘bicycle’ for instance can be written (in the above order) as:

  • jitensha
  • じてんしゃ
  • ジテンシャ
  • 自転車

We’ll go into that in a bit.

Romaji

Yes, they all know and learn the Roman alphabet, but no that doesn’t mean they can read English (as I’m sure you will all know from reading the posts over the last year!). They use Romaji for a number of different things including, obviously, English words, but also for Japanese words they think just look cooler in Roman letters. When you see Japanese in phrase books, it will usually be written in Romaji because people don’t have time to learn 3 new alphabets for a quick 2 week holiday, but you should note that this is not Japanese; it is merely to help you pronounce Japanese words using letters for which you know the sounds. For example the Japanese word for I or me; in a phrase book you would see it written as watashi where in fact the Japanese is わたし. Which brings me nicely onto…

Hiragana

This is the original Japanese alphabet and it differs from the Roman alphabet in that almost every single character contains a vowel sound*. For example, sounds like she (or shi as written in Romaji), sounds like na (as in nappy), sounds like ka (as in karen). So rather than have a load of separate consonants and vowels which you can then combine in any number of crazy combinations and sounds like in English, you have a set number of 1-syllable sounds which you then just string together to make a word.

There are literally only 5 vowel sounds in the entire language. Yes, I know we have 5 vowels in English but I’m talking about vowel sounds. Take the vowel, o for example; put it in the word now and you get more of an a sound than an o, but stick an s on the front – snow – and the sound completely changes. In Japanese this never happens. A will always sound like ka wherever you put it in a sentence,  will always sounds like na and will always sound like shi.

For an English-speaker learning to speak Japanese this is a wonderful thing. It means that you don’t even have to listen to someone say a word for you to know how to say it; you just read the characters as you see them. For a Japanese-speaker learning English though, this gives them a serious handicap; try to get someone to tell you the difference between mood, mud, mode and mod and they will break down and have a fit there and then. Likewise, if you try to get a Japanese person to say ‘squirrel’ they will still be standing there trying 12 hours later.

Katakana

Katakana is used mainly for Japanese words that they want to ‘coolify,’ and for words that have been adopted from other languages, for example:

  • Coffee becomes コーヒー (pronounced core-hee)
  • Television becomes テレビ (pronounced teh-reh-bee)
  • Super becomes スーパー (pronounced sue-paah)

If you really listen hard, you can hear the English word behind it but usually only after you become trained at it. After I had learnt to read Katakana, Maria (another JET in my area) and I used to have to team-up to read menus; I would read them – very slowly – and repeat faster and faster until she could decipher the English word it was supposed to replicate.

I would understand its usage if they had never learnt the Roman alphabet (besides, who wants to learn Hiragana before you’re able to read, write and pronounce tsunami or karaoke?), but when they know how to read and write Roman letters it needlessly prevents kids from learning the proper spellings and sounds in English. All the characters look the same as well, for instance is shi and is tsu - both identical but for a slight change in the way they mock you as they grin outwards from the screen.

Kanji

These are the little pictographs that you’ve all seen in both Chinese and Japanese (the Japanese nicked them from China years ago), and if you’ve been reading my other posts recently then you’ll know that I am currently attempting to learn 1000 kanji before the end of the month. It’s not going very well but that’s one for another post. There are countless kanji in Chinese and Japanese though a common dictionary in Japan, the ‘Daikanwa,’ currently contains around 50,000. Luckily, only about 2 to 3 thousand are in common use in Japan. That is still quite a steep learning curve though, and if it wasn’t interesting I would have given up long ago.

Each and every kanji has a meaning. Sometimes one kanji will be be a word on its own, and sometimes it will form part of a word with other kanji. Take and for instance. means he/him/boyfriend, pronounced kah-reh, and means woman, pronounced on-na. If you put them together though – 彼女 – the pronunciation completely changes to ka-no-jo, and the meaning to she/girlfriend (in case you were wondering, the kanji for man is ).

How do you ever learn these? It really helps if you know the meanings of the individual kanji because you can often make up little stories in your head to help you remember what the word means – this is what I am doing at the moment. Sometimes though, you don’t even need to make up stories because it’s obvious from the meaning of the kanji alone. Remember bicycle? 自転車? Well  means oneself/itself means rotate/revolve and  means vehicle, so a vehicle that rotates itself is…? You get the picture. What you really need to do is learn as many words as you can in hiragana and then mass-learn all the kanji and their meanings when you think you’re ready. After that you can go back over all the words you learnt in hiragana and attach their pronunciation to the proper, kanji word.

Learning a foreign language has been a lot of hard work, but it has provided me with a great deal of fun, intrigue, and interactions with people I never would have spoken to had I not jumped into it head-first. If you’re one of those people who have always wanted to learn one then just start. Get a book and give it a go. You won’t regret it.

*The only exception to this is which is pronounced simply, n (by putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth and emitting a dull sound through your nose).

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