Monthly Archives: January 2012

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).

Voice of Defeat

“If you’re going to make a mistake, then make it LOUDLY because then we can correct it and move on.”

That’s what my Dad used to say at choir practice, and it’s what I would come to teach my students in their first lessons with me at school in order to pull them out of their shells and keep them talking. I think it worked too. “Are mistakes good or bad?” I would say as they looked at me dumbfounded, likely scared that whatever they said in reply would be the wrong answer. Eventually they pandered to my little game and a couple of the more confident ones would say “bad,” to which I would reply “nope.”

“Mistakes are GOOD!” I would say, and then I would explain why very simply in English, and the JTE in Japanese, before attempting to build a relationship of trust, and an environment where people would not be afraid to at least try without fear of humiliation from their teacher – something that all the teachers at my old school would practice with alarming regularity, presumably to make them feel better about their own crushing failures in life.

I too have failed, and it wouldn’t be right for me to pretend otherwise but rather, to write it on the Internet for all to see lest I forget my father’s words of wisdom. My mistake lay in the goals I’d set myself for this month. They were, I now admit, a little far-fetched. I was a little high on life at the time and thought that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. But 31 days is a long time. A very long time. No milk, sugar, alcohol, TV, computer games, films, relaxation, or basically, ANYTHING FUN. FOR 31 DAYS?! What the bloody hell was I thinking?! I was obviously MENTAL. However all is not lost. I haven’t just been sitting on my arse playing Mass Effect 2, stuffing my face with Burger King and binging all over London Town… Real changes have been made:

  1. I am eating much more healthily. Granted, I’ve had a couple of Dominos pizzas and a McDonalds but the rest of the time I have stuck to the diet. I have scrambled eggs for breakfast every day, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and beef jerkys for snacks, chicken salads for lunch and meat/fish and vegetables for dinner. I aim to keep this up for the foreseeable future, and I’ll occasionally throw in some junk food for fun.
  2. I am fitter and stronger. More like 3-times-a-week fitter rather than the 5 I promised but it’s a good start. I am running regularly for the first time since school and lifting more weight than I ever have before. I will continue at least 3 times a week (preferably every other day) for the foreseeable future. This is not a short-term thing – I am actually enjoying it.
  3. I’ve cut down on the booze. Only two nights of drinking in 15 days can’t be bad.
  4. I now know 384 kanji. Doesn’t sound a lot, yet consider this one on the right. It means “admonish” and takes 19 strokes to write. Imagine learning that and then doing the same for 383 equally complex kanji varying from “run” to “Decameron” (don’t ask). I’m not trying to impress… Only to try to help you understand the pain I am going through even without a whole 2 hours of study a day.

Oh yeah… That 2 hours thing? There is absolutely no way in hell that I could ever fit in two hours of study every single day. It is impossible. There are simply not enough hours in the day. I know I know, that’s the kind of thing our Dads say but seriously, when we would just go “yeah yeah” and assume they were making up excuses for not putting up that shelf or de-scaling the shower head, they would be running around like a blue-arsed fly, permanently worried that all the things on their to-do lists wouldn’t get done. I could do 2 hours a day if I had a butler but I don’t – partly because I can’t really afford one but mainly because I could never convince one to come and work in Wood Green – so I am forced to forgo the excessive amounts of study in favour of not dying of starvation or wearing the same dirty clothes every day.

My **revised** goals for January then, are very simple: Keep up the diet and the exercise, don’t go overboard on the booze and learn 1000 kanji by the end of the month. Should be doable.

January Gymathon

If you’re reaaaaally clever, you may have guessed what this month is about from the title, but this ain’t no simple “Pumpin’ Da Iron Seven Times a Week Then Collapse” challenge. January is all about bettering myself. Shedding the fat and looking like Arnie, yes, but we’re also talking about the gym of the mind. Here are the rules:

  • Detox – No alcohol. Too easy? We’ll go one better. Shizuoka Green Tea and water are the only liquids I’ll be drinking this month. No exceptions… Bring it.
  • Eating – No carbs before a gym session. Only complex carbs after. We’re talking brown rice, wholewheat pasta and bread, sweet potatoes, pulses; that sort of thing. What does this mean? It means scrambled eggs and cheese for breakfast every day, protein shakes (made with water) and nuts/seeds for morning and afternoon snacks, chicken salads for lunch and cottage cheese and fruit before bed. “Proper” dinner using whole foods only. No sugar at all, and no milk.
  • Education – 2 hours a day of personal education. What does this mean? Reading up on history, philosophy, sociology, economics, Japanese and anything else that takes my fancy. You get the point.
  • Sleep – 8 and a half hours of sleep every night. No more, no less. Yes this includes weekends, so no lie-ins. I’m not going to have a lot of spare time this month so I’m not going to waste it sleeping.
  • Gym – Every weekday. Yes you heard that right. Weight lifting on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and High Intensity Interval Training on Tuesday and Thursday. What’s that? It’s where you sprint for 30 seconds, jog for a couple of minutes, sprint for another 30 seconds, wash, rewind, repeat for about 30 mins.

This is pretty brutal, so I’m going to allow myself some leeway when it comes to my social life. If I go somewhere for the weekend then I can obviously relax some of the rules around eating and education a little bit. Likewise, if there is a one-off event on a certain day during the week that I desperately want to go to I will allow myself to skip the gym and the education. I still want a life, I just want to make more of the spare time I have rather than waste it in front of the TV/laptop. The drinking rule is non-negotiable however.

After all that, any spare time is mine to do with what I will. Games, TV, tiddlywinks, writing blogs, skydiving.

If anyone else thinks they’re hard enough and wants to get involved, let me know. It’d be good to compare progress. For the rest of you, I will of course keep you updated, and if anyone in Japan fancies sending me some green tea supplies they’d be gratefully received!

Challenge Bobbika!

This time last year I was lying on a couch, dying from flu, freezing my arse off and scared to go out in case I broke my neck slipping up on the solid ice sheets lining all the pavements in London. I think back then my excitement for the coming year was dampened by the fact that anything would be better than what I was experiencing at that point:

Get up and walk 10 metres without worrying that the muscles in your legs are going to give way at any moment? 2011 IS AMAZING!

Eat your lunch without puking? 2011 IS AMAZING!

Stop crying for a millisecond? 2011 IS AMAZING!

With short-term goals such as this, you might say that I missed the big picture. While I was concentrating on keeping my food down and wondering how the hell I was going to manage a 12 hour plane journey to Japan in Cattle Class, everyone else was thinking about the year ahead, and all the excitement, joy, sadness, opportunity, love and conflict it would bring. That is what the first of January is for. You think they gave us a bank holiday to go down to Oxford Street and spend the whole day taking off 7 layers of clothing to try on a t-shirt, find it doesn’t fit, put all the layers back on again and walk into another shop, seemingly in competition with the last to see how high they can get their thermometer to go? To spend the whole day standing in queues watching everyone’s miserable faces as they attempt to convince themselves that the £10 they saved was worth it, getting angrier and angrier at the world and cursing every other person there? The banks are on holiday, but your account takes the biggest hammering it’s had since the last time you went abroad and took out €3,000 because you weren’t sure what the exchange rate was and anyway… It’s not real money, is it?

Personally I can’t think of anything worse than getting sucked into the sales, so I’m staying at home, wiping the slate clean and laying out my game plan.

And I’m excited.

“Does that mean you’re going to Singapore?”
“Nope.”
“Eh? I was sure you’d snap that up straight away.”
“I was tempted for a while, but for all the great things I’m sure it would have brought, you have to follow your gut feeling.”
“Scared?”
“Me? Never. It’s just too soon. I got back from Japan in August and spent a great deal of physical and mental effort getting a job and a place to live, settling down and seeing friends and family I haven’t seen for 8 months or more. Every time I see someone else I haven’t had a chance to catch up with, I put another root down into English soil; and I feel better about my decision.”
“Deep.”
“Yeah.”
“So what now? Isn’t this year just going to be 9-5 London living, watching TV, going to the gym, picking up your groceries and paying your taxes like a good little boy?”
“In part, yes, but I’m setting out some serious plans for this year, and I’m actually really excited about them. In fact, January is already in the bag.”
“Go on then.”
“Ok.”

My New Year’s Resolution is to set myself a challenge for every month. This could mental, physical, work-related, personal, serious, fun; whatever. I will try to make them interesting and I’ll note them down on Ramblin’ Man for your amusement along with the usual shits ‘n’ giggles you’ve become accustomed to.

So let’s get on with it!