The language the natives use

Well, I did it. おわりました。Japanese school is finished. Let me be clear – I still do not understand Japanese, only a bit. あまりわかりません。

Learning a language is like knitting.

Seems to me that Natalie can knit anything she wants, but it was not always that way. The appeal first struck her with friends (Chelsea I believe) who showed her some basic techniques. Over the next day or two Nat produced something spectacular. The abhorrent thing was about 15cm x 15cm and looked like it had already graduated 3 babies into toddlers. The edges were wonked, there were stretched parts, holes and odd twisty bits. When more skilled knitters looked at it they were confused, amazed and secretly disgusted all at once. Oh the humanity.

Anyway, the point is that it took an extremely rough first attempt to realise the bigger picture dual goal, competently producing neat little outfits for the kids and enjoying the cathartic satisfaction of a hobby.

The path to learning Japanese was not so different. After learning some theory for a few weeks, the time came to actualise my skill when my かちょう(kachyou – team manager) asked me to say something in a meeting in Japanese. PANIC! I began fumbling through the depths of my then current knowledge, and over the course of the following forty seconds I chokingly produced in piecewise form a useful business insight: “my wife and kids are at the park, drinking”. I looked at my manager to give me an encouraging nod and got none. I had knitted an abhorrent mess of my own.

So now for the bit about becoming competent and fulfilled right? Not so fast. The best that can be said is it comes in waves. Sometimes you feel like you are getting it, stringing together a few things and more or less holding an albeit simple conversation. Sadly, however, most of the time it feels like wheels are spinning where there should be traction. Information fragments (i.e. words, chunks of grammar) which should ideally stick in mind do not, and one is forced to relearn the same fragment over and over. Apparently adult learning tends this way; understanding is not easily written into the brain like with a child, but instead gradually emerges as a whole, like a coconut clad Tahitian coming out of the sea like eyesight getting used to a dark room.

Natalie is not exempt either. Only today she told me a story of how a Japanese council worker said something to her in Japanese, to which Nat replied, in Japanese, that she does not understand English. The paradox is crippling.

Anyway, the point of this blog is despite たくさん (takusan – much, a lot of, many) trouble, language learning is certainly good for the brain, even Jacob’s brain.

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and actually Japanese is an altogether beautiful language. Here are my top 3 reasons why.

  1. Katakana

Japanese has 3 scripts. One is Kanji – Chinese symbols. Kanji are basically language independent. They are symbols that have a meaning, like 電 (electricity), 車 (car) or 電車(train), so it doesn’t matter what language you speak, you can kind of get the feel of the sentence, if you know them. So that’s nice, if you know 3000 Kanji. I know about 200, mainly ones used in filling out forms and getting around. So, limited use.

Then there is hiragana, which is the Japanese alphabet (46 symbols, plus some variations). All kanji can be sounded out using hiragana, so that is way more helpful for a beginner. In fact, it is my bread and butter.

While the English alphabet is laid out as a list, with (unless I am missing something) no particular order, hiragana is laid out as a grid. Moving to the next sound over in the grid actually means something. See bonus material below.

But in my mind the hero is katakana. Katakana is another alphabet with the same sounds as hiragana. But isn’t that redundant? Turns out not! The Japanese language has this clever way to interface with other foreign languages. Instead of inventing a new word, they simply adopt a foreign word, adjusting it as necessary to fit their alphabet. They use katakana to show that what you are about to read is from somewhere else. Maybe you can guess what these are: アリア (aria), ジェイコブ (jeicobu), ナタリ (natari), ビード (biido). They even improve on some words by cutting off unnecessary long bits. Convenience store becomes コンビニ (conbini) <-see what they did there, they made the word convenient more convenient! Supermarket is スーパー (suupaa), milk is ミルク(miruku). In fact there is an awful lot of stuff around the place making use of katakana, and for some (ok, still quite a bit of) effort you can understand a surprisingly handy amount. Win.

  1. Language and culture

In Japan they might as well be the same thing. Ok, let’s not go overboard. But a lot of the way they behave and interact is in fact built into the language. For example, they have layers of politeness; different words or different forms of words depending on whether they are speaking up, down or sideways on the social hierarchy. You would choose the most formal respectful form of a sentence for your boss, tone it down a bit for peers, down again for friends outside of work, and again for people younger than you. Might not sound like much, but when the same verb or word has a different spelling and form just to account for hierarchy, you can see that a)hierarchy must be really important to them and b)any change to these social values would have to be accompanied by change to the language. So status quo is sticky, inherently resistant to change. I could go on, but my, this blog is getting on a bit.

  1. Verb Verb

Not a typo actually. In Japanese they are allowed to say two verbs right next to each other to give some precision to the meaning. E.g. they are allowed to say ‘autumn leaves view-travelling’, or ‘Bede from Natalie to gift give-receiving’, or my favourite ‘go-coming’. That last one is translated as ‘I go and come back’, used as a departing greeting when say, leaving the office. Getting your mind around it is tricky. Once I intended to suggest sitting down to have lunch, but accidently suggested that we eat lunch during the sitting down process. Still, hopefully these forms will become a staple use-say.

Bonus material –

My life changed when I read these three words in the textbook. “Japanese verbs conjugate”. English verbs do too, for example walk -> walking -> walked.  In other words, when you learn a verb, that isn’t enough. You have to learn all the forms and how to use them. In Japanese, there are a lot of forms, my phone app shows precisely 50 forms of the verb あるきます (arukimas – to walk). The good news is to generate the 50 forms you only need to follow simple rules such as cutting off the ます and adding a different sound from the alphabet grid. The bad news is there are three categories of verbs and the rules are different for each category. So… that is a lot to remember. kbye.

 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Gatt says:

    Nice one Bede, hope it gets easier soon. Love to hear your thoughts on the food some time too.

    Like

  2. lentilboots says:

    Great to hear about your language learning experience! Now I remember about when I started knitting and it was mostly knots haha.
    Keep going and don’t get frustrated with mistakes, language is a lifelong process I think.
    おめでとう

    Like

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