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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Ichi and Hachi
Well, it's odd how I seem to have become a little obsessed with things Japanese over the last couple of months. We're starting from a very low base, mind - just a few anime, Studio Ghibli, a manga or two. Then, like many before me, I began to wonder about the relationship between the (clearly dodgy) subtitles I was seeing and the sounds coming out of people's mouths. In odd moments I learned a few phrases and taught myself to count from Youtube videos. Then - what do you know, I appear to have bought a Teach Yourself Japanese book, and to be learning hiragana. A little later - why, I appear to have subscribed to Yesjapan.com! And then - bless me if I haven't made enquiries about lessons in the local area!

My history with learning languages is not good. I ground through seven years of German and three of French at school, but although I jumped successfully through the examinatorial hoops in place at the time, I was never able to hold much of a conversation in either language. After that, I seemed to gravitate to languages where my chances of conversation would be slimmer still: Latin, Esperanto, Old English, Welsh. With Welsh of course there are your actual speakers, but trying to learn it in York in the 1980s was not easy, with no Welsh tapes or speakers on tap, and the Web no more than a ball of fluff in the spinneret of Tim Berners-Lee's brain. None of these attempts lasted long, and I decided that my mind just wasn't the kind that languages - apart from a few programming languages - lodged in. (I still watch Welsh TV sometimes, but in a wistful hiraeth-y way.)

So, I've every reason to be suspicious of my new-found enthusiasm for Japanese. Nevertheless, as it's here right now and I'm studying it most minutes that I'm not marking essays, I may as well make occasional notes on the experience. I've even created a new tag for the purpose (there's commitment!).

Every language (except perhaps Esperanto) presents some particular difficulty or other to beginners. With German, it's the memorization of noun genders and the tables of declensions. With Welsh, it's mutations. With English, it's prepositional phrases and the relationship of pronunciation to orthography. With Japanese? The obvious thing is the script, or scripts. Not one, not two, but three different scripts are in use (four, if you count Roman script). It's hard to know as yet how daunting this is going to be, as my book is taking me in baby steps, but oddly enough it's also part of the appeal.

It is of course unrelated to any helpful European languages that might have given me a leg up. On the other hand, at least in the word lists I've seen so far there are a lot of Western loanwords, which means that this is less of a disadvantage than might appear. Also, since my record with Western languages is poor, it means this one is free of baggage.

Japanese seems to be largely phonetic (apart from a few characters that don't get pronounced in certain situations).

Pronunciation is quite simple - there are relatively few phonemes to learn.

There may be horrors ahead, but so far the grammar looks quite friendly too. No case endings to learn - not even any plurals!

Things that are Adorable
The quirky exceptions. For example: juu nana sai (17 years old), juu hachi sai (18 years old), juu kyuu sai (19 years old) - and then, instead of ni juu sai as you might expect, hatachi (20 years old), before carrying on as before. Why? I've no idea, but I like it.

I always liked the way many Japanese words that end with a vowel have a slightly "strangulated" sound - e.g. hai (yes). Rather than trailing off, as in English "high", there's a distinct glottal stop at the end. To my untutored ear this made it sound very enthusiastic and eager to please. I've just realised it must be to stop it being confused with a double vowel, in which Japanese abounds (e.g. juu above), but this diminishes its appeal not at all.

Wa, the topic particle, which announces the subject of the sentence at the start, a bit like the way Joris in The Homeward Bounders begins every sentence with "Why, as for X..." This seems a good fit for my brain, somehow.

The loanwords, like konpyuutaa (computer), but especially those that mix Japanese and English, like haburashi (toothbrush). Is it wrong and orientalist of me to find this charming? Perhaps so - but if orientalism is a good learning tool I'm going to make use of it. I need all the help I can get.

Have a look at memrise.com - the principle is to treat language learning like a game, one of those 5 minute filler things when you're taking a break at the desk, and to keep coming back to things so that the memories don't fade from neglect. I started playing with the Hindi module, but life intervened and I need to restart.

Thanks - I shall check it out!

The people I know who are learning Japanese use Anki and other spaced repetition software.

I actually like to make my own physical flashcards for learning Welsh sentences, but with Anki you can download pre-prepared sets in popular languages like Japanese. Either way, if you aren't already familiar with the term "spaced repetition", just Google it because it really helps the learning process.

I've found Anki quite useful, as well as online equivalents such as Speedanki. I've had more trouble finding a kanji memorization program that works the way my brain does, and I'm forced into flashcards and repeated writing.


Downloading now...

I am happy to practice any of those languages with you! I've forgotten a lot of Japanese (I got a minor in it in undergrad basically by accident) and my French is very basic indeed, but other than Esperanto, which I've never felt inspired to try, I can at least muddle along in all of the ones you mentioned. ;)

Ha - I'll be able to exhibit my incompetence to you in Oxford next month, maybe!

Hai! :)

Picked up a fair few words and phrases watching the TV Shogun years ago...

I missed that, alas! (I was more a Water Margins kid.)

welcome to the club

Hiragana and katakana are not daunting at all, but kanji is even more daunting than it initially appears -- even more than hanzi, as there's usually at least two unrelated readings for a given character, and typically more. (At one extreme, there's 上, which has at least 5 kun-readings: by itself either ue and kami, as 上げる/上がる, a-, as 上る, nobo-, and one more I'm forgetting.) One thing about pronunciation is finding ways to learn the pitch accent -- so many learning materials omit that.

And numbers are, indeed, irregular in all sorts of ways. Check out the names of the days of the month.

One of these days, I should finish that draft post of sites I've found useful ...


Edited at 2013-05-23 02:58 pm (UTC)

Re: welcome to the club

Kanji is a misty mountain in the middle distance at the moment; I'll worry about that if and when I scale the foothills of kana!

Oh, and if you want encouragement/inspiration and some advice about successful ways to learn Japanese (or any language!) try this All Japanese All The Time blog. As a beginner, you want to go back to some of the earlier posts. Here is the table of contents.

Thank you - that looks great.

Get a copy of Remembering the Kanji and get an account at Reviewing the Kanji and start learning kanji now -- this will seriously improve your quality of life when you start to have to know kanji later on.

The approach seems a little wacky, but the goal is to get the kanji into your brain and associated with keywords so that when it comes time to use them they are already an established 2000-character "alphabet" for you.

I think the All Japanese All The Time guy recommends this as well.

I've seen that book mentioned, but assumed it was way beyond my level as yet. But well, in for a penny - I'll get hold of a copy! Thanks.

A lot of people like Heisig's book, but I get along better with A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters because as much as possible the mnemonics are based on the character etymologies, rather than inventing new associations.


Well, isn't that ridiculous. For years I have wondered why it is that actors in Japanese-language films are always saying "hai, hai" to each other all the time. I didn't realize the answer would be so simple.

I wonder how this guy would say it, if he were speaking Japanese.

Ah, and now I understand the character who occasionally crops up on The Simpsons.

Often imitated, never equaled,