Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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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!).



Difficulties
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.

Advantages
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.

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