When learning Japanese

The other day, I wrote about my my eye surgery when I was in Japan. The Greatest_Pip left a comment that suggested that he thought my English was pretty good for a guy who had been in the US for 12 years–since 1996. Haha, I’d like to take a bow, but I had to tell him that basically my English is as good as anyone who was born, raised and educated in the US. Which elicited the following:

Wow, that’s pretty awesome. How long did it take you to become fluent in Japanese? Do you already spend enough time in a week teaching Japanese to not want to give tips in your free time?

Actually, yes, I do spend a enough time in a week teaching. But tips on Xanga are free, mostly because they are not that big of a deal, are mostly common-sensical, and advice means nothing if the recipient won’t heed it. I wish there was something magic potion, or a hidden incantation. But the bottom line is simple: passion, diligence and determination.

Of course, these three apply to anything you may endeavor to do, but with regard to Japanese, you have to have a passion for the language. It is fun enough, and today maybe even cool enough, to dabble in it. Anime and Wii has ensured the Japanese language a place in the hierarchy of US pop culture. The title sensei, which some whom I have met here on Xanga call me–oh I miss ya’ SleepingCutie!–is fairly ubiquitous. But I was shocked that many knew the word tanuki (badger-dog) from a game–was it Mario? But a passion for anime or games does not equal a passion for Japanese language. It is not as hard most people will have you believe, but it is significantly different enough to make people throw their hands in the air in frustration. So it takes a passion for the language to compel to to continue where others have given up. I love Japanese. The language is, to me, sonorous and expressive. And so contextual. Sometimes all you have to say is are (that), and the listener will know exactly what you mean. Or you can say, in the appropriate context, Watashi wa hanba-ga- desu (I am a hamburger), and the person taking your order will say thank you for your order without a snicker. I find these situations interesting and compelling, which stokes my passion for the language.

Now I said that it is not as hard as some make it out to be, but that means it isn’t complicated. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to study, or that you’ll pick it up eventually just by living in Japan. It takes study. And lots of it. Kanji is a good example. One character can have one meaning but different readings depending on its context. 女 (woman) has a Japanese reading, onna, which is simply the application of the indigenous pronunciation of the concept to the written term imported from China. When paired with other kanji to represent concepts imported from China, it can be read differently, as in 女性 josei (female) and 女房 nyoubou (wife, lady), The different pronunciations are simply a reflection of when these terms were imported to Japan, i.e. which Chinese Dynasty. The fact that there are different pronunciations is a cultural-historical phenomenon, and one simply needs to memorize the different words. And memorization is not complicated; it’s just a matter of diligence. Some may find the idea of different pronunciations depending on context to be ridiculous, but it is no different in English. Take the string of roman letters: “ough”. If you place different consonants around it, you get a different pronunciation for “ough”–cough, dough, though, thought, through. I think Ricky Ricardo had a hell of a time with this in I Love Lucy. He just had to memorize the different pronunciations.

Finally, there is determination, which is in many ways a compbination of the first two. You simply can’t give up. You have to be determined to learn this. And you have to understand that this is a lifelong love affair. I have been studying Japanese for over 35 years, and I’m still studying. Am I fluent. I guess sorta, but I don’t know what fluent really means. Japanese is simply too vast and too deep to master completely. Even the Japanese haven’t mastered it. Come to think of it, I know a lot of Americans who have yet to master English. I’d bet you’ve met some, too.

There are strategies to implement that could ensure retention and mastery of the different aspects of Japanese learing, but that will be for another day, if there is any interest. Just make sure you bring your checkbook. J/K J/K J/K…

Query: So how many of you knew what a tanuki is?