I Think I’m Learning Japanese

I barely know the difference between ki and sa. I know the hiragana for ki, but I can’t seem to recall the one without the extra line is sa.

The easy one for me to remember is no, because it looks like an ampersand.

I can sort of recall a and i, and shi.

Somehow, all of these characters make words with particular sounds.

If you don’t know Japanese, you can stare at a word such as いただきます and hear silence in your head. That’s my problem. Yet it’s amazing to think that I normally stare at lines and squiggles and form sounds in my mind. At some point in my early development, my parents took me aside and said, “okay, when you see this symbol, it makes this sound.” And if you think about it, that’s also what the Japanese parents have done. We are conditioned to accept that a few lines make certain sounds and words.

I’ve heard it said that Japanese is easier than English. There’s a lot of truth to that, because after you read this, you can say you read this, and if you picked up on the change to the past tense then you’re already aware that English letters can change their sounds depending on how they’re used. In Japanese, a will always be pronounced like in spa, i will always be pronounced like ski, and every other character will always be pronounced one way. So yes, that does make things easy.

However, instead of 26 letters that can be rearranged to form different sounds, there are 48 different characters in hiragana alone. Okay, that sounds like more work. And yet, if you were to write down all of the different letter arrangements for English, you would actually end up with more combinations, leading to different sounds as well. There’s all of these confusing rules about “i before e, except after c” which confuses anyone who’s weird and feisty.

But English is just English. There are just the 26 letters that can be formed and arranged and what not. Japanese consists of three writing sets which are hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are your phonetic characters, both sets are few in number but can show up everywhere. Katakana is usually used for foreign words, like if you look up Final Fantasy in Wikipedia, you’ll see the katakana that’s used to basically pronounce the words using Japanese syllables. Kanji is serious business. There’s over 6,000 characters, but if you know one character, you know a whole word. If you’re handwriting and you have too few or too many brushstrokes, your one word might become a completely different word. Sentences and phrases combine at least kanji and hiragana together, though katakana is still important.

Oh, and if you thought homophones were insane in English, just wait until you learn Japanese! In English, sure, you have their, there and they’re. Those words aren’t far from each other, because they’re taking their things and putting them there. Maybe as a native English speaker, that makes perfect sense to me and I can’t possibly confuse the three words. So far in learning Japanese, I’ve come across niji in a Mindsnacks lesson, and niji as a song title. One means rainbow, and the other means 2 o’clock. The only time you could have those in the same sentence is to say there was a rainbow at 2 o’clock.

It’s a quarter to 2 in the morning, and Niji just started playing in iTunes. Please buy Heart, it’s an excellent L’arc en Ciel album. Meanwhile, my computer is scaring me because it did that. I might need to make my computer less intelligent before it becomes sentient.

Anyway, I feel like no matter what I learn, no matter what seems to be committed to memory, I don’t actually feel like I’m learning anything.

I don’t know how to form sentences.

I barely know any phrases, except for one-word phrases like greetings and such.

I know a few words. I don’t know enough to know the entire context of a sentence without having to look up other words in a sentence. And oddly enough, the words I’m most familiar with are probably the words I’ve looked up on the side.

My goal is to learn Japanese. My plan is to take formal lessons. My dream plan is to do so in Japan, where I can practice what I learn because of immersion. But until then, I have phone apps, a Nintendo DS game, and my computer if I want to use Anki more often than not.

I’d like to walk into a beginner’s lesson, and before class begins I’d like to introduce myself to the teacher in Japanese and basically say I want to be challenged a bit. I should probably know my shit or hold my tongue, because being cocky might cause my grades to be based on higher level work instead of what the rest of the class is handing in.

However, if I don’t have that confidence, perhaps I could introduce myself to the teacher and say something like, “I’ve been trying to teach myself, but I’ve been having issues with remembering the difference between these characters. I’m sure we won’t be up to that point in the lesson, but I’d like to work on it so I don’t fall behind in class.”

If I can at least pass the N5, which is the lowest category for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, then I’ll be happy. I’ll certainly try for the other exams, N4 all the way to N1, but the N5 will be evidence to me that something is getting through.

So with that, join me as I try to hear random brushstrokes. Yeah, it feels like that.

No offense to native Japanese speakers, because you probably had the same reaction to reading English words when you first learned them, so I think we can agree upon something, that English is hard.


One thought on “I Think I’m Learning Japanese

  1. I myself was trying to learn Japanese for almost nine years. I’m not gonna say that I’ve memorized all hiragana and katakana, but I can already read them properly (provided it’s purely hiragana or katakana). With Kanji, I’ve just started learning them maybe 2 or 3 years ago, and all I can barely manage is memorizing numbers, a few words related to nature, and a few colors. It’s really a tough work, especially one Kanji have more than two pronunciations, depending on the usage!
    The best way to learn Japanese though is through watching Japanese shows, animes and listening to Japanese songs, rather than learning it from textbook. I have a few Japanese books, first was basic Japanese expressions, then a translation dictionary (with Kanji), a grammar book (basic sentence construction), and a dictionary of Kanji characters
    I tried learning grammar through book, but I preferred the sentence construction used in colloquial style portrayed in Japanese anime shows.
    But after all that hard work, I still can’t communicate properly in Japanese…
    And oh yeah! I remember downloading an app before for me practice hiragana and katakana. I think the app is called ‘kana’ where you practice the stroke of each character…

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