When I found out I was moving to Japan, I was a little nervous about the language. In fact, even when I found out moving to Japan was an option, I was nervous about the language. People like to tell you that it’s not necessary. They like to tell you that everyone in Tokyo speaks English. People lie!
Okay, not really. The truth is, you don’t have to speak Japanese, but not speaking it definitely limits you. Which, if you’re a tourist, is just fine. Big deal if you can’t try 25 new restaurants or figure out whether you’re buying shampoo or condition. And so what if you have to use a little creative sign-language over the course of the week or so you’re here.
Well, I am not here a week. And I’m not the type to be okay not understanding or being understood. Not only that, but I love languages and I love reading and the thought of not being able to have some clue of what the words all around me are saying on subways, on menus, on street signs, on billboards, etc, etc, was not a happy one. And so, even before I knew I was moving here, I started to look into learning Japanese. To say it was overwhelming would be a complete understatement!
So, here’s your 60 second lesson in Japanese. There are two syllabaries (like the roman alphabet, only much longer), hiragana and katakana. Together these are called kana. The two syllabaries cover the same exact syllables, only one is used for Japanese words (hiragana) and the other is used for foreign words (katakana): words like “cleaning”, only when written in katakana it’s “kuriningu”. It’s pretty fantastic.
And then there are the kanji: Chinese characters adopted by the Japanese. There are over 6,000 kanji characters. School children are expected to know 1,006 (the basics) by the sixth grade. End lesson.
Can you imagine? Yeah. Me neither. But I’m trying. Really hard.
|Friday night flash cards and pizza…|
I am proud to say that I have both syllabaries memorized now and I’ve begun the basic kanji. While I don’t know how many I’ll be able to memorize, even having some sort of sense of what they mean is proving extremely helpful. What’s more challenging, though, is that there isn’t just one pronunciation or use for each kanji. Depending on how one kanji is being used, it’s pronunciation will change. I know, pretty awesome, right? Especially when you’re trying to learn it as a 30-something and when there are really no words (at least not full Japanese words) that have a latin or germanic base.
It is challenging. So, I use apps on my iPhone, flash cards, books, and then my semi-weekly Japanese lessons. And then I try to speak it whenever I can.
With all of that, it seems to be coming along. Slowly. Very slowly. The problem is I don’t have to speak it. I just want to. But because I’m not forced to, it requires a lot of self-discipline and it is EXHAUSTING. It is paying off, though. Yesterday, I was able to describe my family and my new bike to my Japanese teacher and then she sent me an email written in kana and I could read AND understand the entire thing. And that felt AMAZING! Maybe if I stay here long enough, I’ll actually start to get it. Wouldn’t that be exciting?!
Kind of awesome that I can read that, right? And I love that my teacher is so impressed! (I’m so praise driven, it’s kind of sick.) Now, if only I could speak as well as I’m reading…then we’d really be getting somewhere. (Did I mention patience is not a virtue I possess?)