I am sitting here at my table (as always), staring at the sandwich I just made wondering if the bread has really gone stale or not. The date of expiration states 11th and I will be eating it for lunch tomorrow – Feb 14th- when I go skiing again for the second time; it started snowing again and I need to make the most of this cold weather. This is ironically, the sunny side of winter.. winter sports that is. Anyway the point of today’s post is Japanese. I have been in Japan for exactly 4 and a half months, and have been studying Japanese for exactly that long. Next week, I have final exams before heading on a month’s break, spring break as it were. I currently have no plans beyond a vague idea of seeing the cities Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe but ideas are welcome.
I don’t need to learn Japanese beyond the basics actually, my research will be entirely in English. But I want to pick up a fourth language, almost everyone in Kenya speaks at least 3 languages so of course I want to be unique; and when I get time I will hopefully pick up a 5th one, French for when I have to order wine at an expensive restaurant (red/white/sweet/dry, who uses those anymore?! ;-)) I think 5 will be my limit though!
While the normal stages of learning things of interest for me have been 1)excitement 2) some understanding 3)comprehension/plateau and 4)competence, with Japanese the stages have been 1) Frustration 2) Excitement 3) Frustration 4)Some Understanding 5) Excitement 6) More Understanding 7)Some Depression… in short, it is an up and down graph. After learning and understanding something, I get excited then I quickly realize how much more I don’t understand and the frustration/depression has me plummeting again.
1. Let’s start with Frustration
My first lesson in Japanese was actually in Japan. The first lesson in class was introducing ourselves. Which was easy to speak, but I couldn’t write or read; I could not read hiragana or katakana. I finally mastered hiragana after about two weeks (sure it might seem slow but we had to learn on our own as the pace of the classes assumed hiragana/katakana competence). So naturally I now entered the second stage, excitement!
2. Reading kana led to Excitement
Suddenly I could read the words in the textbook . We used Dekiru Nihongo which has no Romaji or English explanations. I could finally tell people which country I come from, which are my hobbies, when is my birthday, ask how much something is etc, and I could write these in kana! The textbook has hiragana readings above very Kanji character but of course in everyday interaction hardly any Kanjis are going to be having hiragana readings on top.
3. Leading to Frustration Again
Sure, we could now tell you what time, day, month and year it is, we could say what we do on weekends, what will did and what we will do. Now that the introduction was out of the way, it was time to learn Kanji and when we started a once a week separate Kanji class, you start to realize that one character can be read in several different ways, depending on whether it is a word on its own or it is being combined with another character to form a new word. It can also be a component of a bigger Kanji. Then you realize there are more than 10,000 Kanji (my Chinese friend told me that is why all Chinese people wear glasses, the strain they go through as kids trying to master all the Kanji.. and now that I think about it all the Chinese people I have encountered here in Japan do wear glasses hmmm..). However, we started simple, and we learned that in Japan the newspapers use about 3,000 Kanjis and the weekly characters we learned corresponded with our grammar & vocabulary classes, making it easier to remember them.
4. Thus we Finally Had Some Understanding of Japanese
By the third month, we could speak simple sentences about every day things. We could write down our schedule, waking up, walking to school, studying Japanese, doing homework in the library, having dinner at a restaurant, ordering, past tense, present continuous etc.. We could even read some Kanjis!
5. Excitement: I can Read Kanji
It was then the third month into the course, and we could even read and write some Kanji. It finally stopped being incomprehensible sticks that don’t make sense; it was still sticks but we could make out shapes and get a sense of what they were trying to communicate. In a paragraph, it was possible to find one or two words that we could read and understand the meaning! Such as 日本語(Japanese), 日本(Japan), 酒(alcohol, yes I know my priorities ;)) and days of the week 日、月、火、水、木、金、土「曜日」
6. More Understanding
The lessons started to get more interesting. We learned more ways to say something, when to use one way and not another. When to say something must be done, something should be done, it is not necessary to do something, and other nuances; learned to offer opinion, how to ask for help (even when you don’t exactly understand any answer you would be given in the real world), how to pick out important information in a poster for an event using the few Kanjis we knew (when, where, what time), learned to give directions, explain symptoms to a doctor, parts of the body, etc.
Four months in and we could speak, read, write and hear basic Japanese. However in the real world, language is so much more than the basic need to pass information about where you are coming from, what you are going to eat, what your plans for the weekend are, and what part of your body hurts. Language is also about bonding, creating bonds of friendship by revealing your thoughts and opinions to your friends.
After understanding this, you start to realize just how little Japanese you know hence..
7. Just a little depression
Sure you can read maybe 300/3,000 Kanjis (I may be exaggerating to make myself feel better) and can speak many more Japanese words; you cannot get lost in Japan and can even have a decent conversation with someone you just met for the first or second time. But the third time you meet that person you need more than that. You can ask someone something, but you can’t quite understand their response. You know just how much you don’t know! Which is about 20%. You need a break, spring break! Then come back for the 80% which will be definitely much easier to learn since now you know what to expect. Or more difficult to learn since the level of complexity is increasing. Either way, challenge accepted!