Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Brief Introduction to Learning Japanese

Studying a foreign language can be tough. It involves building up a new lexicon, internalizing new grammar, and trying to understand another culture at the same time. Japanese can seem daunting at times. For one, there are three different writing systems to tackle; hiragana, katakana, and kanji. (Four if you count Romanization). Then there are the grammar structures, which are different from what you're used to if you speak English. In addition to getting verbal communication down, learners of Japanese must learn cultural expectations, assumptions and non-verbal communication, in order to communicate effectively with native Japanese speakers. Put it all together, and Japanese language learners have their work cut out for them.

For this post, I have decided to write down my insights on learning the language, hoping to aid readers who have decided to tackle learning Japanese.

First, keep things in perspective
Rome was not built in a day. Realize that you’re not going to become a fluent speaker overnight. There will be setbacks, but they don’t necessarily have to bog you down. It can be discouraging at the beginning, but when you get down to the basics, it’s all about honing your grammar skills and building your vocabulary. Don’t compare yourself to others. People learn differently, and at different rates, so don’t beat yourself up because you’re not progressing as fast as others. Learn at a speed that is comfortable for you.

Natural Language Acquisition
Think about how humans learn to speak a language. When a child is born, it is not born with the ability to speak. Learning to speak is a long, drawn-out process.When a parent begins to teach a child to talk, he or she does not begin by whipping out alphabet charts, books on grammar. A parent will not immediately teach a child to read or write. No.

For the first year or so, the child will not say anything comprehensible. A baby may babble and play with his or her mouth parts, it may even attempt to mimic mom or dad, but that child does not understand fully what's going on. "Baa baa baa... boo boo... goo goo..." a baby says; little by little, one by one, a child learns what sounds it is capable of making, and what sounds are necessary to communicate effectively.  For the first year of a child's life, the child will be mostly listening, paying attention to a parent's mouth, what sounds that parent makes. Finally after months of waiting, a child will say something an excited parent will be able to comprehend, usually something simple like "Papa" or "Mama." Some children learn faster than others, but eventually, children learn the meanings of words, what to say to mom or dad when it wants to eat, drink and what.

Even when a child begins to utter words, the child's grammar will not be perfect, if it is even there. A child may begin by just yelling simple words. With time, the child will begin to put words together, but still not create complete sentences. Parents will be constantly correcting the child's pronunciation, its grammar, and they will be teaching the child the norms of the culture along with the language. 

"Don't say that, it's a bad word."

"OK, but you must say 'please.'"

"What do you say when someone gives you something?"

Eventually the child begins to learn to form its own opinion and to express it.

When do we start teaching children to recognize letters? To read and write? To read and write sentences? Paragraphs? Using proper grammar? Voice, etc.? Some parents begin earlier, but generally, children don't learn to read and write until much later. In Japan, most children don't see their first kana until their last year of kindergarten, and their first kanji until the first grade.

So what does this all mean?

It means that when you start learning the language, you're probably going to do a lot of listening first. You're going to have to get used to getting your mouth to move differently to create different sounds. Even when you finally start trying to talk, it's not going to be perfect, and you are going to make mistakes. So many mistakes! You're going to have to go through a lot of corrections before you start saying anything that makes sense to a native speaker. If there is anything to take away from this post, it's that you're going to have to be brave and willing to make mistakes, but don't be discouraged; keep in mind that this is how humans learn to speak a language naturally. Making mistakes is all part of the learning process.

Schools will get you started on reading, writing and grammar, and that's OK if you want to pass a test, but what's actually going to help you is to surround yourself with the target language. Listen to how native speakers use the language, pronounce the words. Watch how they act, what gestures they do when they say certain words or sentences. Look at their mouths and how they shape them. Listen to the sounds and try to match them exactly. With time, you will begin to form sentences, forming your own opinion and expressing yourself.

The Japanese have a proverb for times like these:
Transliterated, it is said "Nana korobi, ya oki." It means "Fall seven times, get up eight."

An equivalent proverb in English is "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

The Daruma doll is a symbol of perseverance.
They say that a Daruma doll will always stand
right-side-up no matter how you try to tilt it.

Osaka Joe's Journey
When I was a child, I used to watch English and Spanish channels on TV. At one point I lived in Calexico, CA, very close to the border, where TVs can tune in to Mexican television. I remember one of my favorite TV shows on the Spanish channel was a show called "Bell y Sebastian."

I remember thinking it was strange that, although I could understand the dialogue in the cartoon itself, I couldn't understand the opening song, or the song at the end-credits. The writing on the screen was also... not English... nor Spanish. It looked like Chinese.

I remember thinking to myself, "The song sounds like I should be able to understand it, yet I don't. I definitely don't understand the writing. Do my parents understand it?" I actually thought my parents understood it all, because when the show came on, they merely looked on with me, looking nonchalantly as if they understood every word.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was watching my very first Japanese anime. Was it fate?

Now, 30 years later, I've come to find out the name of the anime was actually "Meiken Jori" (名犬ジョリィ) in Japanese. I've managed to find the songs on YouTube, and playing them takes me back to my childhood when I was first exposed to Japanese. You can see the YouTube with the opening and credit songs for "Meiken Jori" below.

I would be further exposed to Asian culture thereafter through going to Chinese restaurants, and through the efforts of several of my elementary school teachers. Living next to Mexicali, a Mexican city just south of Calexico, my father would often take us to eat Chinese food there, and I was exposed to the Chinese characters found in on billboards and neon signs. My father told me that there was a large population of Chinese immigrants there. I remember in elementary school, my 2nd grade summer school teacher showed us a film on the Chinese character for "horse." It was then I learned that Chinese characters each had their own special meaning, and I was enthralled.

Japanese culture was always around me in some form or another. At the grocery store where my mother did all her shopping, there were game cabinets, and when somebody was playing, you could hear the music and any speech all the way to the registers, where people were lining up to pay for their groceries. I was in elementary school, and the game of the day was Street Fighter II. You could hear the faux Japanese music from E. Honda's stage, as well as Ryu and Ken's "Hadouken!" Occasionally what sounded like "Tap-pap-pap-chow-ka!" (I now know they were saying "TATsu-MAKi-SEN-PUU-KYAKu!" (竜巻旋風脚!)

"Hadouken!" (It's actually said "ha-doh-ken," not "ha-doo-ken," BTW.)

It wasn't until I started playing a game called "Samurai Shodown," however, when I really started wanting to get into Japanese language and culture. The Japanese voice-over in the game sounded so tough and exotic, and the traditional Japanese music and kanji everywhere made the game all that more charming.

But playing games with Japanese language and culture, wasn't enough; I was hooked and I wanted more. I wanted to understand what was being said, why Chinese characters were used in Japanese,
and what being lost in translation, what hidden from view that is immediately obvious to Japanese people. So when I heard my high school offered Japanese, it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. I was already a native Spanish speaker, and I had no interest in French or German. I felt that out of all the foreign languages offered, Japanese was somehow calling to me.

I studied Japanese in high school for two years, and I continued to study it through college. I decided to make Japanese Language and Culture my major. I decided to study for a year abroad, and I must say, it was probably the most life-changing experience of my life. I made connections that I continue to have to this day, and it's one of the major reasons I am where I am today.

When I first arrived in Japan as an exchange student, I didn't know what to expect. Having had four years of Japanese study under my belt, I thought I had something go on, but I quickly found out that just because one studies a language on paper for four years does not in any way mean that one will be able to speak the language fluently; it's one thing to study a language on paper, it's quite another to learn to speak it and use it every day. It must have been three or four months before I actually mustered the confidence to start voicing my opinions in Japanese in full, understandable sentences. Before that I just uttered words and broken sentences.

I remember the day I blurted out my first opinion in Japanese. I was in a car, and my host parents and host brother were going to take me to a spot they wanted to show me in the countryside. I remember my host father commenting that a stop along the way had delicious chestnuts. I remember, without even thinking about it, saying "It'd be nice to try some..." (食べてまたらいいな。。。Tabete mitara ii na...) It was such a breakthrough that my host family even recognized the fact and gave me credit for it. They were like "Joe? Did you just say what we think you said?" I was like "Yeah. Did I say anything wrong?  And they were like "No! That was perfect. Do you realize you've just said a complete, correct Japanese sentence?" And I said, "I guess I did!"

Little by little, with my host parents' help, my Japanese improved. They were almost like real parents in the sense that, they would help correct my pronunciation, helped we with etiquette, and tell me if I needed to say something differently. It's been 17 years, but I still keep in contact with my host parents and visit them from time to time, but I will always look back on that day in the car, when I actually started wanting to be part of a conversation in Japanese.

Now, 17 years later, I'm living in Japan, and I'm *still* learning new things. I'm guessing that for me, it will be a constant battle. But that's me, and it's different for everyone. People learn at different paces; there are other people who I know who are much better at Japanese than I am, and they've achieved what they have in a shorter time period than I. A friend I know began learning Japanese when he got Japan, and he was fluent in under two years. (Kanji was a different matter though...)

Why do you want to study Japanese?
The answer might seem obvious, but this is a question I myself never really gave much thought to. I think it's important to do some soul-searching and decide why it is you're studying Japanese, and what you want to do with it, then you can set goals to aim for.

What is it you wish to gain from your studies? Do you wish to simply make polite conversations with people you meet? Do you wish to make Japanese friends? Do you wish to be able to read the signs? Manga? Books? Do you aim to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test at a certain level? Do you wish to live and work in Japan in the future? Or do you wish to work in international relations somehow?

Goals can be a great motivational tool; use short term goals and work up to the main one. Know what are your strengths and limitations, decide what it is you want to accomplish while you’re in Japan, and stick to it.

What is there to learning Japanese?
The Writting System
Quite possibly the most daunting thing about learning Japanese is understanding writing system. It's daunting, because there are actually 3. 4 if you count Romaji.

Kana (AKA, hiragana and katakana) represent the phonetic syllables that are used in Japanese, and are the most basic writing system used in Japanese. Japanese is rarely written in Romaji (Romanized Japanese), so I strongly advise readers to learn the kana and wean yourself from romaji as soon as possible. Each kana set has 46 syllabic characters each, so if you haven't already, it's time to get crackin'.

Kanji are complex characters that were imported from China. There are over 50,000 in existence, but don't worry; most of them are now defunct and exist purely for study purposes. The Japanese Ministry of Education officially assigns 1,945 general use kanji that students K-12 should learn, however there are still over 1,000 more kanji in general use today; the average Japanese person learns to use about 3,000.

Choose a number of kanji to learn that is appropriate to your goals and to your level of expertise. If you are a beginner, try to learn at least a hundred. As you become more advanced, you might want to set your goal at two or three hundred more. A good thing about the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT)  is that there is a set number of kanji characters assigned to each level. Instead of tackling all 1,945 general use kanji in one go, you can simply study the required kanji for your JLPT level.

A word on studying kanji; it may be tempting to learn each kanji one by one, separately, but this is not very useful. A kanji's meaning and nuance changes with each word it's found in, so instead of learning each kanji separately, I strongly advice you to learn a kanji, as well as several of the most common vocabulary words it's written in. You'll have to learn new vocabulary anyway, so learning kanji along with the vocabulary they're found in is hitting two birds with one stone.

Learn basic grammatical structure
Japanese uses grammatical sentence structures that are drastically different from English. In the simplest sentence structure, the subject, if at all mentioned, comes first, followed by an object, the grammatical direct-object marker, and a verb. This is quite different than what we are used to in English grammatical structure, where the verb is juxtaposed between the subject and the direct object, and there are no separate grammatical particles that are used to identify parts of speech. Learn how to phrase simple statements and questions, and gradually work your way up to more complex sentence structures.

Above all, focus on learning your grammatical markers and what they do. In Japanese, it is important that you learn how to mark your subjects, objects, indirect objects, prepositions etc. correctly. You'll find that, more than word order, it is important to correctly indicate what is what in a sentence.

Possible study methods
Self Study
It’s possible to use a textbook to study on your own. Most large bookstores carry a large selection of college textbooks, self-study books for beginners, as well as books that focus on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, if this is what your goal is. There are plenty of children’s books that focus on kana and elementary kanji, for those of you who are just starting out. If you are lucky enough to live near a Japanese community that has a book store, I'd recommend you go there and see what they have.

Take a class, or hire a tutor
Check out your local universities, and/or community colleges and see if they offer classes that are appropriate to your goals. Find a Japanese tutor, and/or make Japanese friends. Having someone explain things in depth can be a big help; you don't have to go it alone.

Practice, practice, practice
This is where living in Japan comes in. The best way to learn Japanese is to be surrounded by Japanese and Japanese culture. If you have access to it, watch some Japanese programming. (I hear NHK is available in the US.) Try making friends with Japanese students, texting them, and then using their responses as a source of study. Tape some study sheets onto the back of your bathroom door. Study any way you can. Don’t limit yourself to textbook Japanese! Look at magazines, newspapers, posters etc., and try to get a feel for how “real” Japanese sentences are structured; see what kanji and kanji compounds are commonly used.

Study Abroad
I can only speak for myself, but I must say that studying abroad in Japan for a year was one of the best experiences in my life, both for my Japanese language, and my enrichment as a person. There is no better way to study Japanese than to be constantly surrounded by the language, and to be living and breathing the culture. You'll see a whole new world and make lasting connections. It's been 17 years, and I still keep up with friends I made then, and I still visit my host family. If you are lucky enough to be given the opportunity to study abroad in Japan, please don't pass it up! 

How Not to Study Japanese
I strongly advise against using manga, anime and movies etc. as study material for Japanese. The Japanese used in those mediums is often esoteric and rarely has practical use outside of manga, anime, video games and such, so much that if you use them in real life, people might think you're a fucking moron. As an analogy, if you heard Japanese try to speak to you in English like Mickey Mouse or Goofy you'd want to punch them in the face. Manga, anime, etc. are definitely interesting, but learn to differentiate between the Japanese people actually use, and the Japanese intended for worlds that don't actually exist.

Get out there and talk
The most important thing you can do is TALK. Studying from a textbook will only get you so far; use the Japanese you’ve learned and internalize it. Get a language partner, make Japanese friends, or try chatting up a teacher at your school. Use Japanese while doing something you enjoy, i.e. martial arts, sports, church-going, bar-hopping, etc. This can be more productive than sitting down and having a forced conversation. Be ready and willing to make mistakes; no one is perfect and making verbal flubs is pretty much expected. Learn from them and move on. Ask questions whenever you don’t understand something. Your efforts will be admired and appreciated by the Japanese when you make an attempt to communicate with them in their own language.

Helpful Tools
Phone Apps
Imiwa? is your one-stop reference for Japanese vocabulary and kanji. In addition to looking up vocabulary, you can also look up individual kanji on their own. Everything is cross-referenced. Looking up a vocabulary word allows you to then look up each individual kanji used in that word. Looking up a kanji gives you example compounds it's used in. A vocabulary entry often gives example sentences, as well as definitions in other languages, such as Spanish, French and Portuguese. An entry for a kanji by itself also yields readings in other Asian languages, such as Chinese and Korean, not to mention rare Japanese readings used in names. And, as if this weren't enough, it's got study tools for each level of the JLPT. The app keeps a history of each kanji or vocabulary that you've search, and you can create lists of words to look up at a later date. And, best of all, it's free! You can check out their website here.
Kanji Box
Kanji Box is a wonderful study tool that allows you to study vocabulary and kanji based on the level of the JLPT that you're studying for. You can choose what level of the JLPT you're studying for, and the app will show you flashcards for kanji and vocabulary cards accordingly. This app cross-links to Imiwa, the phone app mentioned above, so if you need to, you can look up a word or kanji you see on Kanji Box on Imiwa by touching the link given. This program is mostly free, but some features you're asked to pay for. Well-worth it IMO. Their website can be accessed here.
This is a wonderful program if you want to practice your reading. Choose what you want to read about, and the program gives you the latest news on the topics you've chosen. While reading an article, you can touch a kanji compound, and the program will show you the definition in a pop-up window. The program saves a history of the words you look up, and you can bookmark words to save as a personal list that you can look at later on. This program too has a nice feature that sorts vocabulary words by JLPT level, so you can choose to study for any level of the JLPT. This program too is free. You can visit their website here.

In closing…
Learning Japanese is hard, but doable. How well you do will depend on how much time and effort you are willing to put into it.

This blog post is only the beginning; I plan to post more on Japanese language learning. I eat, drink, sleep and breathe kanji, so there will definitely be more.

Good luck, study hard, and have fun.