The Japanese language and me
Many Westerners think the Japanese language is difficult to learn. Chinese, too. Not only is it a different language but a different writing system and grammar structure as well. There’s a lot more to learn than just memorizing vocabulary, and trying to make sentences by literally translating vocabulary in your mother tongue’s familiar sequence is apt to produce gibberish.
I’ve picked it up as a matter of necessity, first learning useful expressions for everyday life (including work), then expanding as I needed. The matter of need is important because even now I find that if I don’t use a word - I mean, have a need to use it - then I am not likely to remember it. I am constantly learning new words and forgetting old ones in measure with my need to use them. (I keep a small pocket notebook of new words and I add to it frequently.) This is true in reverse as well, in English education, so over the years I have tailored my classroom speech and my supplementary print vocabulary around my ideas of the students’ needs, and my ideas of the best ways to build vocabulary for memory. I categorize vocabulary (Interrogative Pronouns, Greetings, Self-Introduction, Days, Months, Family, Body, Health, Sports, Hobbies, Food, Colors, Shapes, Home, Money, Shopping, Numbers and Counting, Transportation, Directions, School, Jobs, Countries and Nationalities, Everyday Activities, Irregular Plural Nouns, etc.) like rooms in an imaginary mansion, where memories can be stored and enable a student to remember a sting of hundreds of words. My goal is to enable people to use English meaningfully with a few dozen well-chosen verbs (past, present and present perfect tenses), some pleasantries, and a sense of word order.
I follow the same pattern, year after year with growing students, like a spiral returning in on itself but with broader arcs that encompass more vocabulary and more sophisticated grammar each year. Students sometimes say, “We studied this.” Ah, yes, but you didn’t study it like this, with this many new words, and this many new applications!
I have also modified my speech to fit their ears. I speak slowly, use simplified vocabulary, and I repeat myself in such a way that to a native English speaker it might almost sound as if I have a speech impediment. I don’t. The way I speak is calculated and purposefully. But, as I’ve said before, when I am visiting Canada many people think I’m a tourist. They ask me, “Where are you from?”, and “What part of the States are you from?” I tell them I’m not from any part of it, thank God. (I don’t say that last bit out loud. That’s just how I feel inside.)
When I am trying to learn and use Japanese I organize my approach in a similar manner to how I present English to students. I learn categories of words, new verbs, etc., as I need to know them. The need results in usage which results in retention. It inevitably happens that I live my daily life on a plateau of language. It feels like I’m stagnant and not learning. Then eventually I have a boost to a new, higher plateau. (It took me 20 years of hearing the word for basement - “chika” - before I finally understood what I was hearing.)
Japanese represents a challenge to many foreigners because it used a very different writing system, derived from Chinese. The language is not derived from Chinese - meaning there is no “genetic” link - only the writing system has been adopted and adapted, making extensive use of Chinese “kanji” characters - thousands of them. And, it is not an alphabetic language, with one letter, or character, representing one sound. Instead, Japanese is a syllabary. Each character represents a sound ending in a vowel. These sounds are represented by a “kana” syllabary consisting of 50 “hiragana” - used for native Japanese - and 50 more “katakana” (representing the exact same syllabary) used for foreign words. The hiragana are more rounded in appearance than the katakana, maybe somewhat similar to how English lower case/small letters are more rounded than upper case/capital letters.
Latin script, called “romaji,” is used in a limited fashion, such as for imported acronyms, and the numeral system uses mostly Arabic numerals alongside traditional Chinese numberals.
Japanese has very little emphasis on its syllables. American English has lots of emphasis, and there are a great number of typically American mis-pronunciations of Japanese names and other words. Japanese pronunciation is very flat, with almost all syllables emphasized equally. I have measurably better Japanese pronunciation than most of my British friends (British people are terrible speakers of foreign languages), because my pronunciation is much flatter. Maybe that’s because my native Canadian accent is naturally much flatter than a typical U.K. English accent, or maybe it’s because I’ve meticulously trained myself t pronounce words as closely as I can to native Japanese.
Verbs are conjugated, primarily for tense and voice, but not person. Japanese adjectives are also conjugated. Japanese has a complex system of honorifics with verb forms and vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned. Japanese features gender specific language. Women typically use “onakotoba” - women’s language, which tends to be politer than male speech. But I noticed long ago that when high school girls think they are alone they tend to use male vocabulary amongst themselves. When teachers or other adults are nearby they revert to more feminine speech. They relax their guard near me because they don’t know that I can understand what they’re saying. Or, they underestimate the extent to which I can understand them. Being underestimated has its advantages.
In school students study Old Japanese (“koten”) and also Modern Japanese (“nihongo”). Modern Japanese is considered to begin with the Edo Period, which lasted between 1603 and 1868. Historically, the Kansai dialect of Osaka constituted standard Old Japanese was the de facto standard Japanese nationwide. However, during the Edo period, Edo (now Tokyo) developed into the largest city in Japan, and the Edo-area dialect became standard Japanese. Since the end of Japan's self-imposed isolation in 1853, the flow of loanwords (“gairaigo”) from European languages increased significantly. The period since 1945 has seen a large number of words borrowed from other languages—such as German, Portuguese and English. Many English loan words especially relate to technology—for example, pasokon (short for "personal computer"), intānetto ("internet"), and kamera ("camera"). The large quantity of English loanwords in modern Japanese has led to the development of some distinct sounds - “sh,” “ch, “ji” - found only in loanwords, and nowhere else in the language.
Finally, although there are several distinct dialects in Japan, modern Japanese has become prevalent nationwide (including the Ryūkyū islands in the far south) due to education, mass media, and an increase of mobility within Japan, as well as economic integration.