Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Japanese Language

When I moved here two years ago, my goal was to become fluent in Japanese. Looking back, this had to be one of the silliest assumptions I made about this move. The Japanese language is extremely hard to learn. Even with all the books I have been using in my lessons the past two years, I barely know enough to adequately get by.

Reading & Writing
Japanese is written in a combination of three different ways –– kanji (Chinese characters), hiragana (native Japanese words) and katakana (non-Japanese words). If you are reading a sentence written in Japanese it will usually contain a combination of all three. There are 50,000 kanji in total, but it is said only 1,945 are needed for even a Japanese native. There are 48 hiragana characters and 48 katakana characters. Each character makes its own sound and a combination of characters are needed to
make a word.

Here are some examples:
 海  Sea in kanji
さとう  Sugar in hiragana
アレキス Alexis in katakana

A sentence using all three:
私はアメリカ人です。I am American.

For those who are unable to read Japanese there is romaji, which uses the regular alphabet to write out the Japanese word. However, this is really only used for some signs and by the foreigners.

An example of this would be: Doko ni sun de imasu ka? (Where do you live?)

After 2 years I can read both hiragana and katakana and have learned 160 kanji. However, even with all that knowledge, I am unable to read most things. Putting everything together is very hard and even if you can read the word, many times you still have no clue what that word actually means.

Writing in Japanese is based on brush stroke. There is a certain way and order to write each character. Needless to say, I am unable to write anything with the proper brush strokes and really, all I can consistently write is my name. アレキス  Alexis ジェイコブ Jacobs.

There are 5 vowels –– a, i, u, e, o –– which sound like aaah, ee, ooo, eh, oh.  Then there are the basic constants –– k, s, t, n, h, m y, r, w and a "final" n. All consonants, apart from a final n, are followed followed by a vowel.  For example, for the constant k, you will have ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. You can also change the constant to make a make the b, d, j, p, z, and g sounds.  Unlike English, which is very syllable based, Japanese is pitch based.

The structure of a Japanese sentence is opposite from those who are native English speakers. The order is subject - object - verb, however the order may sometimes change as long as the verb comes last. Nouns have no gender or numerical value, so typically a "counter" is needed when speaking of more than one of an item.  And there is a different way to count everything -- people, flat objects, long cylinder objects, regular items, etc.

Some people say verbs are some of the most important words to learn in the Japanese language. There are far more verbs in Japanese than in English, as verbs many times reflect emotion and conditions. There are two tenses for verbs (past and present) and they are conjugated in different ways to change the state. There is no word for "not" in the Japanese language so verbs must be changed to reflect "not" doing something. This is easy when it comes to -masu verbs, but when it comes to other forms it is much, much harder.

There are three types of adjectives -- "na", "i" and true adjectives, such as that and this. Adjectives are placed and used differently than in English. And of course, they are also conjugated in their own way.  (Are you seeing a pattern here)

There are often two ways to say something. Who you are speaking to will also change what you may say. There are polite ways and conversational ways to say things. And the biggest thing -- typically the Japanese do not like to use or say the word "no".  Different regions will also have their own way to say things and their own dialects. My teacher says there are several differences in how things are said in the Tokyo region versus the Kansai region, where I live.

I can understand things much better than I can speak. It is hard for me to remember the sentence structure and how to properly conjugate what I am trying to say.  After two years, I can play a mean game of charades.  I think it may be even better than my English these days.

Confused yet?  I think I confused myself trying to write this! It is hard to put into words just how challenging the language really is to learn. However, even with those challenges, I have enjoyed my lessons and learning how to communicate. Japanese is actually a very beautiful language. I won't ever be fluent, or even close, but maybe (and we are talking a BIG maybe) when I leave I will be able to give my sayonara speech in Japanese.


Heather said...

The multiple writing systems is definitely one thing that has kept Japanese off my language learning list. Big props to you for what you have learned, and I hope you get to the point where you can give that sayonara speech.

Hanta said...

Japanese is impossible... I've kind of given up myself. Good luck with it!