I’ve had a request to write a bit more about college and how the Japanese is going. Dad’s right – I never mention it. Well… I have to say it’s harder that I thought it would be! It’s been so long since I learnt a language, and that was done over such an extended period of time that I really had no idea how difficult making sense of Japanese would be. Turns out the answer is “very”.

The course is a conversational one and consists both of speaking and writing. Japanese has three alphabets, two of which are phoenetic – each character represents a sound made up of either one vowel or a consonant and a vowel. The vowels are the same as ours, but are in a different order – something which is very important as it is the basis of alphabetical lists like dictionaries. Learning that it’s A, I, U, E, O as opposed to A, E, I, O, U took a hell of a lot of getting used to! The vowels are K, S, T, N, M, H, Y, W and N, and there are modifiers to create G, Z, J, D and P sounds.

Hiragana can be used to write anything (except what katakana is used for) and is learnt by children (and beginner Japanese students) until they have learnt kanji, which replaces some of the hiragana (although not necessarily whole words). Katakana is used less frequently although is no less important. It is used to write foreign words, mainly English, that have been adopted by the language. For example: pantsu, eisu kurimu, takushi, biiru etc. It also also used for company names and onomatopoeia.

Then there is kanji, which are the complex characters you probably imagine of when you think of what Japanese looks like. This is used for pretty much anything, and confusingly the same kanji in different situations can have different meanings. Luckily we don’t have to learn any yet, but frankly reading is impossible without it so I plan to buy a book to work through when I am using my JR pass in December (not least because I will have a lot of travelling time to kill).

I now know both the hiragana and katakana alphabets, and can read things written in them, albeit very slowly. It’s a bit like when you first learn to read and first pronounce the word phonetically, then for a second time when you recognise what it is. Frequently, however, I don’t recognise it at all since my vocab isn’t that good yet. I only got 76% in my katakana test at school (versus the 80% I got for hiragana). I was hoping to do better but in the listening and writing section I got stung by the spelling, which is quite hard (much like ours I guess, with things like “their”, “there” and “they’re”).

The “conversational” element of the course focuses more on phrases and so on, rather than teaching you grammar patterns and letting you figure out for yourself how to construct sentences. This is good in many ways but does make it harder if, for whatever reason, you want to say something a bit more complicated. We normally get taught a bunch of vocab and then run through basic sentences by repeating them a few times together. Then we pair off and practise them with eachother. Sometimes we get given sheets to fill in (using the kana) which get marked Occasionally we get to do fun stuff like draw pictures!

So far we have covered roughly the following topics:

  • basic introductions
  • this, that, this one, that one (different words are used depending on how close something is to the speaker and the listener)
  • possession
  • location of things (where is the…, it’s on, under, next to the… etc.)
  • time and dates
  • counting systems (see below)
  • shopping
  • mealtimes, likes and dislikes
  • adjectives and verbs in their past, present and future tenses
  • very, a bit, so-so, not very etc.
  • giving/receiving, lending/borrowing, teaching/learning
  • why/because
  • family members
  • have/have not (is there/is there not)

Doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s left us with more than enough to contend with! The classes involve a fair bit of repetition from one day to the next, something which is fantastic and frustrating in equal measures. It’s particularly good for a couple of the boys, who are beyond useless. The class will frequently start with us all being asked what we did the day before – where we went, who with, how we got there etc. and there is always at least one person who, despite ten other people having answered the same question minutes beforehand, just cannot figure out what the hell is going on. Quite frustrating for those of us who actually put some effort into their studies!

I’m getting to the point where I feel comfortable saying basic things to my host family and to dojo mates. In fact at Shorinji they have started to abandon the English and use mainly Japanese. It’s going to take consistent effort on my part though to continue to make progress, though, especially as I want to take the first JLPT test in the first half of next year. In the UK it only has a 51% pass rate, even at the easiest level!

Also, one of the cool things about Japanese is that the way the language is constructed actually reveals a lot about their culture. For example, the subject is usually at the end of the sentence, conveying the fact that the individual is not the most important thing in life either. And the kanji are often pictures of what they represent, which is really interesting, especially when you look into the Chinese characters from which they were derived.

Anyhow, learning something new, especially something in which you can really get a good feel of your progress, is very rewarding and beats sitting in an office doing the same old crap day in day out ;)

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