Introduction to Japanese

November 22, 2011 by totalityservices

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I know that China’s economy is booming and that it’s going to be the next economic giant, perhaps one day it will rule the world, so learning Chinese should be the option to choose if looking for an Asian language to learn. In fact, I would recommend that you do take up Chinese as there is a significant lack of native English translators for translations from both Simplified and Traditional Chinese script. If you can grapple with the many tones in Mandarin or Cantonese then you are well on the way to being a sought after interpreter. However, I didn’t choose Chinese when I was pondering the delights of Asian languages and instead opted for Japanese.

For me Japan was a symbol of tranquility, grace and a fascinating culture and I thought its language could only encapsulate that image.  It was a good guess. Japanese is as complex and multi-layered as the country itself and the society, culture and people within. Even after many years of study and a stint living in Kyoto I have yet to be able to fully get to grips with this interesting tongue.

Japanese has 3 scripts- Hiragana, a syllabic script usually containing grammatical information (and which you’ll learn first in order to pronounce words) e.g. かきくけこ, Katakana another syllabic script used for writing foreign words e.g.サンドイチ (sandwich), and Kanji the script derived from Chinese characters e.g. 家(house) or友達 (friend).  Traditionally Japanese reads from top to bottom in a vertical line and from right to left, though nowadays a lot of books read horizontally from left to right.

The obstacles for a Westerner learning Japanese are immediately obvious in the fact that none of the symbols are recognisable. Each of the 3 ‘codes’ must be cracked before you can even start trying to learn something. Romaji – the romanization of Japanese syllables is often used in the early stages of learning. There are many Kanji, you would probably need about 3,000 under your belt to be able to read a newspaper, or, in fact, to make sense of the signs and written communications in the world around you. Living and studying Kanji outside of Japan involves a continuous battle to retain the Kanji you know, and most of all to remember how to write them.

It’s astonishing how quickly I have lost my writing skills, and I have to look up even the most basic of Kanji to remember the strokes.  I just need to remember the advice one teacher gave me: learning Kanji is like walking down a path in a field full of new high grass, the more often you go over the same path the more ingrained and worn it will become!


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