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Mission impossible – learning Japanese

Becoming fluent in a foreign language is similar to becoming adroit in any field of study worth knowing: difficult, time-consuming and often grueling. The Japanese language, which many believe to be incomprehensible, is indeed something worth learning.

But after three years of studying the Japanese language and only a few months surrounded on all sides by a Japanese world, I can agree with the mass of Americans when I say that Japanese is impossible.

The characters of the language, which comprise the primary difference between English and Japanese, actually came to Japan as an import from China. Kanji, what we would call Chinese characters, are used extensively in Japanese. Although every Japanese word coincides with one of these Chinese characters, the two languages are completely different.

The kanji were long ago translated into and are used in conjunction with two other sets of characters. Hiragana and katakana, as they are respectively called, are 46-character syllabaries (syllable alphabets) created from obsolete Chinese characters. The difference between kanji and the two syllabaries is that kanji is complex pictographs that represent words and ideas, while hiragana and katakana represent syllable sounds only. So, while the kanji for the word ‘country’ represents the same idea in Japan and China, the Japanese have a different spoken word and another set of symbols to spell out the word; the Chinese language only has the symbol.

These syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, are much easier to write, recognize and master than their kanji counterparts. Hiragana is the standard syllabary used in everyday writing while katakana is used for emphasized and special words on billboards, store signs, menus and advertisements or for sounding out foreign words. To say that knowing these syllabaries before coming to Japan is valuable would really be an understatement.

I’ve been in Japan long enough to find another vital use for these characters, which has nothing to do with the Japanese language or the study of it. It is, strangely enough, communicating in English. The Japanese know, use and write thousands of English words in these syllabaries and if you can’t read or pronounce English words in the Japanese manner, you’re practically speaking Swahili.

For example, kohi is coffee, pureto is plate, biru is beer, arerugi is allergy, and esukareta is, you guessed it, escalator. Translating an English word into the sounds of hiragana can seem pretty ridiculous at times, but the idea that the Japanese are using so many English words on a daily basis is a remarkable thing, and very helpful as well.

It is impossible to make fun of the Japanese for this when we Americans do the same thing. We use Japanese words with just as much mispronunciation. For instance, karaoke is not pronounced ke-ree-oh-kee, but ka-ra-oh-keh, just as it is spelled.

We even pronounce Japan’s most famous alcohol wrong. Sake is pronounced sa-keh, not sah-kee. These may be minor mistakes on our part, but with this being the case, it is easy to see how the Japanese can pronounce yogurt as yo-gu-ru-toh. That’s just the way it is.

Since the language of the Japanese is based on a limited set of syllables, their ability to vocalize certain sounds is also limited, making foreign words extremely difficult. As an English teacher in Japan, you quickly become a practicing speech pathologist. I’m wondering if Hooked on Phonics ships to the Far East.

The complex kanji and their miniature pen strokes are a source of anguish for many foreigners trying to learn Japanese, and I can’t say that I have fully caught on either. But once you learn enough, kanji becomes interesting and even hilarious at times. The symbol for rest (yasumi) is a person under a tree. The symbol for parent (oya) is a person standing on a treetop and watching. A few personal favorites of mine: egg (tamago) can be written out in the kanji meaning ‘child ball,’ the word for wife (kanai) used to be written with the kanji meaning ‘inside house’ (I kid you not) and, lastly, bathroom is written with the kanji for ‘hand wash.’ In Japan, as in America, it would be best if people took this last one as an instruction and not a slight suggestion.

Struggling to understand the people and situations happening around you is the essence of what it is to live abroad. Some people embrace it and others count the days until they fly back home. I have no regrets, but then again, I don’t have some incomprehensible kanji tattooed on my bicep. What I have learned is that when you learn to define words in another language, you can better define yourself in your own. That, itself, is invaluable.