27 May 2013

SONO GAIJIN! #1 - Japan 101 from a white guy

 Well, let's make a start, shall we? I've made some stupid-ass blog posts, and some pretty interesting ones, if I do say so myself. Hopefully this will be of the latter.
Later on, I'd like to have banners and what not for each column (yes, I'm calling them columns despite me being the only one here), but for now, I'm lazy, so they don't exist.

 I'm going to talk briefly about learning Japanese as one of the whitest guys in the lecture theatre. Seriously, most of them are Asian. Whether that be Chinese, Korean or otherwise (obviously not Japanese, of course, unless they, for some reason, don't know a lick of their own language), there really aren't many of us whiteys.
Spell-check doesn't like "whities", by the way. But this isn't an English lesson (not that I'd call either of those real words, but when "LOL" and "ROFL" are in the dictionary, I guess it doesn't really matter).

Images by AikiWeb

 Ever studied Spanish? I did for two years. I was damn good at it too (WAS). Perhaps you studied French or Italian or maybe even German.
 What I'm trying to say is that compared to English, they're just as easy (although I will never forgive them for masculine and feminine prepositions, but that's beside the point).
 Japanese is a whole other beast. So is Chinese. And Korean. And every other Asian language. Hindi, Arabic, friggin' hieroglyphics. But I'm not Egyptian, so let's talk about Japanese instead.

 First of all, they don't have anywhere near as many sounds as we do. Everyone knows the classic joke of being an Asian by saying your "L"s as "R"s. Well, that comes from Japanese (not just Japanese, but mainly Japanese). They don't have the letter "L", so anything that would need it is substituted with an "R". Other examples are "V" (although technically you can now have a certain "V" sound in japanese), "C", "W" and "Q" (not the one from Star Trek).

 I won't go into great detail, but basically, instead of an alphabet, Japanese uses syllabaries - each letter is paired up with one of the five vowels (pronounced the same as in Spanish, but in a different order to the one we're used to - A I U E O). The syllabaries are collectively called "kana". There's "hiragana", which is for Japanese words etc., then there's "katakana", which is used when writing foreign loan words (not just English loan words, mind you) and onomatopoeic words.

 Then there is kanji, the borrowed Chinese characters. Each one means something. That is, it's a whole word. But it can usually represent multiple words, and can be pronounced (or 'read') in many different ways. Combining kanji can produce new words and change which readings you use when pronouncing them.

 For the most part, the Chinese students find this easy. They know the majority of the kanji, since the majority is the same as in Chinese. This means they can write kanji at stupid-fast speeds (faster than I can write English - although it helps that each character stands for a whole word). They just have to learn the Japanese readings, and that's that.

 So, as a white guy who grew up in New Zealand (I'll save my negative opinions on this country for a future post), learning to write Japanese takes a lot of time and practice. I know how to do it, but it's going to take me years to get good at it.

 Then there's the pronunciation of words. Sure, you're not going to have the perfect accent first time, but if you know English, you already know all the sounds you'll need for speaking Japanese (and then some). There are a couple of tricky ones, such as "fu", which ends up more like a "hu" sound, as if you were saying "white" and using the very British way of pronouncing the word i.e. pronouncing both the "w" and "h" in "white".
 Then there's the "r-series" - "ra", "ri", "ru", "re", "ro". Remember, Japanese has no "L". But its "R" is more of an in-between sound, as if "L" and "R" were chucked into a blender. It's fairly easy to learn how to pronounce it, but it's hard to master.

 So now that I've lectured you on Japanese 101 and you may as well just have come to a lecture instead...

 Let me finish up by talking about sentence structure.

 Okay, here's a real easy joke that everyone makes: Japanese is spoken the way Yoda (from Star Wars) speaks. Hilarious. Except for the part that it's true.
 Unbelievable, possibly, but it is, indeed, the truth. It's not going to be identical to Yoda-speak, but it's the same idea. The word at the beginning of the sentence will be your topic, then everything else is backwards, so once you've read a sentence, you need to read it backwards to translate it, or if you're writing, you need to write it in the opposite order that an English sentence would be written in. Sounds confusing? That's because it is.

Let me give a basic example:

私のペンは机の上です。(watashi no pen wa tsukue no ue desu.)

 The exact translation would be "my pen desk on is". Well, pretty much. Sometimes Japanese can be hard to directly translate. But that'd be a literal translation.
 Obviously what it actually means is "my pen is on [my] desk". Why is "my" in brackets? Well, it's simple. I never said it was my desk, but in Japanese, a lot is implied. So if I'm sitting at a desk in my bedroom, talking about my pen being on it, the assumption would be made that it is my desk. Or you could put "the" in place of "my". It doesn't really matter. If you want to be specific about it being my desk, you can, but it's not usually necessary.

 There you go. You've learnt a little (or maybe a lot - I just wrote a novel, by the looks of things), and I've remembered stuff I didn't even know I knew (which isn't true, but hey, it's hard being this smart. Yeah, the Chinese students are still better at everything than me...), which means we're done here.

 That also means I'm going to watch a Japanese TV show, then head to bed, and come back later in the week with some more stuff to talk about. And hopefully some pictures to break up the wall of text next time.

お休みなさい (oyasuminasai - goodnight)

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