Saturday, January 29, 2011

日本語 (Japanese)

Japanese is considered to be one of the most challenging languages for a foreigner to master. I took a once a week Japanese class my last semester at college for zero credit. My Japanese teacher said that in order to become fluent in Japanese, one would have to live in Japan for seven to eight years.

That's seven to eight years.

And that is only assuming that you work at it and study regularly.  Since my time in Japan I have met foreigners who have lived here for numerous years and never really bothered to try to learn the language and they know next to nothing. Sure, you can “get away” with not knowing much Japanese, but man. It’s no cakewalk, I’m telling you. Especially when you live in the boondocks. You better know at least know your ひらがな、カタカナ、and at least a few 漢字. (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) It makes life considerably easier.

I didn’t really study too much Japanese when I first came to Japan. I knew a little bit. In reality, what I knew was akin to an imaginary tip of an imaginary iceberg. A speck of sand in an ocean of unfamiliarly “letters,” words, grammar…everything.  Fortunately, because of my brief Japanese class, I at least knew some basics. And I knew how to read ひらがな (hiragana), introduce myself, and also a handful of other useful phrases.  This has proved to be immensely useful.

When I started working at Saiei, my previous place of employment, I never studied. I wasn’t allowed to use any Japanese while I taught there. Everyone who worked there was fluent in English, so I was able to really slack off. A lot. And I did.

One of the reasons I was so eager to get a new job in the public schools was because I knew I would be forced into learning Japanese. And I was right. During my first week at my new job, my Japanese comprehension quadrupled. It was astounding.  I was truly immersed. There was no way to avoid learning now. Most of the teachers in my three elementary schools know an extremely modest amount of English. Some know practically none. It makes life intensely interesting.

One of the best things about my new job is that I have time to study Japanese during the periods I am not teaching. My Japanese co-workers are always thrilled when they notice me deeply engrossed in my book of 漢字 (kanji). They love that I am trying to learn their language. One of the vice-principals even got me some 漢字 study materials. How thoughtful!

漢字 is probably the single most difficult aspect of the Japanese language. There are 2000 standard 漢字, and countless others. I am not exaggerating. Karl asked one of his Japanese co-workers how many 漢字 exist. The response was, “As many grains of sand as there on the beach.” That’s encouraging.  To give some perspective, the Japanese teacher at the Junior High at which Karl works knows somewhere around 30,000 different 漢字.  Yikes.

Despite the difficulties of Japanese, it can be fun to learn.  Some of the word are totally hilarious: プニプニ (puny-puny) means fat, ピカピカ (pika-pika) means shiny, and グルグル (guru-guru) means round and round. These words are so much fun! And there are loooots of them too.

I don’t expect to become fluent in Japanese, but I will certainly try my hardest to at least be able to have conversations that go beyond the weather. It’s a good thing I actually enjoy studying.

As the Japanese people say, “がんばってください!” ("gambatte kudasai!") Which basically means, “Please try your hardest!” I am trying...

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