L is for Language

The Japanese Language is something that nearly everybody around the world finds intriguing. To the uninitiated, it seems to be nothing more than a messy tangle of lines, and yet it still has a romanticism and charisma to it, partly, I think, because it is so different from English, but also because it is so impenetrable.

This is Japanese for, er, Japanese. Yes.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Japanese writing system has three elements: hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ) and kanji (漢字). Hiragana is used mainly for grammatical points and is used by beginners and veterans alike for ‘spelling out’ difficult kanji (for example, 美味しい, ‘delicious’, is often written in it’s hiragana form, おいしい). Katakana is used mainly for loanwards from other languages, usually English, taking the nearest sounding sounds in the Japanese system to make the ‘Japanized’ word, to often comical effect (some are straightforward: アメリカ, reads as ‘A-ME-RI-KA’ which is of course ‘America’, whereas マンション, ‘MA-N-SHO-N’, isn’t ‘Mansion’ at all, but an apartment).

A typical kid’s learning chart for Katakana.

But these two alphabets are a mere pittance compared to Kanji, the meat and potatoes of the Japanese language. Hiragana and Katakana each has 46 symbols (sometimes Katakana has 45, depends who you ask). Sounds like a lot? What if I told you that there are 2,000 Kanji you need to know just to get by?

I’ll always remember when I took my first proper lesson with Kanji a few years ago. Every single one of them looked like an impossible snarl of jumbled lines and curves. ‘How on earth am I going to get to grips with these?’ I thought.

Once upon a time these meant nothing to me. Oh, the irony.

But here’s the thing: learning Kanji is FUN. It’s a journey of discovery. Each one is, essentially, a little picture, with it’s own story behind it. Over time, you’ll see patterns; recurring elements in the Kanji that help you get the ‘feel’ of it’s meaning. Take 浅 and 湯, for example. Notice that they both have three little strokes to their left. It means ‘water’, and you can see that they look like little splashes. These Kanji mean ‘shallow’ and ‘hot water’ respectively, both with a watery meaning. Over time, these Kanji reveal their secrets to you and they drop their mystique, but I admit to still getting a little buzz every time I read them.

To be honest with myself, I have a twisted sense of fun. Looking for stories in thousands of little symbols is maybe your idea of torture. It gets even more compliated when you find out each one has at least two different meanings and readings, with no real rules to follow. But living in Japan gives learning Kanji a real sense of progress. For every one you learn, life in Japan becomes that little bit richer. The same goes for the spoken word too: it’s a curious fact of learning a foreign language in it’s native country that, as soon as you learn a word or phrase, it’s only a matter of time before you hear it amongst a thronging crowd or read it on a billboard.

Japan also uses a fair amount of actual English, often mixed in with Japanese itself.

So yes, I’m an addict of this ridiculous, complicated and strangely moreish language. Just like when kids won’t stop talking and reading everything they can when they learn how to, I also drink up all the information I can find. It’s also pretty darn exciting when you realize that you no longer have to labour over translating things in your head, but the meaning immediately flies out at you (nearly) as easily as your own mother tongue. Paradoxically, fluency is what I’m both aiming for and yet dreading: I’m going to miss this sense of newness and interest in everything I see. Still, with a language this crazy, that won’t be any time soon.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s