Acquiring Nihongo – Wall #1: Kana

Do people really confuse Japanese with Javanese?

Do people really confuse Japanese with Javanese?

The rocket to the moon has launched! In less obtuse opaque words, I’ve decided to log my journey to learn Japanese, partially so that it could be helpful and/or motivating to others aiming to do the same; also, partially for personal reasons so that I can reflect on my language acquisition skills and consider what can or could be improved; and also, partially (mostly) to commit myself to the task without half-assing it or giving up altogether. I lack the self-discipline to do so otherwise, and I sincerely believe it’d be interesting to see someone’s thoughts of the language along the whole process. In other words—and in full disclosure—be ready to hear some stupid things.

First step: Kana. I learned kana already back in the summer because like every other suburban idiot off from more education, I had nothing else to do. This entry will more or less be summarizing how I learned it, what I thought of the procedure, and how quickly or slowly it took me to recall them again. I’m using realkana because not only is its flashcard system simple and intuitive, it has bar none inconveniences. That is, you can head directly to whatever character or system you’d like to learn next, and without requiring any installation steps, any mandatory account registrations, any pig-disgusting ads, so on and so forth.

Hiragana – Real Kana 2014-01-09 18-12-29

As an English native speaker, learning kana may seem daunting in that there are roughly 100 unique characters that look no different than arcane hieroglyphs. However, broken down in simple functioning tables, it actually doesn’t take as long as you’d think. It’s fairly manageable (and recommended) to just sit down and brain your way through every character until you can recognize them without any forced strain. It’ll be used especially when you’re trying to pronounce things, so knowing the system by heart is best done as soon as possible. Plus, it’s great preparation when you’re burrowing your face into all 1500+ essential kanji, something that makes learning kana feel like (and is) child’s play.

I’ve chosen not to learn stroke order because I don’t ever plan to be writing these guys down in the near future unless I were threatened under sodomy death. Heck, I haven’t even written English down since high school. The technique I used is simple pattern recognition, and I’m quite curious if most others did the same. Unlike kanji, which I feel is best learned from radical constructions, hiragana and katakana are simple-looking enough creatures that you can form your own ad hoc methods. They would surely be more efficient than anything you’d spend hours scouring on the web for.

The first thing I did was to try distinguishing all the characters so that I can even tell the difference. For example, ホ is regal, Christian-ish looking, symmetrical in design, and sported with winged feathers on its sides. This reminds me of Hoho from Pokemon, so I instantly recall “ho”. The gliding zippy line at the top of ス reminds me of Superman flying in his classic aerodynamic pose, hence “su”. ハ looks like wrinkled eyebrows, which apparently to me is funny (don’t ask me why), so I recall “ha”. イ looks like “i”, エ is “that one deceiving character that looks like a serif I but is actually an e”. Some of them I form no association with whatsoever, merely clunking down to the right sound from repetitious trial and error, for instance, the differences in ラ, ワ, フ, and ウ. Others are plain absurd: サ looks like a creek split in two, thus two extra lines crossing, and it obviously must have been cut by a “sa”w; み looks like a bug, so of course it must be “mi”. Yes, yes, I can see the psychoanalysts and other quacks ready to open my brain already.

Katakana – Real Kana 2014-01-09 18-17-58

Of course, these parlor tricks are only to nail them down in the beginning. After a few hours of practice, an average of 2 seconds for each recollection goes down to 1 (with extreme variations where one character can be done instantly while another takes up to 5 seconds), then 0.5, then 0.25, then in a few weeks limited only by the speed that your fingers can slam down each key. The recollection process consistently speeds up and consistently cuts out the middle man. I don’t need to remember Hoho to recognize ホ is “ho” anymore. It just…is “ho”. Anything else is sacrilege.

Sidenote: I think my favorite kana is け (“ke”), because of its sword-and-sheath design. The downward stroke is sharp, the top of its edge blunt and rough as the handle, and the connection between the sword and the sheath is thin, but visible. It’s elegant, precise, and a little romantic. (Well, that’s what I think of it anyways.)

However, practice takes time. Merely switching typefaces discombobulates me enough to spend another hour just getting used to the differences, pretty much like trying to decipher another man’s chicken scratch. When I also see a vocabulary word, say, おばあさん, I put a lot of active effort into parsing each character by character for pronunciation, instead of pinning down the vocabulary word to its meaning. This must be what a grown illiterate man feels like when attempting to read for the first time.

One thing I find intriguing about rote memorization is that with enough practice, the recollection is purely muscle memory. A character on screen emits the signal to the brain, and a millisecond later without forming any voluntary thought, your finger is pounding away at the keyboard to match the sound. It’s astonishing how humans work, and it makes me wonder if the majority of humans were to rote memorize a scientifically constructed language like Esperanto since birth, how society would differ in function. Each language has its own (in)efficiencies after all, and it’s no exaggeration that the construction of the language significantly influences the development of culture (it’s a two-way street, of course).

Already know kana? Let me know what you think of what I think, and err, I’ll respond with whatever I think about.. yeah. Don’t know it? Try it out for a few minutes. If you haven’t touched flashcards or Anki-based systems in a long time, it’s actually surprisingly enjoyable. Plus, it’s a great thing to have experienced even if you don’t plan on ever learning Japanese.

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14 comments

  1. Aleksei Edison · · Reply

    やばい。俺、もう生きそう。 Anyway, good luck on learning those moonrunes man, and never forget: ノーガッツノーグロリー!

    1. Took me less than 5 seconds to be able to pronounce all that! I-I’m improving.

      1. Aleksei Edison · ·

        I forgot to mention that there is a Yotsuba reading pack for basic kana that has the translations plus the vocabulary words. It’s a pretty hand tool. http://www.livingjapanese.com/p/reading-pack.html

  2. Superzarop · · Reply

    Being a native Chinese, I imagine I’d have a easier time than most to learn japanese since there’s Kanji and all. Yet as shallow as I am, I’ve never found enough motivation to do so as the only benefit I can think of is easier anime viewing. What are your reasons for picking up Japanese? Is it the challenge? The cultural value? The knowledge? Or simply for anime?

    And Edison-san, would you mind sharing your reasons and experiences with Japanese? Was it worth learning?

    1. Aleksei Edison · · Reply

      When I was little Edison Jr., all the movies that were coming out portrayed Japan as taking over the world, and had a cool super high tech feel to it, like some mystery danger world. Also because when I got into anime, fansubbing was a thing, but at the same time not really. It was a reason to celebrate when something came out in English. Or even French or Italian.

      It led to a drive to want to learn the language so I could be some sort of anime wizard and brag about it on the internet (internet cred was really important back in the day), and as a whole it really was worth learning it. I’m not fluent, or the anime wizard I wanted to be, but I know just enough to be comfortable and enjoy a fansub every once in a while.

      1. That sounds super interesting. I wish I could be like you one day. ;_;

    2. Definitely the knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but the main reason to do it now instead of holding it off like every other thing on my “things to do before I die” list, is for appreciating anime/manga/light novels/visual novels at a more authentic level. It’s difficult for me to discern how much the language barrier affects how I view translated works. Also, I feel being able to appreciate anime for example and immerse yourself into the whole shot instead of glancing down at the subtitles once in a while is extremely delightful. Watching episodes raw can make you experience totally different reactions subject to the presentation. This is also most immediate for light/visual novels, when prose is invaluable to a work’s excellence.

      It also opens you up to completely new avenues of community, and you get the full experience of Japanese culture save for moving there yourself. It always striked me as odd that there’s a heavy English community on anime despite 99% of them not knowing any Japanese; the values it presents must really be that universal. If you’re serious about the medium, why not expand upon that knowledge?

      (Also, to be honest, just so I can read Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita and Zaregoto.)

      1. Aleksei Edison · ·

        It can be a barrier of sorts for most, and lets face the facts here: The effort to reward ratio is high, but notice that effort part? I’m not saying that anime fans are lazy, but learning a complex language like Japanese is less of a hobby, and more like a full time commitment.

        Some people have school, some people work, and some people just want to watch fansubs.

      2. I totally agree. The commitment factor is high and thus extremely intimidating. I consider the effort worth it, but i can see why others do not. After all, to a large majority, anime is a relaxing hobby, not one to strain and fret over. I do believe it is a factor of laziness but one that’s (mostly) excusable: at the end of a hard day’s work, few are willing to tough out a couple more hours of brain activity to another task.

  3. Superzarop · · Reply

    I get the feeling that the language barrier is greater than what most may think. In Chinese, at least, there is considerably more variety in wording and phrasing compared to English. Combine an especially loose grammar with this fact, and you get a huge room for maneuver and manipulation. Even laymen can play with the language as Shakespeare did, making the usage of it hold more subtle implications than in many other languages.

    As Japanese is so similar to Chinese, I would expect(but can’t confirm, obviously) much of this to apply to Japanese as well. Being able to understand and use the language is only the beginning; learning to apply your cultural understanding to the language and vice versa may be a far greater endeavor that what you imagined.

    1. This is how I feel too, especially considering heavily Japanese anime/manga like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei or Arakawa. Puns, word plays, particle manipulation, etc. are all clever things you can really only appreciate in its raw form. It’s one thing to say that a writer makes great use of his language and another to know precisely why. There’s also that culture in some of those shows that are signature Japanese jokes. I really do believe having a better understanding of Japanese culture would let you appreciate them more.

      1. Aleksei Edison · ·

        The Del Ray publication of the SZS manga did a pretty great bone toss to readers: There was a section appended to the end of the book that explained most of the obscure references to Japanese culture (and believe me I’m surprised that they even did that). Nowadays with the proliferation of the internet, you can take notes and google up the events, kind of like homework if you’re really curious, haha. Now you know how the Japanese feel about our movies and the slang we use in popular movies….

      2. Yeah, I love the Del Ray publication. One of the best English translations ever, and with so much effort taken that you simply will not see such quality out of a fan work unless the group is extremely commited. Unfortunately, it is only consolation prize. Having someone always around to explain all the jokes to you isn’t the same as already understanding them. :(

  4. Aleksei Edison · · Reply

    Of course, but the very nature of reading manga in it’s non-native language isn’t the same as getting the “pure” experience, but that doesn’t stop English readers. One case of localization gone right was Samurai Pizza Cats, the original studio/makers loved the english dub so much that it’s the preferred version! It’s a two way language osmosis, east meets west, and you make a golden bridge out of the passion for anime and manga from respective fanbases.

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