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.
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.
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.