Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why are there 4 #$#@$# alphabets?

Okay, I'm not sure if you can consider kanji an alphabet (Kinda leaning towards no on this one), but still, there are three different methods that the Japanese generally use to write their language:
  1. Katakana
  2. Hiragana
  3. Kanji
  4. Romaji (but they don't generally use this, it's just for us gaijin)
Not only that, but one sentence can have all three mixed together!

When I started out learning Japanese, I had a hard time grappling with this issue. I felt like it was done to spite people learning their language, and wished everything was written in hiragana (I know, wishing everything was written in romaji would have been a better dream, but then I wouldn't have to learn any new alphabet and that would feel too much like cheating). Having been exposed to Japanese for a couple of years now, I feel that I can give an explanation to those who are currently in the position I was in.

Let me tell you first off, having "foreign" words written in katakana is a huge boon to foreigners in Japan. If I see a word in katakana, the first thing I do is try to sound it out and see if it sounds like an English word. It seems that most katakana words are outright English words written using japanese phonetics, however some of them are a kind of pidgin English. Words like so-fa (sofa), gasu (gas), and garasu (glass) are all direct English translations. They basically took the english word, and made a Japanese equivalent that sounds as close to the original English as is possible with their alphabet. A word like pasokon (personal computer) is a hybrid of two english words, but still easier to remember than a completely foreign word. Sure it sucks that you have to learn 48 new katakana symbols that stand for the same thing as 48 new hiragana symbols that you already learned, but it's a small price to pay.

Just have to add this in here to scare people even more. Sometimes there even weirder ways that their alphabets are combined. Take "keshigomu" for instance. The word means "eraser" and is a combination of "keshi" which is basically the root of "to erase" and "gomu" which is katakana for gum. The word actually has kanji, hiragana, and katakana all together... how wonderful right! :)

Now that I've had a chance to read some children's books written soley in hiragana, I can really appreciate why kanji exists. Remember that there are generally no spaces between characters in Japanese. Basically, kanji makes it really easy to figure out where words start and end, similar to spaces in an English sentence. When I only understand maybe 30 percent of a book's vocabulary, I frequently don't know where one word starts and one word ends when they are all written in hiragana. I also tend to find words in between words (where I recognize a word that doesn't exist by taking a combination of the end of one word, and the beginning of another), and my Japanese tutor laughs at me a lot :) With kanji (and furigana, which are little hiragana written above the kanji so I know how it's pronounced), I know for certain where words begin and end.

Another reason why kanji is so important, is because there are several cases of words having the same hiragana as each other, but completely different meanings (but different kanji). Take "hashi" for example. Hashi can mean bridge, it can mean edge or it can mean chopsticks (and a few more things, but you get the point). When written in hiragana, there is no way to tell what the meaning is without context, and even then it can be confusing. When hashi is written in kanji however, the meaning becomes clear.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Vocabulary Studying Method

Learning a language is a daunting task. I realized at the onset that I would have to quickly find an efficient way of studying, or be doomed. Trying to memorize a whole chapter's worth of words just wasn't working for me. I would write the words down on flashcards and just attempt to memorize them all at once, but I realized that while some words came very quickly, most did not. On top of that, there were a few that I just couldn't remember.

Okay, I'd like to take an opportunity to rant a little here. Whats the deal with books that put lots of similar words together in the same chapter... for instance, to open, to close, to turn on, to turn off. Putting a bunch of similar seeming words and their opposites together into one group of words to study messes with my brain. Am I the only one for whom this seems to make things extra difficult?

Anyways, back to the studying methodology. It dawned on me that I could memorize small batches of words and build up from there. Now the way I study is to take a stack of notecards, and take the first six. I memorize those, put them aside in a pile (I'll call it the "memorized pile"), and take the next six. I then memorize those, and go back to the memorized pile to review them and make sure I have forgotten any. If I have forgotten some, I put them aside in a "forgotten pile", and then put all the memorized cards up to this point into the memorized pile. I then take six more, and memorize them. I then go back through the memorized pile and make sure I haven't forgotten any, and if I have then I put them in the forgotten pile. I keep doing this until all I am left with are the two stacks, memorized and forgotten. I then repeat the process with just the forgotten cards. Once I complete this if there are any really difficult stragglers left over, I focus on studying them for a couple minutes, then mix the cards up again and repeat until I don't have any more problems.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


I've been studying since the beginning of the Summer 2005. After learning that I'd be going to Japan come September (Matsuyama, Ehime), I decided to take an intensive course at the University of Washington during Summer quarter. Knowing nothing about the language, I quickly became lost amongst the throngs of students who already had some idea of what they were doing.

After the class, I had a lot of knowledge and vocab in my head, but still didn't know how it all fit together. In my 7 months of living abroad I was able to come to a greater understanding of how Japanese worked. I got to start learning Japanese from scratch at Ehime University, an opportunity which let me fill in the gaps of my Japanese foundation.

Living in a homestay situation helped a lot, as I was able to use Japanese as much as I wanted. My level of knowledge was in the "dangerous" category during this period of time. I knew enough to ask questions, but generally only understood 5-10% of the response. Not only that, but I didn't know how to communicate my predicament too well, aside from the all encompassing "Wakarimasen".

Upon returning, my Japanese quickly fell into disuse. I went several months without any sort of studying, and it wasn't until the end of 2006 that I began to take an interest in it again. I started attending a 2 hour class each week, and began studying from the textbooks that I had used while in Japan. Eventually I got a private tutor via Craigslist, and have been studying with her once a week. At this point I can communicate basic concepts pretty well, I have a fair grasp of several of the verb conjugations and the vocabulary that a first year student should know. My kanji ability is awful, however, and I'm struggling to bring it up to speed. My hope is to return to Japan during 2008, however I have no solid plans on how that will work out yet.

My plan with this blog is to explain my struggle to learn Japanese. There will probably be a lot of complaining, and a lot of misunderstandings. Hopefully people reading this will be able to learn from it.