Saturday, July 3, 2010

Zonajin Learns Japanese.

The Japanese language is spectacular. I’ve been studying it for 5 years and the effort will never end. During my first trip to Japan I watched and listened to two Western men and a Japanese woman having a conversation in Japanese. When the men spoke to each other they continued in Japanese rather than switch to their native language. There are many possible reasons for this but that’s not what I’m writing about here. I was struck by their ability to communicate in Japanese and their seeming preference for it.

I wondered after that trip if I would return to Japan. It had been a great trip and we all enjoyed the things we had set out to do. (I plan trips in detail and have an itinerary to fall back on if spontaneous activities don’t rise up.) I had to decide if I wanted to go back and, the scene of the Westerners talking in Japanese did a great deal to make me decide in favor of returning. I thought it would be great to talk with the Japanese people in their own language and these two men showed that it could be done.

I knew that the little I’d learned from reading James Clavell’s, Shogun, wasn’t going to get me into any in depth, meaningful conversations, so off to the language section of the book store. There are many texts on the Japanese language. Going to the book stores or searching online you will find a hard-to-decide-upon array of lesson books, dictionaries, grammar guides and vocabulary builders. I currently own about 40 of them and I’ve read at least half of them, some of them twice. (In a future blog entry I will be listing the ones that will make the trip with me.)

If you would like to see a list of texts I have purchased go to my author page on my publisher’s website, (Note: I don’t list them all.) I will mention the first one I purchased here because I think I made a good choice. Its aim is to provide you with the most common sentence structures and build you a vocabulary with examples. The book is titled, Japanese Step by Step. Written by Gene Nishi and published by McGraw-Hill. Other books that are needed deal with verbs, adjectives and of course a Japanese-English/English-Japanese dictionary. I prefer one from Random House with that exact title.

I also purchased two audio lessons series’ but that didn’t happen for about six month while I read my books. One day I realized that while reading I was pronouncing all the Japanese words in my head with no listener to process what I’d said and look at me in a state of confusion because I wasn’t saying words correctly. The confused look is pretty emphatic feedback. The only way to develop that skill is to hear the words spoken and repeat them. The most productive audio series I have is from Pimsleur, Published by Simon & Shuster. The link is on my author page at the link listed above. There are 3 groups of 30 lessons and each has a separate section with some comments related to the lesson. I’ve been through these lessons 4 or 5 times now. I have them on my Ipod which is plugged into the stereo system in my car so I listen and speak Japanese whenever I’m driving alone. I found that my passengers don’t participate with the kind of zeal that I do.

The other thing I did to help me hear Japanese was to purchase the TVJapan channel from DishNetwork. It’s the only channel I bought from them but now I can listen to the language whenever I want. There are some shows related to things Japanese in English which are also interesting including the sumo broadcasts. I’ll blog about sumo later on.

So, after all of this, how good is my Japanese? Well. It works well enough, I guess. My biggest concern while I was learning was that I would say something to a Japanese person and it would some how insult them or embarrass me. It happened. I was at a sumo match and went to the concession stand to buy two more bottles of sake. There was an older lady beside me and yet a little behind me. The person in front of me paid and left me facing the clerk. I had rehearsed my order several times while waiting and was going to say, “Osake wa nihon onegaishimasu.” Which means, “I would like two bottles of sake.” Sake means the alcoholic beverage, ni means two and hon in this context means bottle. As a nervous westerner speaking Japanese to Japanese people in Tokyo I wasn’t very smooth in my delivery and I said, “Sake ni…(a sizable pause) hon onegaishimasu.” During the pause, the older lady stepped forward and began placing her order and when I continued to talk, she and the clerk both spun their heads toward me and simultaneously burst out laughing.

The older lady gestured for me to go ahead and I asked (in English) what I had said that made them laugh but, they just kept gesturing for me to place my order. I returned to my seat with my sake and asked my friend what I’d done. It turns out that the word combination, “Sake ni” means, please go ahead of me, and people in Japan use it daily to be polite and let people move up in line etc. So I had instructed the lady to, please go ahead, and then ignored my own polite behavior and ordered over top of her.

I learned that sometimes the same sounds mean different things and the pace at which they are delivered is important.

Early on in my learning efforts my friend at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku allowed me to send him emails written in Romanji. Romanji is the use of Roman characters, the 26 letter alphabet used for English, to create the syllabic sounds of the Japanese language. So, wasabi, is using the Roman alphabet to represent the syllable sounds, wa, sa and bi.

It would take me about an hour to write a 5 sentence email and they were pretty simple sentences. I was planning my second trip to Japan and had written to my friend a sentence that was meant to say, “On the same day that we buy the drum, would you also like to go to a baseball game?” (I wanted to buy a hand drum for my office wall and my friend had located a drum store.) The email I received back from my friend asked me, “Mitch san, do you truly mean to buy shoe cream every day?” Obviously I had mis-spelled some Japanese words and distorted my meaning.

This botched question set me off on a long period of diligent study and that study has paid off. I was riding the train to Kochi City on the island of Shikoku but before the train left I asked one of the conductors, in Japanese, if the train I was on was the train for Kochi City. He answered yes, in a very long, fast sentence and left to perform his duties. During the ride he came back to me and showed me his schedule of train stops, pointing at one particular entry. I couldn’t read the name of the stop but the time was written in the universal method of indicating time. He pointed at 2:56. I didn’t understand what he was saying to me but I assumed he was indicating that was when we would be stopping in Kochi. I was right.

One thing about the train system in Japan, if you know your stop is scheduled for 2:56 and the train stops at 2:56 you get off even if you didn’t see any signs indicating the name of the stop. In Japan the trains run on schedule. You could set your watch by them. More on the Japanese train system in a future blog entry.

Five years into it and my Japanese is functional, barely. I can get my message across but I have trouble with the responses. My brain is too slow at processing the word sounds and also the word order. Add to that the need to recognize which syllable ends a word and that the next sound starts another one. I’m constantly asking Japanese people to please repeat themselves a little bit slower. One of the first sentences you will learn.

The Japanese language is interesting (omoshiroi), beautiful (kireina), difficult (muzukashi) but most of all fun (tanoshii) but, miles to go before I sleep. – (Robert Frost)

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