Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Understanding the Japanese Language

I'm coming up to 5 months on this little crazy island, and I'm desperately attempting to understand the fundamentals of the language here. It's gotten to the point where I can understand what's said to me in the simplest of terms, but I can rarely respond coherently, if at all. That being said, I've decided to document how I've started to understand (on a minuscule level) the complexities of Japanese, especially in the written form.

There are three basic things you need to know about the Japanese language;

1. Hirigana; The true Japanese alphabet, phonetically based and relatively simple in theory. All you need is a few lessons in repetitive memorization, and you can comfortably grasp this.

2. Katakana; The somewhat bastardized version of the original Japanese. Also with the same phonetic rules, this alphabet is only supposed to be used for foreign words and others that have been recently introduced into the lingo. However, this is usually not the case, and Hirigana and Katakana usually end up mixed in the same sentences.

3. Kanji; Terrifyingly difficult and super DUPER complicated. Can only be learned through sheer perseverance and excruciating amounts of your time. There are thousands of Kanji symbols, and most of them have more than one meaning. This language was adopted from the Chinese, and seems to have been invented simply to exclude white people from ever becoming literate.

Now, I didn't take any traditional or structured methods to learning these alphabets. I didn't buy textbooks, I didn't study it before I got here, and I made absolutely ZERO effort to go to classes. This is what Japanese signs looked like to me when I arrived;
"Oh Shhhhiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiitttttttttttttttttt" I thought to myself when I first encountered this. "Dear Jebus, what have I gotten myself into?" It's bad enough that I'm in a foreign country and totally disoriented. But I can't even understand if this is the men's or women's bathroom. Although to be fair, I was presented with these symbols for clarification;
REALLY????  More often than not, these symbols weren't even colour coded for you. These are usually both a greyish purple, and the poor unaware foreigner is left to play "bathroom roulette" at the train station.
But I digress.

After a couple weeks of total mental chaos, I started seeing something a little different, and it kind of looked like this;

I thought saw an 'H' and a 'T' in there somewhere, but I couldn't be sure... it was like my brain was unconsciously bridging the gaps for me in order to make sense out of the craziness. Upon further queries, I discovered that these were indeed not actually 'H's and 'T's. But THERE WAS PROGRESS!! BY GAWD!!

And so I decided to pick up a motherf*cking book and learn something. Which I did. For about 15 seconds. It seems that in the few years I've been out of University, my brain has completely melted in the long-term memory department. So from what I actually studied, I retained about 5%. This is what I was left with;

I think this was the true beginning of my frustration. Not at the language itself, but at my complete inability to retain and comprehend it. Seeing a sign and knowing what you think it SHOULD be, is totally different from simply READING it. Coming from a place where I have always been able to read everything with confidence, this minute amount of knowledge shook my literate ego. But I kept at it! Mostly because the signs were everywhere and I simply couldn't ignore that little voice in my head that says;
"what in Jebus's name does that SAY??? Is that a bar? Is it an ad for whiskey? Christ, I have to knowwww!!!"

And then it slowly started to come together. One day, I looked at a billboard and I could kind-of read. I was REALLY REALLY PROUD of myself. I even read it out loud!

SWEET BABY JEBUS, YES!!!!!!!!!!!! That's a restaurant! And it probably sells fish! And it's east of something!!!!

For the next few weeks I walked around and read signs aloud to myself. It wasn't pretty, but it was progress. But now I'm faced with a new problem. The Japanese language itself. Because although I can read the Hirigana and Katakana (and a fraction of Kanji), I still have no idea what I'm reading. I'm kind of like a three year old that's figured out the alphabet, but still doesn't know what I'm reading. It usually ends up with me reading this;

and this;

So now I'm stuck. At this point I actually have to started reading those textbooks again, which goes against my incredibly lazy nature, not to mention the little voice that says "It'll just come with time... you don't actually have to TRY to do this."

So that's a gaijin's opinion (that means foreigner). It does get better everyday, but I've learned that I'm not going to get anywhere unless I work at it.

On a completely unrelated note, here are some pictures;

Possibly the most girly drink I've ever seen. It's a PINEAPPLE. With a CRAZY STRAW. I took a sip from it and my teeth almost fell out from all the sugar.
Smoked salmon and capers. The first I've seen in Japan. Man, I miss food like this.
Do you and your boyfriend have matching shoes? How about matching hideous yellow crocs? No? Well clearly you're not as cool as these guys.

I took a picture of this because of the letters. Japanese people are notoriously bad at saying "L" "R" and "B". If someone was to actually vocalize this sign it would sound like "LLLLRRRLLLRRLLVVVBBBVVLLLRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR."

The staff at the school went out the other night for dinner. It was pretty great, but it gave me an opportunity to take this picture to add to my growing portfolio of my friend eating phallic and strange objects;

And with that, I bit you good night! Or おやすみ !

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