Japanese – On the challenge of reading

Most people will agree that the difficulty of reading Japanese is one of the biggest impediments to learning the language at anything like the pace of a language with a more accessible script. For most English speakers it is already a step to use anything but the Roman alphabet. There is a minority that will have taken Ancient Greek at school who have encountered a different character set but for the average person even Cyrillic which is relative straightforward is daunting. Having said that it is more a matter of getting over the mental barrier than anything else. Learning to read and write Kana (Hiragana and Katakana), the phonetic Japanese scripts, is not so difficult and the most important thing is to keep practicing until all of the characters are drummed into your head. As with many things related to Japanese that takes effort and time. That is frustrating if other languages came easy to you but there is no shortcut.
The Chinese characters, called Kanji, are more complicated again. In principle you need to learn about 2000 characters to be able to read regular Japanese texts. ‘Learning’ a character means different things though. If I am reading a lower intermediate text at my level then I can read pretty quickly because words are written in logical combinations of Kanji and Kana. If you see a compound word with three Chinese characters like the word for library 図書館 (toshokan) then the context of the sentence will already indicate that it is a building of some sort and since a learner only knows so many buildings and the general shape of the word and characters is in your mind you can generally read it. That sounds fine but this only applies when you are reading texts at a certain level which will be written with a bias towards what you know. The problem comes when you step outside into the world and you read normal texts. There are many words with 館 (kan) on the end because it means ‘large hall’. When you are trying to read texts a higher level the way you parse the sentences is different. You come across unfamiliar grammatical constructions (written in Kana) that you may have to ignore and the compound Kanji words like図書館 might be new.
English words are not so different to Japanese words but most English speakers are just blissfully unaware of their semantics. When I read ‘photograph’ in English I do not break it down into the Ancient Greek words for ‘light’ and ‘drawing’. In Japanese the word is写真(shashin) which means ‘real copy’ but since it is a word I know I don’t break it down reading it in Japanese. In Japanese, as in English, the semantics of the word are irrelevant when you know what the word means. What makes Japanese different to English is that the phonetics of the Chinese characters are not consistent (which means that you may not know how to sound a character) and the semantics are more immediately visible than in English. Many English speakers know that the language is enriched by reams of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek and French words (not to mention the many other sources). However, we normally look up words we do not know in a dictionary, we don’t try to deconstruct them syllable by syllable whilst reading to derive their modern meaning.
For somebody learning Japanese the situation is different. The fact that that Japanese lays bare its semantics counts. It is at once an enormous source of frustration and a fascinating opportunity. Words written in Katakana are often of foreign origin (including countless English loans and adaptations). It’s a post for another time but one can read these words (because they are phonetic) and the script being used says something about the word’s semantics so obviously you often try to reverse derive an English words as a first option (though that is not necessarily effective). The Chinese characters provide both semantic clues and a phonetic sound. The most commonly used characters are problematic because they generally have a Japanese (kun) reading and a Chinese (on – sound) read. Some characters have several readings so you just have to know from the context which is the correct reading. For very common words this is not such an issue because you do come across them again and again so you learn from force of habit. At the other extreme you have characters that are less common but only have one reading. If you know these then you know how to pronounce them but how many times a day do use the word for seashell (貝 – kai)?
The learner is continually torn between strategies that allow him to learn character that are easier to read or write but less useful and strategies that are based on gradually building up with learner materials at one’s level. There is a turning point when the learner can begin to engage with native materials and start to derive the meanings from context and pronunciation. There are Japanese words you might know without being able to write and you begin to pull out these words in a text through combining knowledge resources. To go back to the 館 (kan) words. This is a character with one reading and you know it is used in library (図書館) so if you come across the word for美術館 you know that it ends in kan. The first character 美 is used in the word for beautiful 美しい (utsukushii) which intermediate learners would know. They might also know the word for a beautiful person 美人 (bijin) so then they know how this is likely pronounced in a compound word. The learner might then think of a place beginning with bi and ending with kan and come up with 美術館 (bijutsukan) which is an art gallery or museum. This might seem complicated but it happens in seconds and an English learner does not have any clue from looking at the word museum on its own (although this is, of course, a common word in many languages). The point here is that Japanese does start to become more transparent than other languages once you get beyond a critical point. An English speaker learning Irish would continually need to use a dictionary without any easy resources to indicate the semantics of unknown words.
At this point too it does become important to know the on reading of as many Kanji as possible. That allows you to read words that you do not know and look them up in electronic dictionaries based on their sound (you type bijutsukan on your keyboard and select the appropriate kanji you want to look up). The learning process is enormously difficult and time consuming but there are ways to make progress. Of course there are many whizz kids on the internet who have ‘learned’ all of the Japanese characters quickly. I am jealous of these people but I am a bit older (44) and this is an endeavour I am undertaking after many other life experiences. Every learner is different and the older learner needs to do things in his or her own time with great patience. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step after all.

When being an English speaker comes at a price…

In today’s world you could argue that being brought up speaking English is the equivalent of winning a substantial prize in the national lottery. Without having to make any effort of note you end up speaking the world’s most important language of trade and cultural exchange. It gives you ready access to the all of the world’s Anglophone cultures and you have the ultimate lingua franca available in your arsenal. Moreover, one foregoes spending the large sums of money spent by non-English speakers on improving their English. In many ways there is not a lot to complain about but there are some downsides.
Having been brought up in Ireland I cannot help but be aware of the fact that my native proficiency in English came at a price. My forefathers decided that linguistic suicide was the pragmatic route to a better life. Every time I hear a conversation in native Irish I am reminded of this choice. Unlike a lot of Irish people I don’t think of myself as an English speaker in the same way as a Canadian or an Australian might. Instead I feel like an imposter and a traitor, speaking in a tongue which will never be truly mine.
As I have written many times my response to this has always been to acquire as many of the languages of the world as I possibly can in a human lifetime within the constraints of family, economy and health. However, being an English speaker is not something that can be escaped even as you hide in the shadows of another language. I may well speak fluent Dutch but my accent reveals itself in certain words and the natives are all too willing to pounce and switch into English should they detect any weakness in your armory. As the world gets better at English this effect of the ‘language battle’ gradually began to occur in previously safe languages like French and Spanish. Dutch people always tell me the horror stories from France and Spain where ‘nobody spoke a word of English’ but maybe their mistake is that they weren’t trying to speak French and Spanish. Once you try the native tongue then the nature of the linguistic battle changes. The local who may not have wanted to speak English feels empowered once he knows that he can say more in your tongue than you in his. It’s a see-saw battle everywhere and it’s almost universally between English and another language. Nobody Dutch is going to speak Polish back to a Polish person with a strong accent in Dutch but the English speaker without fluent Dutch will not get past the first sentence.
The other particularly irksome thing for me is that there is an assumption that ‘all’ English speakers cannot speak other languages. The other day somebody (who speaks Spanish) was telling me about their holiday in Spain and I made a comment in Spanish and they replied in English ‘Is that it?’. The automatic assumption was that I couldn’t actually speak more than a few words despite having studied it at university level (a point which I made the person aware of, in Spanish).
The truth is that I will never get away from this. People have no knowledge of Ireland and the particular situation there. Although English is the main language, I learned and spoke Irish from the age of four. I learned French for five years from the age of twelve onwards and I have studied twelve other languages to various levels at different times since school. The automatic assumption that English speakers are incapable of speaking other languages does not hold up for many reasons and in countries like Ireland and Canada where multilingual education is prevalent it is not founded on any basis in fact. Maybe putting up with this prejudice is the price I have to pay for the dubious gift of having English as my mother tongue.

Japanese – So I passed the JLPT N5….

After sitting the test in July the results of the JLPT tests came in yesterday and I managed to pass the N5 comfortably enough at 109/180 (the pass mark is 80). It was lower than I had hoped on the reading tests which surprised me because that is the easiest part so maybe I was guilty of a certain nonchalance and inadvertently selecting trick answers. It’s definitely something that I will need to repair ahead of the N4 in December because I don’t want to be too close to the water line (the pass mark for N4 is at 90).
Looking at things in any objective sense I can’t deny that I am progressing with Japanese. My progress is nowhere as fast as it was with most European languages but you have to look at things realistically. My progress in Polish was natural and gradual and I still don’t speak it particularly well even though I hear it every day (admittedly I have never put a fully concentrated effort into it). With Spanish I was able to move very quickly to a conversational lesson but the language is not so different to English so it’s not comparing like with like. I am who I am now and maybe my age is a barrier or maybe I am actually learning relatively quickly because of being an experienced language learner. I just can’t know what life might have been like if I had have focused on Japanese earlier. I was doing other things and life is all about choices.
Right now I am doing one two hour class a week where we are working through Marugoto (an A2 method) for grammar and vocabulary and using Tobira (an intermediate level text) for reading practice. I spend a fair amount of time looking at grammar and learning vocabulary. In order to hear as much Japanese as possible I have watched lots of drama in the last months but now I am really enjoying a reality show called Terrace House on Netflix. I normally watch with English subs and then rewind to read the kanji of new words with Japanese subs. If I can’t hear the word properly I screenshot Netflix and use Google Translate to OCR the kanji so that I can get the reading. It takes time but I do love the show.
Next week I have my trip to Japan coming up so that will be a big test of actually understanding Japanese and using what I can. We have to take the chances we have in life so this is an adventure I want to utilize as much as possible. I’ll breathe deep and dive in.

Japanese – Flying Blind

In less than two weeks I will be in Japan in a place that I have never visited with a clear mission in mind. After all of these months studying Japanese I want to have the chance to use as much Japanese as I possibly can and listen, read and absorb Japanese for a week out of my normal life. I am flying to Osaka and I will be there from Thursday through Thursday. In order to put myself into Japanese speaking situations I have some concrete plans. For three nights I am going to stay with a Japanese family and eat dinner together with them. Some people I was telling about thought that I would be too old and set in my ways for a home stay but that is to miss the point of my trip. I want to experience as much of the real Japan and what better way can there be than to experience life in a family home.
That part of the trip will give me an opportunity to speak Japanese whatever happens but I will spend the first three days a hotel. On these days I want to see the sights but I am thinking of activities like maybe a cycling tour that involve interacting with different people. I was also checking out language exchange meetings in the city so maybe I can get to some meetings. Of course I will also be trying to hit cosy restaurants where I might get to exchange a few words with the staff. Basically my mission will mean that I have to be a lot more outgoing than I am naturally. That’s one of the reasons I am going somewhere new. Even though I am hardly a Tokyo connoisseur, the fact that I have been there quite a few times means I am more ‘home’ there and the more accustomed I am to a place the less likely I am to do anything outside my comfort zone. So I will be flying blind, it will be a language adventure and I will have the chance to really use all of the Japanese I only really get to use with my teachers and language exchange partners.

Rhythmic Gymnastics – Television

At the end of the quadrennial sports binge a.k.a the olympics the focus turns towards rhythmic gymnastics (at least for those who are inclined to watch). The complex was sold out for the individual qualifiers yesterday so the sport definitely has appeal. We have been watching it on an NOS live-stream because it doesn’t make the regular broadcasts on Dutch television (which is no surprise as all gymnastics funding in Holland goes to artistic gymnastics and even that was kicked off the main channel when hockey matches were being played). Rhythmic gymnastics is visually appealing but the scoring system is far too complex for a regular audience to understand and even for a jury there are too many possible deductions to make for a transparent points total. From that point of view artistic gymnastics is easier to follow. Interestingly the pirouettes which score D points in artistic would often fail to score in rhythmic because of loss of balance. In a sense the rhythmic sport is reducing its appeal by having so many ifs and buts in the Code of Points.
We were very keen for Luna (and Nadia) now to do as well as they could in rhythmic. Luna did get to the number 2 position nationally for her age group this year but the lack of international development opportunities is definitely undermining her long-term growth potential. After girls start secondary school many do drop out of the sport. That is partly natural attrition but not having a national training centre is a big deterrent for talented girls to keep going like they do in other countries like Canada and even in tiny Ireland.
Earlier this year Luna got a chance with two of her RG friends to take part in a television show. It was a difficult task as the girls and their trainer had so many other commitments. They worked through injuries and tiredness to develop a ‘television-friendly’ routine. On this talent show, called ‘Superkids’, different children get to show their special talents. For dancers or musicians or jugglers there is less that needs changing but pure rhythmic gymnastics was not what they were looking for so our girls did a lot to adapt to the demands. It was all a long time ago now (certainly in a child’s life) but the broadcasts of the show will begin in September. It’s exciting for all of our family.
It will be great to see the girls on television but watching the olympics and seeing gymnasts from weaker countries get the chance to perform on the greatest stage I feel a sense of frustration with the choices that the Dutch sports system has made. They only support sports where there is a chance of medals while the olympic ideal is about participation. There cannot be winners without losers and I don’t consider any gymnast anybody competing in the olympics to be a loser. No Dutch girl will ever get the chance with the current set-up in The Netherlands.

All The Way Down

It’s an unfortunate side effect of getting away from it all and letting yourself go but the weighing scale never lies. Three weeks away has taken its toll and the damage has come in at more than two kilos. In a way I preferred when I cared less about these things  but my body has become so unforgiving as I have gotten older that I need to take action quickly or before I know it the whole cycle of being overweight and hating it and feeling out of control takes over. It is hard to believe that I allowed myself to balloon in my twenties but the photos that survive show what that meant and I am not going back there. 
Thankfully I lose weight almost as quickly as I put it on once I go back to a strict diet with no eating between meals. The main challenge is getting over hunger pangs in the evening but once my mind is set that’s it. I am going to Japan at the end of August so I want to have lost the excess from this last holiday before I go. It’s a challenge to switch modes and getright back  into work and Japanese studies but I need to have that goal in mind. There are so many other things going on in the next few weeks to get the girls ready for school and sports. It’s time to focus, slim down, and get ready for the next challenge.

Última Parada – Bilbao

So we come to the end of the road and it’s time to fly home. We had sun on our last day in Santander and met some friends at our favourite beach (Playa del Camello). We did some packing and tidying up before walking into town for the last ‘paseo’ and shopping. We met Aga’s cousin’s family for the last time in a really busy pintxos bar called Casa Lita. There was so much choice and you could easily eat there for a week without getting bored. The walk home was longer than normal but it was nice to experience the walk up the hills for the last time on this trip. We all had a feeling of nostalgia for a place we hadn’t even left yet. The time in Santander was so special. Spain is always in my heart and now more so than ever.