8 months of Japanese studies – the breakthrough!

You know which day of the month it is? It’s the 18th – the date I started to study Japanese eight months ago! So I’ll take a short break from my work to give you the report.

First of all, I decided to pay for the crippled Smart.fm successor called Iknow. I did not like the way Cerego Japan shut down Smart.fm, which was a language learning site with a strong social aspect. I actually wrote a whole post about what an idiotic decision this really was, but I decided not to publish it. Let’s just sum it up in saying that in a time where the social aspect is everything, Cerego decided to cut that aspect. They could have become the Facebook or Youtube of language learning. And they threw it away. I’m amazed rather than annoyed. Now my only worries are that the company will go bankrupt before I’ve finished my lessons and got my money’s worth.

Anyway, paying works wonder for your motivation. Here are my time stats so far for this month:

A week ago, I received Elementary Japanese Volume 1 and 2 in the mail. Since it starts pretty much from zero, I’ve covered the first 100 pages in Volume 1 pretty quickly, reading one chapter a day approximately. It’s good to repeat what you’ve already learned in other books, but to have the same grammar explained in a different way. Now at chapter 6 I slow down the pace, since the book is already introducing what Genki covers in the last chapters of the first book, and what Japanese From Zero never even came to.

The biggest gain of Elementary Japanese though, has been the way the book explains kanji. I think you have to let the concept of kanji grow in you to fully understand it. Elementary Japanese explains very well the difference between phonographic and ideographic languages, and the pros and cons of each of them. I found this little table very good:

Phonographic writing system

Ideographic writing system

Records sounds (e.g. hiragana, katakana, alphabet)

Records meanings (e.g. kanji, numerals)

Small set of symbols

Large number of symbols

Language dependent

Language independent

More processing time

Less processing time

I never thought about the fact that numerals are ideographic. You can understand them in every language, despite every language has different sounds for them; 2 = two, 2 = zwei, 2 = två, and so on. One language can even have more “readings” of one number, as in English, where 2 can be read either as “two” or “second” – or even “twenty” when paired with a 0. And that’s how kanji works. As the book points out, in theory it would be possible to write and read English or any other language with kanji – an amazing thought.

But what really amazed me was the notion that kanji has less processing time than phonographic writing systems like the Western alphabet. I used to wonder why the Japanese use kanji when it would just be easier (well, for me at least!) to stick to hiragana and katakana, their “syllabaries” that work like our alphabet. I asked my tutor last time he was here what the point with kanji is when there is a hiragana that says the same thing and that is much quicker to write, as in these examples:

食べる = “to eat” written with kanji.

たべる = “to eat” written with hiragana.

飲む = “to drink” written with kanji.

のむ = “to drink” written with hiragana.

As you can see, the kanji are quite complicated and contain many more strokes than the simple hiragana character. My tutor saw my point, but explained that reading texts written entirely in hiragana is more time consuming for him, because the characters are not as exclusive as the kanji are. And I can understand that. Despite I haven’t learned many kanji yet, I can already see how you sort of see the whole word as one entity in another way than you can with a word made up of characters in an alphabet. Again, compare with numbers. The phonographically made up word “eight” must be parsed by your brain, whereas the ideogram 8 goes right to it – right? If “eight” was too easy, try “fifty three thousand six hundred ninety one” versus 53,691. Quite amazing, no?

This last example with numbers was somewhat of an epiphany for me (there are so many of them!). So, I thought, is that how the Japanese read texts? Where Westerners read texts as numbers written out with characters, the Japanese see the numbers without that annoying middlehand? But, that must be so effective! And so, my tutor admitted that he thought the Japanese might be faster readers, or rather, that it goes faster to read a text written with kanji than to read a, say, English translation of that text. The eye sort of jumps from kanji to kanji, and the hiragana is mostly there to help with the endings (with our number comparison, think 53,691st).

Now it’s not as simple as that, of course. A linguist by profession, I know that even Westerners parse the words not only character by character, but rather, each word has almost become a pictogram to us. We recognise its form just as much (or probably more) than we read the actual characters. That should explain why the difference in reading efficiency isn’t there (or at least not as striking as to become an established fact or make the Japanese society superior to … hm… wait a minute, maybe I’m onto something here!).

After these revelations, this feeling of having understood – in my gut! – ideographic writing systems, I just can’t stop loving kanji.

But this is not the only good news. Last time I met my tutor (or ok, the time before that because last time I had a hangover), my Japanese was so good that we were both amazed. The reason was that I had studied really hard during the days before, and it paid off in a more direct way than I had expected. I thought it would be more like being on a diet or going to the gym; results come some weeks after those fierce days where you devote everything to whatever your project is. But here they came immediately, and that triggered me to study even more, because I could finally see the difference. It’s simple really; you study some hours a day and you make progress. So I e-mailed my tutor and asked him to come twice instead of once a week in the future. This was a breakthrough and I think it’s wise to use it to gain momentum in mastering Japanese conversation.

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One Response to 8 months of Japanese studies – the breakthrough!

  1. Rimmer May 9, 2011 at 09:29 #

    I’m told that English is the worst language (in Roman characters) for spelling – however, as you hint, it does turn every word into a kanji.

    Yoo own li haf too spel things owt fonetikli too proov that weed oo not werk fonetikli mowst ov thu tIm.

    Different spellings for words that sound the same (ate, eight) also act as kanji, speeding comprehension of written text in a way that cannot be reproduced in speech.

    Loving your progress in Japanese … but sadly don’t have the commitment to join you…

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