Thursday, December 09, 2004

Your First Encounter with Hiragana

I'm not a professional. But let's dive into hiragana.

You've got your tools in place
, you've prepared yourself for a system of writing radically different from any other, and away we go...

Hiragana are the most common and simple characters in written Japanese. I recommend becoming familiar with hiragana before you begin learning words/phrases/expressions/etc. I have tried to explain to many a beginning Japanese language student that learning the romanized (romaji) spelling of Japanese words is detrimental to your overall progress, but, alas, not many of them were willing to give up the roman alphabet. "It's easier," they say. You might as well make up your own system for reading music. Instead of reading musical notes on a standard musical scale, you could replace the notes with the letters "a, b, c, d, e, f, g" that we use to talk about those notes. You could learn to read music with the notes replaced by written letters in straight-line sentence format, and you might be able to play any piece of music very well like this. However, the day someone puts a genuine musical piece in front of you (scale, staff, and notes) you will be useless at reading it.

This is exactly like learning Japanese with a romanized alphabet instead of kana. The musical piece that is the Japanese language wasn't written in the Western alphabet. This beautiful language didn't pause for a second thinking about how best to bridge the gap between the East and the West. Keep this in mind when you are trying to learn Japanese: it is not the responsibility of Japanese to cross the bridge and render itself in the roman alphabet so you can understand it more easily; it is your job to cross the bridge from West to East using your native alphabet as a starting place and leaving it behind as quickly as possible.

Learn hiragana.

Wikipedia has an excellent yet concise history of hiragana. Read it for fun.

From the Wikipedia chart, there are 41 essential hiragana for you to learn. Just like learning the English alphabet, this is a process you can knock out in a few hours if you just sit down and study. I think it took me a full week to learn all of them because I was a very lazy student in the beginning. My example shows that you can either be dedicated and knock it out quickly, or you can sit around and be lazy and learn 5 at a time. It's probably best if you just knock out the hiragana quickly.

Some great online tools for studying hiragana are: This is a nice little flashcard-style learning tool. It just displays random hiragana from sets that you choose.

Hiragana Screen Saver Shows random hiragana as a screen saver for the windows desktop.

Genki Flash Cards An online study tool for hiragana to be used with the Genki I lesson 1.

Charles Kelly's Online Japanese Language Study Materials A nice hiragana flash-based quiz tool, as well as many other resources you can use at more advanced levels.

Hiragana Flash Card Trainer An application for hiragana training on the Palm OS.

The Kanji Site A fun pop-up window shows all 46 common hiragana and displays the romaji upon mouse-over. Good for just starting to learn hiragana because you can change to romaji to kana instantly over-and-over.

There are many, many more sites out there with valuable tools for learning. I tried to provide a sample of those sites with a variety of interfaces. I will compile a huge list of links in the future and comment on the ones that helped me the most.

Everyone will make mental associations with each hiragana. While these associations are unique for each person - I'd like to point out some of the visually similar hiragana that might trip you up.

NU - NE - WA
ぬ ね わ

These three kana gave me a world of trouble in the beginning. You can see how I have them listed, from left to right, they change by one little detail only. For me, it came down to associating ぬ with いぬ (dog). The kanji kind of looks like a curled up dog to me. ね was locked into my mind after I realized that ね is used kind of like "yup" or "right" or "uh huh" at the end of many sentences. Statistically, I'm not sure which kana appears most often in writing, but I think overall ね is the most frequently used kana in speech. Once you learn Japanese well enough to hold a conversation, you will hear ね so often it makes your ears tired. Everytime you hear someone say it - just visualize it. わ actually has four distinct pen movements - just like an English "W." That might be a weak association for some; I hope it helps someone.


Tsu is probably the most versatile kana because a tsu is necessary any time you have a double consonant sound in Japanese (with the exception of an "nna" sound that I will discuss later). Anytime you see a small tsu (っ) you know to make the very next consonant sound into something like a stutter. Conveying this sound on the internet is next to impossible. I strongly advise you to seek the help of anyone who has been exposed to Japanese for no less than 2 months - they will know how to make this sound for any of the kana consonants (k, s, t, h, b, p, r, n, m, y). When writing Japanese words in the English alphabet (also known as romaji), a small tsu character effects the following change: そか (soka) そか (sokka). The "k" from the か (ka) character is doubled in romanized spelling and the pronunciation is such that the word almost sounds like two words instead of one: sok-ka. Having a teacher or friend demonstrate this for you (if this is your first encounter with Japanese) will save you a lot of stress trying to perfect the pronunciation on your own.

The other hiragana are, in fact, pretty easy to learn. I haven't known anyone to spend more than a week learning all of them. So I probably shouldn't spend too much time talking about them ^_^ There are other, more worthy pursuits for us to spend our time diving into. Like the all important kanji!!!

Friday, November 26, 2004

Preparing to Learn

I am not a professional.

What ever you think you need to learn Japanese, put it to the back of your mind right now. If you're willing to take an alternative point-of-view, I'll tell you the secret (my secret) to learning Japanese or any language.

You'll need tools.

Hit the highlights or journey with me through a metaphor. Think of Japanese (or any language) as a house. Learning the language is comparable to building that house. The roof and exterior are your communication with the outside world, the paint and styling of your interiors represent your special syntax or dialect (unique to each person in my opinion), and all the boards and bricks between the inside and the outside can be compared to every word in your vocabulary, making the language complete and structurally sound even though you don't know every single word in your native tongue. The house is big and unique to each of us in our native tongue.

And it starts with the foundation.

Grammar is the foundation of language. Any language. No one bothers thinking about the foundation of their native "language house" because the structure is completely in tact at a very early age. We spend time studying grammar in school, yet without even bothering we can produce long, complicated thoughts in coherent sentences - whether or not our grammar is perfect (take my punctuation as an example). In fact, when you move into a house in real life you don't bother thinking about the foundation that much. The house is built and livable. Just like your native language. However, contract a company to build your "dream house" and suddenly you are very much involved with the process of laying a foundation. Anyone who has been involved with building, or contracting someone to build, their own house knows that a foundation is not just a concrete slab. Everything you need to make the house "livable" has to be planned out in the foundation. Water is the most essential element. Without running water most of us wouldn't bother moving in to the house. Water is vital to make a house "livable." Grammar is vital to make a language understandable.

A long metaphor - but grammar is to language what water is to life. And modifying a very famous saying, "grammar is like water, it isn't important until you aren't getting any."

So rule number 1 is: forget about English grammar.

Start out with a fresh spot in your mind somewhere near your sylvain fissure, wipe out any remaining English grammar, and prepare to lay a new grammatical foundation for the Japanese language. There are many pieces of the foundation to lay out, but first...

You'll need tools.

I study Japanese everyday armed with the tools of the trade: dictionary, flashcards, Japanese chat sites (I tend towards IRC, but there are plenty of Japanese chat sites), and a professor's office full of books about Japanese.

So before you dive in to putting together a grammar foundation for Japanese, arm yourself with the proper tools:

Dictionary: Japanese-English Dictionary Interface (JEDI). This is an extensive Japanese-English dictionary that handles input of English, hiragana, katakana, and complex kanji. The dictionary will not return results for single kanji, or single kana (if you were using the on-yomi to search for a kanji).

Flashcards: This site has an amazing Java applet for quizzing yourself on all 1945 Joyo Kanji in either their traditionally listed order or the JLPT order. This is the best site for kanji learning/recognition practice that I have ever found.

IRC: There are lots of channels on IRC frequented by Japanese people or Japanese speakers. Sometimes the best way to learn another language is from someone who speaks your native language as this person has encountered lots of the same problems with grammar and translations you will likely encounter during your studies. I am a staple on EFnet #japan and #nihongo

Books: There are, at last count, 2039570472935 books about the Japanese language available on 43059673945 different internet retailers. While I haven't used them all, I highly recommend the Genki series created by former students/faculty members at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Japan. There are many others, but these are great books for those just starting out through intermediate. Also, just because you are not a child doesn't mean you should forget the simple lessons you learned as a child. Most of these lessons came from fairy tales or other children's stories. So read them in Japanese. I recommend ももたろ (momotaro - English version). Find other stories in Japanese at your discretion. The best part is that children's stories in Japanese are mostly written in kana with very few kanji (with side-by-side kana readings). READ!

A final piece of advice for anyone starting out: forget anime/manga.

While not all people interested in learning Japanese have heard of manga, the vast majority of foreigners learning Japanese have either heard of manga/anime or are dedicated fans (or somewhere in the middle). I try not to impose any of my personal biases when teaching, but anime/manga is ruining the average Japanese student's impression of the Japanese language.

I'll explain -

Anime/manga are Japanese cartoons, either in serialized-book form or video (TV, DVD, VHS, whatever). Just like American cartoons, Japanese cartoon characters are famous for the quirks that make them unique. Often these quirks express themselves in language, and characters are renowned for their catch-phrases or special dialect (accent, slang, etc.). Everyone in America knows (or should know) The Simpsons. Everyone I know uses and understands the expression, "doh!" Without the world's most famous cartoon dad, Homer Simpson, that phrase might not ever have become common use in the English language. This is the danger of picking up words from cartoons!!! Using "doh!" in common speech and studying "doh!" as common speech are two separate issues.

Native speakers know intuitively where the word "doh!" comes from (or can at least recognize it is not a word learned from a class in school), but a foreign student studying English might not. The student might come to think that everyone who speaks English uses "doh!" as a natural part of their vocabulary, a formal part even. This is exactly what I hear from Japanese language students who spend a lot of time watching/reading anime/manga.

The best example I can give is the term ~でござる(degozaru) made famous by Rurouni Kenshin, a samurai character with a cult-following. Degozaru takes the place of ~でございます (degozaimasu) - a formal ending for polite speech in Japanese. While there is no exact translation in the English language (a word or phrase we use in exactly the same way), you could probably think of ~でございます(degozaimasu) as something like "if it pleases you" the way you might hear it in very formal, and "oldy" English, conversation.  ~でござる(degozaru) follows a sentence that can end in です(desu) or だ(da). This expression was used mostly by Samurai during the Edo Period. For that reason, it is a highly recognizable phrase, something all Japanese people will understand. But using it as a normal part of conversational Japanese is as funny as saying "doh!" during a congressional meeting. Some people may laugh, others may look at you as though you are a madman. I have seen both.

Anime/manga language is wonderful and fun precisely because it is anachronistic in common speech. If you are a native English speaker, imagine an American or Australian with a thick accent using Elizabethan English with their best impersonation of a period accent (though not entirely accurate). On stage from a comedian, this might sound really funny. At the supermarket when you are buying food, this would sound really strange.

Always keep in mind that your pronunciation and mastery of the Japanese language has to be 10 times better than native Japanese speakers because Japanese people have a hard enough time believing Westerners can speak Japanese in the first place. When you use non-standard phrases like ~でござる(degozaru), it serves to totally confuse a native Japanese speaker. They can't be sure if you are intentionally being funny or not.

Learning Japanese

I find it highly unlikely that a reader finds a blogger's first entry before reading anything else on the site, so I write this first entry of my "Learning Japanese" series knowing it will serve as a backlog for interested people who want some background information on me.

I am not a professional Japanese teacher.

In fact, I wouldn't consider myself professional in any way. I teacher technical-college level English in Fukuoka, Japan. Hopefully I won't be doing it forever, but for now, it's a start.

If I could be said to have a hobby, studying Japanese is it. I've loved Japan and everything about Japan (including the more frustrating aspects like indirect EVERYTHING) since I can remember. Literally, I scrolled back in my brain to the earliest logs captured by my rogue thought processes, and I found Japan mentioned many many times for various yet origin-unknown reasons. Let's leave it at that. I can't explain it any better when a Japanese person asks me why I love their country either.

My obsession with studying the Japanese language is comparable to the frenetic Lafcadio Hearn.

With this in mind, I also want to state formally that my musings on the Japanese language, or any mnemonic devices and tips/tricks I might write about, are no substitute for formal Japanese language instruction in an accredited institution. I have studied Japanese in three different academic institutions, two of them located in Japan.

I also want to make it clear that I'm not fluent in the language, yet. I study very very hard everyday, I live in Japan (as I mentioned), and I want to learn this language more than anyone else I know who is studying. That doesn't mean my Japanese is perfect, but the things that I know how to say, I _know_ how to say.

I want to use this blog more as a writing and remembering exercise for myself. One of my college mentors said that you don't really learn anything until you try to teach it. This is the primary purpose of my blog. I am making it a point not to search through other blogs that have Japanese-language related material. I don't want my blog to become a premier spot on the web, and I don't much care for any of the business-related things that are coming out of blogging at this time.

I just want to write about learning Japanese because it is something I know a lot about and some I care a great deal about. With that in mind, read the things I write for additional insight into various aspects of the Japanese language. Never rely on only one person for anything. Networking can be implemented in real life as easily (or perhaps easier) than anything on the web.

But the web is the bridge. I have had a fantastic time digging up a wealth of information about learning Japanese on the web. Each site I find panders to one interesting aspect of the language, or it covers a broad topic with key points necessary to understand and use Japanese in conversation effectively (if you are studying presently, you know how hard it can be to use Japanese effectively in conversation).

So that's my first entry in a nutshell. Kind of a broad disclaimer saying, "Let's explore the language together" instead of "I am your teacher - you will learn from me!"

I hope you find the things I have studied insightful. Many of my postings will probably be inspired by questions people bring up on IRC channels.

For the record - you can find me almost any day of the week on EFnet channel #Japan

If you don't know anything about IRC, I recommend you take a look. Naturally, I have linked to one of the more popular IRC programs. There are plenty of others.