Sometimes I wonder if Japanese people led the construction of the Babel Tower during olden biblical times, and that Nihongo – the Japanese language – was the aftereffect of it.
Japanese are known for their discipline, skill, ingenuity and hard work, right? And given their craftsmanship, who would disagree that they can effectively make that “tower that reaches to the heavens,” as the Bible puts it? If it were so, wouldn’t it make perfect sense to make their language so complex that it would be reputed as “the devil’s own tongue?”
How hard is Nihongo?
To get a good sense of the language learning ladder that I had to climb as a foreign resident of Japan, I would usually ask people’s opinion of Nihongo, and I only needed to ask a few to know what I had always known.
An American English instructor that I met at a train ride in Kyoto bluntly said “one year and still nothing” of his Nihongo, something I somewhat empathize with as I also go into my first year of residence. A church acquaintance, who had moved from Hong Kong to Tokyo more than 10 years ago, said that he needed three years to get comfortable at conversations. A Japanese, truthful as they usually are, simply said that it’s muzukashii – difficult – even for Japanese themselves.
Enough said, Nihongo is indeed muzukashii. In a nutshell, what gives?
First, you learn that Nihongo comes in two formats: formal and informal.
Formal Nihongo is seen as more respectful and professional, and is the format by which Japanese introductory lessons are based upon, whereas the informal one is the casual conversation confined to family and friends. Also, unlike the Filipino language, which only utilizes the addition of the words “po” and “opo” to do the trick, Japanese words are conjugated when shifting from informal to formal and vice versa.
Second, you learn that the Japanese writing system is a combination of four subsystems, namely: Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji, and Romaji.
Hiragana, consisting of 46 characters, is the basic and original Japanese writing system, and is what children in kindergarten and elementary are taught first. Katakana, also 46 characters derived from Hiragana, is used for foreign and borrowed words, which includes names of foreigners like me. Kanji consists of about 2,000 Chinese characters that have been incorporated into the Japanese writing system, and Romaji or Roman alphabet consists of the most widely used characters in the world: the ABCs. Sadly, Romaji is used very sparingly (usually, for initials and abbreviations only) in everyday Nihongo.
So, how does one go around the problem? The quick fix is tapping the help of translation apps such as Google Translate, iTranslate and Waygo. Don’t expect them to be perfect though, as these are mechanical translators and oftentimes only serve to give people some gist of what they are trying to read. But to those who want to really immerse themselves in the Japanese language, here’s an ABC tip worth pursuing:
A-cquire / A-ccumulate vocabulary. There’s no other way around it but to stockpile words. You can survive without grammar, but never without words. And always remember, as in any other language, you’re only as good as your vocabulary is.
B-e thankful that you are a gaigokujin. Really. Because you are a gaigokujin or gaijin or foreigner in Japan, Japanese are often more understanding and more patient to things you do differently or wrongly like failing to fall in a line, being a little too noisy, being slow at the register, or speaking sloppy Nihongo. Use it to learn more about the language as well as the Japanese culture. Never forget to throw in your sincere apologies – Sumimasen or Gomen nasai – tons of them, for your shortcomings, failure to communicate, or whatever awkward situation you might find yourself into.
C-onstant exposure and C-onstant practice. There are lots of resource materials that can help you learn about Japanese language and culture, from the Internet, to books, movies, television, people, etc.
YouTube is a good platform, and it has lots of resources on speaking, reading and writing in Nihongo. While babysitting, I managed to complete the Japan Society’s series of five to 10-minute Nihongo videos, which are easy to follow and understand. Movies, specially anime, are also nice, as they allow you to see and experience conversations; sometimes, you get to learn some expressions too. Children’s books and toys are a fun and interactive way to practice reading Hiragana as kids would, and they’re almost anywhere in Japan: shops, bookstores, clinics, salons, restaurants, etc.
Get whatever you feel like getting; just make sure that you get something on a regular basis, daily if possible. The goal here is always seeking to chip away ambiguities, no matter how small they are through discovery and practice.
Be patient and believe that someday, it will all make sense.