Everyone told me the language is hard. “One of the hardest you’ll ever learn.” I didn’t really listen. I thought, “I’ve been watching subbed anime for years now. I already picked up a bunch of words. It’s all going to be fine.”
Some parts of that are true. I will never forget how to say let’s eat or I’m sorry, but Japanese is indeed an extremely difficult language. (As I recently pointed out, I like difficult.) So I did a quick look online and tried to see how I could learn properly. Nothing good comes free, so I had to settle for Duolingo and a very helpful 2 hour series on the Japanese Alphabets.
That’s plural, thank you very much. Yes, the first step to learning this complex language is understanding the two basic alphabets: Hiragana and Katakana.
Hiragana is, as I understand it, the building blocks of the language. These characters get you started, mostly taught to children and beginners. I spend a whole day memorizing and understanding it only to find out it’s essentially only in kid books. I’m proud anyway.
Katakana is the alphabet of borrowed words, which I think is insanely cool. A whole other alphabet to depict words you’ve adopted from different languages? Sign me up. I did, sign myself up. I dedicated another day, learning another set of 46 characters that honestly don’t resemble their Hiragana counterparts much. My brain was fried as I split it in two. It was worth it in the end because Katakana signs are pretty common, and it gives me a little rush to look at the weird symbols and be able to read it. A celebratory beeru, anyone?
Two alphabets down, what more could be left, right? Wrong.
My party was cut short when it dawned on me that I have yet to master the hardest form of script yet: Kanji.
Kanji is the Japanese most people get tattooed on their shoulders or necks. It consists of complex signs and symbols that sometime represent a soul, and more often a concept. The symbol can have different pronunciation and can be used in different contexts. According to my reckless google search, I’m looking at upwards of 50,000 Kanji symbols. Luckily, even the most fluent don’t know that many. In every day speech, people mostly used something around 2,500. Still daunting, but a little better.
Turns out there is no easy way to learn Kanji. Trust me, I’ve tried. I go through the basics, studying the parts that make up the different characters. The basics consist of 20 particles. I try to understand them all and see if it’ll help me in any way. It doesn’t. A cross refers to the number ten, which also means completeness. “If I find a day in a symbol, then they’re trying to talk about completeness.” If I find the day radical, combined with the radical for temple, I should get… a holiday? Wrong. It’s actually…. (drum roll) Time! That’s because in the old days, the temples used to chime to signal the time of day. Although this is really interesting cultural background, I quickly understand that knowing radicals can’t really help you with Kanji.
In fact, I don’t think anything can really help with Kanji. You just have to do it. Dive in headfirst. Write them all down. Make sense of them in your own way. Find little nuggets to remind you of what they could mean, but don’t count on anything to guide you.
Speaking (why I gave up on Duolingo)
After learning the writing, I start learning the actual conversational aspect. Duolingo helps, but it feels rigid and very tourist oriented. Yes, I know how to tell the time, or let someone know I don’t eat meat, but I feel like I’m not really learning the language.
So I switch to a platform called japanesepod. It’s essentially a huge database of podcasts and videos to help you learn Japanese. I haven’t done too much research into the background, but it’s extremely helpful (and dense). the amount of lessons is overwhelming, and it makes me feel like anything I learned in Duolingo was a joke. I soldier through, benefiting of the lesson notes and kanji help.
It’s a paid service, but one week in, I quickly understand that it’s worth it. I don’t know if I’ll be continuing with the paid version once my first time discount wears out, but I will certainly milk it for the next month.
They were right. Japanese is a complex language, more so the deeper you dive in. It’s complex, and it’s hard, but it’s also very rewarding. I like knowing why Kanji have such weird origins and connections. I like they idea of harmony and balance that governs the culture. But I guess what I like best is that I’m taking something really hard, and not giving up.
At least, not yet.