I Think I’m Learning Japanese, Part III: Kanji!

みんな おはよう! That’s “Minna ohayou,” or, “Good morning everyone!”

I’m back with another progress report on my Japanese self-study.

I’ve gotten just about all of the hiragana memorized, but I’m lagging on the katakana, so I have to get on that! My verbal Japanese is coming along nicely. I’m able to introduce myself pretty easily now, say where I’m from, and ask simple questions. It’s all very, very basic stuff, but it feels great and I have confidence I’m on the right path this time, versus the many false starts I have had.

So that brings another topic. One that is very intimidating. Kanji.

Unlike hiragana and katakana, which are really just alphabets like ours, kanji is a pictorial system borrowed from the Chinese that represents ideas and sounds with pictures. There are, I think, two things that make kanji appear intimidating: how bizarre it looks, at first, and the sheer amount of them.

I work in the video game industry, and I have sometimes assisted in language localization on some projects. When converting to Japanese, one of the technical challenges faced by developers is a font may have something like 5000 kanji characters in the font, yet the actual Japanese language has tens of thousands of kanji. While many of these are out-of-use characters from the past, not all of them are, and invariably the translators we hire choose one that isn’t actually in the font! When this happens, the computer renders a plane square or some other “error” character, telling us there is a problem.

So when studying Japanese as a beginner, kanji seems horrifying. However, Lee has a great collection of Japanese learning books at home, and I found a terrific one that has made the process of kanji learning fun! It’s called Read Japanese Today by Len Walsh.

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I Think I’m Learning Japanese, Part II: Learning How to Learn

It’s Thomas again, or, rather: Watashi wa Thomas Typo, yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

That was: I am Thomas Typo, pleased to meet you!

I’ve been working diligently on learning Japanese in time for our trip in April,* and so far it is going well.

Here is an inventory of what I’ve learned so far:

  1. I’ve memorized maybe 50-70% of the hiragana, and a few katakana. A lot of work left to go, but it’s getting there!
  2. I’ve learned some basic phrases for introducing myself, and more importantly how to ask people how to say things in Japanese (so I can practice without going back to English when talking to Lee for practice).
  3. I’ve ditched what isn’t helping me right now, and I’m focusing what I need instead.

Let’s look at number 3 for a little bit. The first time I tried to learn Japanese, I made the mistake of trying to learn using just one method. This was bad. You probably need to use several different apps/books/tools if you aren’t paying for private lessons (which is in my opinion the best way to learn anything**). However, I was beginning to get the opposite problem: by trying to do too much, I wasn’t learning much of anything!

In my case, I turned off the writing module in the Learning Japanese app (which I continue to use and enjoy!). Writing is great, but it isn’t helping me now with my goals — to attain an ability to have basic conversations and to read simple things.

There is also the issue of finding time. I’ve set aside the hours of 9pm-10pm on most days for study (that is when our oldest daughter goes to bed, so it is a good time to study!). However, I realized that I have about an hour per day of commuting in the car to work. I should totally use that for study!

So to do that, I went shopping on Amazon for an audiobook, and found this one: Learn Japanese with Innovative Language’s Proven Language System.

What I purchased was a bundle for ten dollars that included their introductory boot camp, as well as the more in-depth lessons. What I like most about this audiobook is that it is not just a simple phrase-teaching book. They go into great detail on the culture and context of the language, and even have little pop culture quizzes that are quite fun! I feel like this is doing a good job of not just teaching me a language, but helping me to understand the overall culture better.

Here’s an example: there is an easy-to-remember word for “yes” in Japanese, called “hai” (pronounced like our “hi”). This is easy enough, but did you know that Japanese people will say this while listening to another person speak? You might hear a person say “hai, hai” throughout a conversation. In our culture, interjecting this way might be considered rude (imagine someone saying “uh huh” a lot while you talk: you probably don’t like that, and think they are brushing you aside or not paying attention). In Japan, however, it is the opposite: it’s considered weird to not say anything, and saying “hai” (and other interjections) is a way to let the speaker know you are following the conversation. That’s great to know!

That’s it for now — as I keep learning, I’ll keep reporting. I hope my ruminations are helpful and possibly a little inspiring! I can definitely say I’m having a lot of fun studying a second language!

*Obviously not mastering Japanese, but learning enough to feel like I’m not totally lost!

**I admit that I teach private guitar lessons, so I’m biased here!