Sunday, 22 June 2014

Eastward bound

I am back in the glen, and there's something taking up a lot of my time...

Not this, but relating to this.. (first attempt at painting a bamboo traditional Japanese scroll-style)

Increasingly I am finding myself looking East. Indology would have probably been the best none-language course I would have ever studied, had I been allowed to continue it when in Milan...  If I had to study a "dead" language it would probably be Sanskrit, though modern languages do excite me more offering a key to another culture. Many of my teenage years were spent reading and watching anime and manga, letting go of reality with studio Ghibli, watching some really weird movies like the Happiness of the Katakuris (advertised as a cross between the Sound of Music and Dawn of the Dead) playing pokemon games, Japanese art (from Hokusai to stories from Japanese mythology such as Kitsune) and experimenting with (the cooking and consumption of) Japanese cuisine. I wasn't an Otaku, far from it, but I was curious. Though I have spent a bit of time studying Chinese in the last year, the first (and only) other Asian language I tried was Japanese. I did an introductory evening course at Edinburgh University, which covered greetings, demonstrative pronouns,  the counting systems, a bit of basic vocabulary and provided an introduction to the writing systems. Though I love the European languages I study (Italian and French), and do want to eventually master German too, were I to do a masters I would probably move to Asian studies. The problem resides more in the question: "which language?"

After a trip to China two years ago I became interested in teaching English in China. There are many opportunities in Asia for English teachers, especially in China, South Korea and Taiwan. To prepare I did a 120 hour TEFL course and started familiarising myself with the Chinese language. I was pretty intrigued when learning about the tonal system in Mandarin, the clues to the culture in the language (e.g. 吃醋-chī cù, which literally means "to eat vinegar" but has come to mean to be jealous in love, one of many expressions using food in the Chinese language).

Despite the ease of learning new vocabulary (rarely word-length exceeded 2 syllables) and the relatively easy grammar (hardly any inflection, SVO word order like in English), I have found myself quite overwhelmed by the daunting task of endlessly learning new kanji. It has been estimated that there are over 50,000 characters used in Chinese, though to read *only* about 3000 are needed.  Though I find these characters beautiful, as I am not prepared at this point of my life to put in the necessary time and effort into this neverending learning process, I concentrated more on pinyin, the latinised Mandarin "alphabet" (which is also used by Chinese people when they type; there is no way all of those characters could fit on a keyboard). My targets for learning Chinese were more travel-orientated, I wanted to reach conversational level fast and concentrate on being literate later. This was going pretty well until I started a formal language learning course at l'Université Stendhal in Grenoble, France. Learning about the origins of the characters was really interesting, and I did enjoy learning to recognise and write some basic characters. It did however distract me from my prime goal which had been going well during the summer. With characters there are never any short term goals, apparently just long term goals. Concentrating on characters when I knew that wasn't my real goal kind of killed off the fun for me, so I put Chinese language learning on hold. I still want to go back and complete this goal, though when I have more motivation (a second trip to China would be enough). My passion was slightly reignited by being around my Chinese flatmate in Milan with whom I spoke a little Mandarin, complimented me on my pronunciation, and who showed me China town and allowed me to relive the traditional Chinese tea ceremony.

characters are beautiful, if not a little tricky to learn...

For some time I have wanted to visit Japan, both to see the country and to meet up with a good friend who is from Shiga but lives in Tokyo. This year I got a multi-ticket allowing me to get a taster of Japan and Vietnam, another country high on my priority list. When I bought the ticket my immediate instinct was to read the wikipedia page for the Japanese language. I remembered how easy Japanese pronunciation is (there is a simple syllabic structure and no tones), making it easy to get by as a tourist with a phrase book. The presence of two alphabets (hiragana usually for native words, katakana for foreign words) and the kanji borrowed from Chinese does indeed seem overwhelming, but knowing that there are two fixed alphabets certainly does allow you to set some short term goals and be able to read a lot more. There is also of course the possibility of using Romaji, the Japanese word for pinyin, though with Japanese this is less necessary as a learning tool given the ease of learning hiragana. Some aspects of the grammar present more of a challenge to me than Chinese, such as the lack of real defined pronouns; instead a subset of nouns (daimeishi) take this role. Personal pronouns are not always necessary though, as Japanese is a pro-drop language, which is quite weird considering the lack of information provided by the verb. Verbs appear to be pretty easy to conjugate in Japanese as you add a suffix to the verb stem to indicate a different tense (e.g. for the verb "to go": iki-masu (present tense), iki-mashita (past tense). The SOV word order is a little confusing at first but easy enough to get to grips with.

A few days ago my copy of Japanese for busy people  turned up in the post. There is a romaji version, but I opted for the kana one deciding that learning at least hiragana, and perhaps also familiarising myself with katakana, is a very manageable aim. It may at the very least help me in decoding menus and metro maps in Japan next month. There is also a CD to go alongside the exercises.  I think the main issues I am experiencing right now are to do with the particles (Japan's answer to prepositions, always a bugger) and the many rules to consider when expressing formality/politeness (the need to add -san after other people's names, the distinction between the simple and advanced polite forms, the various suffixes such as -masu and difficult-to-translate words like desu which just indicate politeness). Though the kana does present a little bit more of a challenge, I am finding it very doable and enjoy the decoding process. It is amazing when those little pretty squiggles start making sense. To help memorise hiragana I am using a combination of realkana and this handy drag-and-drop game. The biggest obstacle I am finding is the variation in written styles, e.g. sometimes "ko" こ is written like this, other times the two lines are joined together to create a z-like character. 

taken from here

I am going to focus on learning as much as I can in the 3 weeks without sacrificing leisure time and  jeopardising my final year of university (I have a long reading list which I have already started for 4th year). I downloaded the Japanese keyboard on my computer. Here is a taster of my hiragana learning process:

1. こんにち
Konnichiwa! * わ is actually the character which stands for "wa", but when you hear wa used as a grammatical particle (to indicate the subject) it is actually written as "ha" は. I have highlighted this usage in all of the sentences below to make it stick in my mind).  

2. おげんきですか? げんきです, ありが*!

*"u" () not pronounced but written in order to make the "o" of "to" longer.

Ogenki desu ka? Genki desu, arigato (long "o" as indicated by the "u" in the kana)!

3. わたし りす です。
Watashi wa Risu Desu
(my Japanese name, りす which also means squirrel).

4. わたしは22さい*です。
*sai indicates age

Watashi wa ni-ju ni desu.

5. わたし  かめら が ほしい です。

Watashi wa kamera ga* hoshii desu.

 *here the particle ga (が) is used to indicate the object.

6. わたし  にほんご お べんきょう したい*。

Watashi wa nihongo o benkyō shitai
*to express a desire the suffix "-tai" can be added to many verbs to express desire.

7. おねがいします! 


8. ラーメン を* ひとつ 〉ださい!

ramen wo hitotsu/futatsu kudasai!
*wo is used as a grammatical particle to indicate a direct object,
**ramen is written with katakana as it is a foreign word coming from Chinese

9. ねこ   かわいい と おもいます!

neko wa kawaii desu to omoimasu

10. わたしたち  あした ときょう に いきます。

Watatashitachi wa ashita tokyo ni ikimasu (ikimasen negative)

*ni, indirect object, destination. Word order: Subject (if any) + particle + time reference + destination + particle + verb.

11. かれ  どいつ * いきます

Kare wa doitsu ni ikimasu.
*ni is used to express movement.

12. わたし  らいしゅう 日本 に いきます

watashi wa raishuu nihon ni ikimasu

13. *すーさん さん  せんしゅう とうきょう に いきました。

Susan-san wa senshuu Tokyo (written in hiragana as Toukyou) ni ikimashita. 
*here I purposefully ommited the pronoun. Definitely not necessary after already saying it once.            

Sorry for boring anyone who isn't interested in the slightest. I am kind of using this moment as an opportunity to see which language I am most interested in and most comfortable with. Working in Asia (at least for a year) is still a possibility and I don't want to be completely incapable of communication next month in Japan! Sharing language goals publically also sometimes makes me a little bit more motivated, as if I fail I fail publically...                                                                                                                                           

1 comment:

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