Let’s learn Japanese!

Posted by in Mike's blog

What would your life be like if you were illiterate?

For us, this is a daily struggle. We are foreigners in a foreign land, and we don’t know the language. We knew that we would face some challenges before we left Canada, but there isn’t a day that goes by when we wish we could just read. Speaking is another issue entirely.

When I first arrived here I met with our old friend Soness in Tokyo, and she gave me a napkin’s worth of invaluable wisdom so that we could start our new lives in Japan off on the right foot. First on the list: Start taking Japanese classes right away. So we did. We have been faithfully attending some awesome (almost) free Japanese classes at our local international community centre.

The classes are quite interesting. Since english speakers aren’t the only foreigners in Fukui, we share the class with people of at least 5 nationalities, each with their own native language. The one language that unifies us all is Japanese – so we’re in an immersion class. The bunny comes along for the ride every week, and we do our best to keep her from distracting everyone by paying attention to her needs, letting her watch Sesame Street on mute on Mary’s iPad, and by stuffing her mouth full of food if she makes noise. One of the first things we practiced in class was reading and writing…

There are three sets of characters we need to know before we can read sentences. First, there’s hiragana – it’s a syllabary (each character corresponds to a syllable) composed of 48 characters used for Japanese words, verb endings and other grammatical functions. Secondly, there’s katakana – another syllabary, also with 48 characters, but this one is used for foreign words that have made their way into Japanese. Words like “computer”, “air conditioner”, “login” and “coffee” are written in katakana. Finally…kanji. Kanji characters are chinese. Each one corresponds to an word, and they can be mixed/merged together. There is no “set” of kanji characters, there’s just somewhere between 30 000 – 50 000 of them to memorize individually.

What’s a nice, young, over-educated couple to do when they find themselves functionally illiterate all of a sudden? Perhaps I’m exaggerating. When we came, I knew hiragana, and I have since learned katakana. Mary didn’t know a single character of any kind when we arrived, but now she knows hiragana. Class has been helpful! With our powers combined, we still can’t read a sentence because we don’t know enough kanji characters. I think I might have 10 or so down. What we CAN do is use what we do know to make educated guesses. It’s like every piece of paper is a mystery waiting to be solved…or something.

If you want to know more about the classes we’re taking, here’s the website for the Fukui International Activities Plaza. Not in Fukui? We’re told most communities have free or cheap Japanese lessons available for foreigners.