One of the things that scared me the most about moving to Japan was the complete impenetrability of the Japanese language. I’ve always been good with languages, but Japanese?! How could anyone possibly even begin to conquer Japanese?! But here I am, in Japan, and so I figured that I’d try.
Now, don’t get me wrong – there are definitely some things you can learn to say without taking a class. For instance, by my second or third day here, I was very good at saying good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and thank you. Why, you might ask? Every time Yoni and/or I enter a military installation (often many times a day) we are required to show our military IDs; 9 times out of 10, the guards checking IDs are Japanese. It’s not too hard to repeat back what they’re saying to you. In case you’re interested, here’s how it goes:
good morning: おはようございます (o-ha-yoo go-zai-mas)
good afternoon:こんにちは (kon-nichi-wa)
good evening:こんばんは (kon-ban-wa)
thank you: ありがとうございました (a-ri-ga-too go-zai-mas)
While I was happy to know how to be polite to our guards, I wanted to learn more than how to say good morning, so I enrolled in an actual class. The one I chose was a college-level Japanese course offered by University of Maryland – University College, a U of M extension school. The semester was only 8 weeks long, but we met twice a week for three hours at a time. I guess you could call it a Japanese ulpan.
The class was not easy. For one thing, my teacher really didn’t like me, which is not exactly a position I’m accustomed to being in. Also, we covered a lot of material in each class. Missing a class or day-dreaming was not an option; if I had stopped paying attention for five minutes, I would have been lost for sure. And don’t forget that I had to learn two new alphabets! Yes, two. Actually, Japanese has three separate reading and writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. There are 46 basic characters each in Hiragana and Katakana, and thousands and thousands of Kanji. Our (very introductory) class did not touch Kanji, but we did learn to read and write Hiragana and Katakana almost immediately. We also learned some basic sentence structures and a lot of vocabulary, as you might imagine in a beginning language course.
Did I enjoy the class? I really did. It felt good to put my mind to use. It also feels good to be able to read some of the signs along the road; every once in a while I can even understand something! I can fluently ask “where is the bathroom” (two different ways!) and “how much does that hat cost”, and, if you give me a minute to think, I can even tell you that, yesterday, Yoni and I went to a restaurant to eat sushi. And, while she never came to like me exactly, by the end of the semester my teacher had come around a bit. But while I know so much more now than I did when I started, speaking Japanese still feels a million miles away. I’m hoping to take the next session over the summer. In the meantime, I’m enjoying my basic decoding skills and creating sentences in my head. I'm not sure I'm ready to actually use my sentences out loud yet…but hey – one step at a time, right?
p.s. – if you are interested in more blog posts about learning Japanese, leave a comment and I will happily do a follow up post or series.