Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Things people say when you tell them you study Japanese

The problem with taking showers is the incredible income of deep thoughts my brain begins having. OK I think I made the grammar up in that sentence, but I don't care, I think you got me, haha.

I never stop thinking. Ever. This isn't a good thing. It isn't about intelligence, either. I don't really have genius thoughts or good thoughts, just... thoughts. About everything. Overwhelming. Sometimes negative and worrying. And sometimes, thoughts profound enough to write things like this post.

People make remarks at you when you study. It's usually congratulatory, but not always.

It can range from "Wow, good work!" to "You nerd, will you EVER do things wrong?"

And with my pale skin color, one comment is almost always compulsory: "Well, I guess libraries aren't tanning salons, eh?"

When I admit I study Japanese -and notice that this needs a grade of acceptance from and of oneself, which is really sad- this kind of statement never goes unnoticed.

I get all kind of things. So I will proceed to debate them.

Let's start with one of my favorites - 

"Isn't it hard?"

Well, yes, I suppose so. But then again, isn't Spanish hard, too? I daresay it's even harder. With all its tildes (the little slanted apostrophe as in canción) and complex grammar rules (put a tilde here! No, put it here! No, not if it's a monosyllable! OK, maybe some monosyllables! Conjugate EVERY verb, noun and adjective! Include gender and number!), it really isn't that much of a breeze. But hey, Argentinians were born with it.

Now THAT is a natural privilege. I think that if I had to learn Spanish from scratch, I'd never do it! lol

The concern most people have about Japanese, and what makes it inherently hard according to those people, is the use of three alphabets.

Really now? I don't think it's so bad. Memorizing so many kanji isn't instantaneous, I'll give you that, but it's not impossible. If anything, it reduces ambiguity while reading, which is SO helpful.

And also, it's culture. It's a beautiful culture. You aren't writing letters put together. You have ideograms and pictograms and wonderful fluid characters that look like a painting. You have "komorebi"(木漏れ日), literally "the light that filters through the trees", which is written by tree, escape, sun. It is the sun jumping through the leaves and casting different shadows in the ground.

I don't know man, that's beautiful. I guess I really love, love, love language studies and everything that has to do with the conformation of languages, with semiology and semiotics, and this, for a language, is breath-taking.

So is it hard? Maybe. Learning is hard in itself. It's not Japanese, it's the process of apprehending new things that is difficult.

"But there's all these symbols..."

This next phrase has deviated directly from the last one.

This is Western idiosyncrasy. I mean, don't we, who utilize the Roman alphabet, also write with a lot of little characters that by themselves mean... nothing? There is no meaning emanating from the letter "a". There is, however, a social construct that "a" should sound like... well, "a", and in conjunction with many other thingies like "a", will form words that have certain phonetics depending on the order of the letters.

Japanese characters have a lot of good points. For one, they don't need caps like we do. They are organized into syllables that have a certain pronunciation, reducing phonetic ambiguity by a great lot. And they are also very pretty.

Why should Japan adapt to our Western system? When you don't understand a language, it doesn't matter how the characters are written. For example, I don't understand a word of, say, German. It doesn't make any difference to me if German is written in hiragana or Roman letters. I still cannot make any sense out of it. Sure, you might say, "at least Roman letters you can read".

Yes, you can. But the world is filled with many beautiful alphabets... Cyrillic, Arabic, Korean, just to name a few. Nobody is like us, yet we are all alike. Isn't that amazing?

The problem I find in the Argentine society is that formal education still doesn't consider the Eastern hemisphere to be relevant to education plans. So they teach us all about the Roman Empire, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, this and that, but never what was happening in Japan. Or in Israel. Or Iran, or Thailand, or anywhere! They don't even teach us about the Tsarist Regime in Russia, and well, at least Russia is halfway into the Western hemisphere! But no.

So how are we to understand a culture if we think we are the only one? That is why people ask, "Why three alphabets?" Because. Just because. Exactly like the reason we use the Roman alphabet! Just because! Phoenicians happened to try to unify alphabets so they could commerce! But it STILL is just because. It could have happened many ways. It happened a certain way because of the historical and spacial context, but that's it.

There is a Major you can study here in Buenos Aires, called "Oriental Studies". However, I insist that this is kind of unfair. We should be allowed to specialize professionally in that area, yes, but why aren't we thought this things from day one in Elementary School? Moreover, this Major is dictated in a private university, which most people don't have access to.

"Chuchiwawewi. Did I just say something in Japanese?"

Now that is really bizarre. Why would anyone do that? Believe it or not, they do. Of course it is meant as harmless fun, but that doesn't make it any less rude.

People assume that because Oriental languages are arranged differently, and they sometimes have repetitive phonetical structures, that randomly throwing sounds together will add up to something. This is a millenary language, are you kidding me? It makes sense, it has a certain disposition of elements, it is intricate. Vomiting syllables won't make words.

Japanese language students share this trait, I presume, with Chinese students. I bet people say "Xiaxuxeyanye. Did I just say something in Chinese?".

Seriously guys, those kind of things border on racial stereotypes, specially considering the tone they use when trying to "come up with Japanese" (more often than not, a very nasal, high voice). I wouldn't like it if people told me, "AMIGO tacos milanesa, ratonesa parapente" and asked if they were speaking actual Spanish. But this is even worse, because usually everyone can at least mutter two words in Spanish (amigo and fiesta), but for Japanese, they just make gutural sounds, randomly guessing.

So I guess a correct comparation would be like this: "Rrra rri rru gah goh geh. Did I just say something in Spanish?"

Are you *expletive* kidding me.jpg

That being said, I am over-thinking this WAY too much. But hey, I really do love languages, that's the main reason I study communicational studies.

For all that it's worth, though, I'll say this - even if you don't speak a word of Japanese, try smiling at a Japanese man or woman, boy or girl. I bet you my life that they will smile back. This is also the beauty of humanity, even -gasp- more so than any language. You will then comprehend the importance of living in a globalized world, and knowing the "other half" as much as you know yours. Because we are different, but the same. Like the song says: A smile means friendship to everyone :)


  1. "Chuchiwawewi. Did I just say something in Japanese?" so fucking true!!!!
    I used to learn japanese in high school and people always answered me this stupid question and now it's the same with chinese X___X

    1. I can relate :( haha it's so enraging!

      That's amazing, that you're doing Chinese! How many languages have you studied?

    2. some people can be judgmental when they found something which is not a norm to them..