Thursday, 05 January, 2006

Reading Japanese

I think that learning to read Japanese is going to be somewhat more difficult than learning to speak and understand it.  Written Japanese is composed of three (at least) different groups of characters:  Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana.

Kanji, which contains more than 3,000 characters, is used to form word roots.  Kanji characters are abstract pictographs, with a single character expressing a word or an idea.  There is a character for "big," and a separate character for "tree."  It seems that just about every character has multiple meanings, and different pronunciation depending on whether it's used alone or in combination with other characters.  I think I'll be able to understand written Japanese before I can translate what I've read into spoken Japanese language.

Fortunately, one doesn't have to know all 3,000 characters in order to function.  To read at a sixth grade level, about 1,000 characters are required.  A graduating high school student needs to know about 2,000 characters.  You can probably read about 60% of a daily newspaper if you know 500 of the characters.  To get around on the street--read signs and such--you only need to know about 300.

Hiragana  is used to form grammatical endings.  My limited understanding here is that in Kanji one can write "big dog run me", but you have to add the kana in order to write the complete sentence, "the big dog ran to me."  Katakana is used to write in Japanese the many words that are borrowed from other languages.

Unlike Kanji, in which each character describes a thing or an idea, each kana is a syllable, much like the English alphabet.  So the written Japanese language is a combination of pictographic and syllabic alphabets.  It gets a little bit more confusing.

Each set of kana has 46 different symbols, and each set contains the same sounds as the other.  That's right, there are two different characters for the sound, "ka," for example.  Actually, I think there's a Kanji character that is pronounced, "ka," too, so I guess there are three different characters with that pronunciation.  At first this seems confusing, but in practice it's quite easy even for a newcomer like me to tell the difference between Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana characters.  Hiragana are simpler than Kanji, and the Katakana are, in general, simpler and more angular than the Hiragana.  An experienced reader can easily determine whether he's looking at a word, a grammatical ending, or a foreign word.

My friend David Stafford let me borrow a couple of books on the written language.  Read Japanese Today is an interesting little book that introduces about 300 of the most common Kanji characters.  Rather than teaching by rote (the way it's normally taught in schools), this book describes the origin of each character.  Those descriptions serve as mnemonic devices to aid in learning.  After spending a while with this book, I went and looked at some of my pictures from my last trip to Japan, and found that I could pick out the meanings on many of the street signs.

The other book David let me borrow is called Easy Katakana.  It teaches how to read and write (learning to write helps in learning to read) the Katakana so that you can understand the written foreign words.  Japanese has a lot of foreign words.  Once you learn Katakana, you can sound out the foreign words.  However, it's not so easy as you might think because there are many sounds in English (and other languages) that don't have corresponding sounds in Japanese.  What you get is a close (most of the time) approximation.  For example, if you sound out the Katakana for "cola" you end up with something like "co-ra," because there is no real "L" sound in Japanese.  "McDonald's" turns in to "mu-ka-do-no-roo-do," or something similar.

It's early in my study (I've only been at it a few days), but I'm making some progress.  If I can get these 300 basic Kanji and the Katakana down, I should be able to wander around Tokyo without feeling completely lost.