Friday, 13 January, 2006

More fun with Japanese

I'm making my way through the Japanese language CDs, trying to do one of the 30-minute lessons each day.  I find that I need to listen to each lesson twice in order to fully grasp everything, but that's okay.  Debra's going through some of them with me.  It's a fun way to pass the time when we're driving somewhere or pedaling on the stationary trainers.

Right now I'm learning some useful phrases, and then studying the dictionaries I have in order to learn common words.  For example, one of the exercises on the CD is learning to ask where something is.  That's all well and good, but I probably won't be asking anybody where Shinjuku station is.  I will be asking where to find other things, though, and the CDs aren't going to teach me the vocabulary.  In Japanese you ask, "thing, where is it?"  So all I have to do is memorize the phrase, "where is it," and then plug in the word for whatever I need.

The CDs don't explain everything, though.  For example, I learned the words for "speak" and "understand," and the phrases for "speak well" and "understand well."  (Pronouns, by the way, often are omitted and assumed from context.)  What I couldn't figure out was why the word for "well" was different in "speak well" than in "understand well."  I finally asked somebody.  In the "speak" case, they were using the word for "skilled," as in, "You are skilled at speaking Japanese."  In the "understand" case, it was, "You understand Japanese well."  I wish they had made that more explicit in the lessons.

Spoken Japanese also includes a large number of honorifics that somebody who is not familiar with the culture just doesn't understand when to use.  For example, the polite way to say, "good morning" is, "ohayō gozaimasu."  The "gozaimasu" is an honorific or "politeness word."  I haven't yet figured out what it really means.  In any case, "good afternoon" is "konnichiwa."  Why there is no "gozaimasu" after it is not explained.  I suspect that learning the reasons for and proper use of the honorifics could prove difficult.

The Roman spellings of the Japanese words in the previous paragraph use a Romanization system called rōmaji.  At first you'd think that this is a good thing because it gives Westerners some help in reading Japanese words.  However, you have to be careful about it because the phonetic rules for rōmaji are different than for English.  For example, the "u" in "gozaimasu" isn't really pronounced.  Phonetically, "good morning" in Japanese is more like, "oh-hah-yōh  goh-zye-mahss," although that's not exact.  The other thing that will trip up English speakers is that syllables usually have equal emphasis.  Whereas we might pronounce Shinjuku as "shin-JU-ku", the Japanese pronunciation is more like "shin-ju-ku"--equal emphasis on each syllable.  I'm getting better, but it's still difficult at times not to apply the English rules when trying to pronounce words that I see in rōmaji.