Learning to read and write
I started learning Japanese a couple of weeks ago. I’m only four lessons in, so I’m only just through the “My name is…, what’s your name?” stage and am now on the “I’m xx years old, how old are you?” stage. It brings back memories of learning French for the first time: “Je m’appelle Thomas et j’ai sept ans”, except this time I need a few more numbers. The giddy heights of “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”, “Can you give me directions to the station please?” and all those other useless but necessary language learning building blocks are yet to come.
Native English speakers, whilst they might mangle the pronunciation without a bit of study, can at least attempt to read and therefore speak European languages. Apart from the odd accent, diacritic mark to be precise, the alphabet is the same. Not so of course in Japanese. I hadn’t realised however that I’d be learning an entirely new writing system so early on. We’re three chapters into the text book and the scary chapter 5 and onwards is getting closer, where nothing is written in Roman characters (Romaji) at all, so I’ve got to learn the basic writing system, Hiragana.
As far as I can make out (after all of four lessons…) Japanese is written phonetically, unlike English and its seven different ways of saying “ough” (though, through, thought, cough, rough, plough, borough, since you asked), and there are a limited number of phonetic syllables with specific pronunciations. It doesn’t have the tonal differences that make some other Asian languages challenging to English speakers. However each of the 46 phonetic syllables has its own hiragana symbol. It gets more complicated after that, with a second system called katakana which covers the same syllables but is used for foreign loan words, and of course that’s all child’s play compared to learning the thousands of Chinese kanji characters that are used in written Japanese in conjunction with hiragana and katakana.
Learning to read and write an entirely new alphabet is like being 5 years old again, writing the letters larger than normal to master the nuances of stroke order and angle, and struggling with reading different versions of the same character. Typeface designers have a lot to answer for, but then again it’s no different to English. Look at a printed version of “a” or some versions of “g” and it’ll be nothing like how you write it by hand. At least there’s no “joined up” hiragana to master! I just hope my writing doesn’t look too much like the equivalent of Comic Sans!