Hazy with a chance of brain breakage

So, how do you learn over 2000 complex Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations each? Anywhere he wants to! Er, wait, wrong joke. Bird by bird! That’s it.

Some Japanese learners are lucky enough to arrive with kanji in their pockets because they grew up speaking (and reading and writing) Chinese. There are a few Chinese students in my community college class, and I sure am envious.

For the rest of us, there are a bunch of competing kanji-learning approaches, but we can boil it down to (1) Remembering the Kanji and (2) everything else.

In my class, for example, we are learning kanji in a watered-down version of the way Japanese kids learn it: beginning with the most common kanji, our sensei puts a character on the board and shows us how to write it and how it’s used in a few words we know, and then we practice writing it our workbook. Next week we have a quiz on the kanji we’ve learned so far, which include 大 (big), 四 (four), and 月 (month).

What’s wrong with this approach? Nothing, if you want to learn a few kanji. What if you want to learn all the kanji? Then you will meet up with James Heisig and his book Remembering the Kanji, or RTK for short.

The conceit of RTK is that you should learn how to write and recognize the kanji before you learn how to pronounce them or combine them in words. Doing it all at once is too hard. From the perspective of the English alphabet, this is insane. The difference between the alphabet and kanji, however, is that kanji has a hundred times has many characters, and most characters are made up of miniature versions of other characters.

So if you want to remember the Kanji, says Heisig, you don’t start with the most common characters. You start with a few basic shapes and build with them. So you end up learning some uncommon kanji before more common ones. (For example, the kanji for an obscure volume measurement comes several chapters before the kanji for “person.”) Heisig assigns each kanji a keyword so you sort of know what it means, but the keyword is more about keeping track of all your new friends, not about communication per se. After you learn all 2000+ official kanji, then you can start thinking about plebeian concerns like pronunciation, and words, and meanings.

How do you actually remember the kanji? With stories. If a kanji is made of multiple elements, you combine those elements into a little story, as memorable as possible. Heisig feeds you stories for a while and then steps aside to let you concoct your own. Someone also cooked up a brilliant free website to go with the book, where you can test yourself with flashcards and borrow stories from other learners. My favorite so far: the kanji for “bullseye” is made up of “white + ladle.” So you imagine white bird shit plopping–bullseye!–into your ladle just as you’re serving up some soup. I have no trouble remembering this character:

You can download the first 100+ pages of RTK free. I recommend it, even if you have no interest in kanji, for…well, for sadistic reasons.

RTK, you see, is notorious for turning its students into cultish dickheads. As in, “I learned 300 kanji today. What did YOU accomplish?” I plead absolutely guilty to this, and if RTK adherents sound like jingoistic frat boys, it’s because kanji itself is something of a hazing ritual. Why do frustrated college administrations find it impossible to stamp out fraternity hazing? Because nothing produces loyalty to the group better than shared adversity. Even though I’m only toes-deep in kanji, I can already tell that when I’m finished, I’ll feel about it the same way I do after I learned calculus or learned to navigate Greenwich village without a map: everyone should have to go through this!

Luckily for my family, I am reaching my kanji capacity. The first few dozen kanji are quite easy, and you can feel your brain craning open to let you shovel in knowledge. Then, suddenly, you’re trying to cram new toys into an already overfull toy box. I learned two new kanji today. What did you accomplish?

That said, Iris and I had a semi-amazing kanji breakthrough today on the way to lunch. Every Saturday we get a plate of dumplings at a restaurant called Sichuanese Cuisine. Today we noticed that the sign has three kanji on it, and two of them looked like this:


We knew what that meant: four rivers! Then, hey, wait a second. “Four” in Japanese is “shi.” I wonder if it’s “si” in Chinese. Does “si chuan” mean “four rivers”?

It does.

P.S.: If you do speak Chinese, please forgive me for referring to hanzi as kanji. Everyone else, forget I said that.

Kick the kanji

Why am I writing so much about writing systems and so little about speaking and listening? Because I’m frustrated with my lousy progress at speaking and listening and would rather write about something I’m good at.

Kanji is the barbed wired that keeps civilians from getting too close to Japanese. Or as Maciej Cegłowski put it:

And don’t fall for the bait and switch with Chinese or Japanese! They might tempt you with an exotic writing system, but after a few months you find out that the underlying language is pretty vanilla, and meanwhile there is a stack of three thousand flash cards standing in between you and the ability to skim a newspaper.

Kanji are the complex characters, originally from China, used for writing most Japanese words. Think of the Chinese side of a Chinese restaurant menu. That’s kanji. (In China they’re called hanzi, but the characters are generally the same. Sort of. That’s another story.)

As my Japanese professor puts it: hiragana conveys pronunciation; kanji conveys meaning. Japanese has many homophones (words that sound the same) but few homonyms (words that sound the same and are also spelled the same), because words with different meanings are spelled with different kanji.

Japan is stereotyped as a nation where individuals happily leave the big decisions to elites for the good of society. There’s some truth to this, I’m sure, but get this: after WWII, a vocal faction called, charmingly enough, the Phoneticists, argued for the abolition of kanji and nearly won. Meanwhile, can we get the metric system over here, please?

The Phoneticists must be the folk heroes of every Japanese schoolkid and every foreign student of the language. Learning kanji brings all of your insecurities to the surface, because Maciej wasn’t really exaggerating: the official list of kanji that all Japanese kids have to learn is over 2,100 characters long, and each of them has at least two pronunciations and often more. Here’s how I visualize Japan now: to get to the good stuff inside, I have to get past these guys:

Japan guarded by kanji

This is the hackiest of hack, I know, but kanji learning treats you to the five stages of grief. Denial: I can learn Japanese without having to learn kanji. Anger: Why didn’t they abolish this shit and get a normal alphabet when they had the chance? Bargaining: Maybe I could learn just enough kanji to read a menu. And so on.

Here’s the problem with not learning kanji: it makes you illiterate. Imagine coming to the United States for a month, armed with a tourist map in your native language and feeling confident because they have photos on the menu at McDonald’s and Denny’s. Yes, the parallel is overblown because of the long arm of English. Directional signs in Tokyo are written in romaji for the benefit of foreigners, and many restaurants have English menus and plastic food. Iris and I spent a week there last year and were never particularly troubled by the fact that we couldn’t read a single Japanese character.

But as I start to pick up a kanji here and there, parts of the world that were a meaningless smudge have become, if not clear, at least an out-of-focus blur. This is true even in Seattle, where there are thousands of kanji to be devoured in the Chinese and Vietnamese parts of town. I walked Iris to Japanese school this morning and recognized a kanji on the side of a Chinese food distributor. It was this one:

I don’t know how it’s pronounced, but I know it means “goods.” And that’s one of the weirdest things about kanji. Because kanji convey meaning but not necessarily pronunciation, it’s possible to recognize a word in kanji and know approximately what it means in English without knowing how to pronounce the word.

Although, given how often English serves up heinous irregular pronunciations, I guess the average ESL student knows exactly how that feels.

Cooking up a conversation

Back in the 90s, a couple of lifetimes ago, I was working as a network administrator and trying to get better at computer programming. Somehow I thought it was going to be a thing. I got especially interested in a programming language called Perl, which was once frequently used for writing web-based software.

I started out with the book Learning Perl, which is a real classic, now in its sixth edition. It brought me up to speed on the language features, but only a comparative linguist cares about language features. The rest of us just want to do something with the language: make fireworks appear on the screen, order noodles, etc.

Learning Perl, for all its charms, isn’t really designed to do that. You learn enough to avoid syntax errors, but not how to solve problems. I didn’t get good at Perl until the Perl Cookbook came out.

Perl Cookbook is 500 pages of “recipes” for how to do actual useful stuff with Perl. They’re specific enough that each recipe might solve your problem, and general enough that if you don’t find the exact recipe you’re looking for, you can probably adapt a similar one. The cookbook approach has become popular in computer science, but less so–as far as I know–in language learning.

When you learn any language, but especially a human language, you end up with weird gaps. I know how to say “I love sushi,” but not “I want sushi.” How different could it be? Well, I don’t know. Maybe it involves switching out a single word, like in English. Maybe not. Languages differ in unexpected ways. Have you ever studied Spanish? How much did it make your stomach lurch when you learned there were two ways to say “to be,” and you’d have to figure out when to apply each one? (Japanese has three “to be”s–at least, three that I’ve learned so far.)

Luckily, I came across an amazing Japanese grammar book that is the equivalent of Perl Cookbook for Japanese. Whoever coined the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” had exactly this book in mind:

Japanese Sentence Patterns cover

It’s called Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication, by Taeko Kamiya. The title is even more compelling than the cover, isn’t it? Japanese Sentence Patterns is the book equivalent of a skeezy hole-in-the-wall restaurant: great food, no decor.

Anyway, the book presents over 100 model sentences. Say you want to say, “I went to the park yesterday, but not today.” There’s a sentence pattern for that: number 55. You get the model sentence and three more examples (“I swam in the pool but not in the ocean.”) Then there’s an exercise: translate three sentences from English to Japanese. Each exercise comes with the vocabulary you need to complete it, so you’re being tested only on the grammar.

The overall effect is that you can practically feel mental marching feet laying down new pathways as you work through the practice sentences. I’ve been making Iris test me, and I think she enjoys the funny faces I make while trying to produce a grammatical sentence (“He drank at home, but not at a bar”).

Are there books like this for other languages? If you know of one, please post a comment.

Put me in your mix

Earlier this week I had lunch with Becky Selengut, author of Good Fish and humor columnist for Edible Seattle. May I just brag unabashedly about my good fortune for a moment? Becky’s column is hilarious. Here’s a bit from a recent installment:

If you have kids and you send your precious progeny to school with healthy sack lunches, I’m the kid you hate because I’m showing your darling sweetheart the beauty of layering crushed-up Fritos just so on a peanut butter sandwich followed by the ritualistic, highly sequenced eating of an Oreo cookie. By the time I’m done with your kid, there will be no more hummus and sprouts, no more apple wedges, nary a carrot stick. There will be hot tears and whining demands and uneaten hummus.

Clearly Becky doesn’t need my help, and yet she let me take a look at an upcoming column (which is even funnier than this one) and allowed me to help tighten up a couple of jokes. In my professional life, nothing could possibly make me feel more fulfilled than someone asking me for help writing jokes. Seriously, if people were coming to me for advice on sex moves, which they are not, that would be fine, but comedy advice? This class clown is crying tears of liquid awesome.

While I was reading Becky’s column, she read my latest Japanese posts, which hardly seems like a fair trade. Becky encouraged me to start writing about this stuff, and she did a lot to whip my first post into shape. While she was reading, she paused to ask me a question about the Japanese writing systems: How do they fit together? Would you write an email only in hiragana, or only in kanji, or what? What about individual words: you wouldn’t use multiple writing systems within a single word, would you?

I’m sorry to report that even a short chunk of written Japanese is almost certainly going to feature all three writing systems closely intertwined. Furthermore, hiragana and kanji are often mixed together in the same word. Oh, and romaji, especially arabic numerals, sometimes get thrown in there as well.

Let’s take a simple sentence and see how this works. “I eat ramen in Tokyo,” is what we’re trying to say. In romaji, that would be written as “Tōkyō de ramen tabemasu.” Here’s what it looks like in written Japanese:


Oh, did I mention Japanese is written without spaces? Let’s try it again, with spaces.

東京 で ラーメン を 食べます。

“Tokyo,” on the left there, is written in kanji. Most place names are. I’m not going to get into what the kanji mean, because I’m going to get so deeply into kanji in a few weeks that you’re going to have to stare at sushi pictures on Foodspotting until you feel better.

The word “de” (で) is a particle. Stick it after a place, and it means the action is happening in that place. In other words, “Tokyo de” means “in Tokyo.”

“Ramen” (ラーメン) is written in katakana. The word, and the noodles, are on loan from Chinese.

“O” (を) is another particle. Don’t worry about it for now.

“Tabemasu” (食べます) is the present tense polite form of the verb “to eat.” The first syllable is written in kanji; the rest are written in hiragana.

I’d like to return to this example in the future, because (a) I intend to eat a lot of ramen in Tokyo, and (b) you can learn a whole lot about how Japanese is put together from this simple five-word sentence.

This ain’t no tango

Note: If it’s okay with you, I’m going to write Japanese words and phrases in romaji when I’m not talking specifically about writing systems.

Before Iris and I took our first trip to Japan, in 2010, I took Shigeki Kajita’s conversational Japanese class. Kajita has been teaching the class since the mid-80s at the University of Washington Experimental College, which offers classes from the practical (Flirting 101) to less so (Shamanic Journeying). Hey, baby, let’s take a shamanic journey together.

Kajita got us started on the first day of class with the Japanese equivalent of Hello World: Watashi wa Matthew desu. (The “u” at the end of “desu” is silent.) This is a fine way to introduce yourself in Japanese: “I am Matthew.” We quickly moved on to identifying objects: Kore wa book desu. (“This is a book.”) Kore wa pen desu. (“This is a pen.”)

Yes, “kore wa book desu.” Learning a bunch of Japanese nouns is neither particularly difficult nor necessary, said Kajita, because everyone in Japan knows a ton of English nouns already. In fact, in “kore wa pen desu,” “pen” is a Japanese word, borrowed from English and written in katakana: ペン。(That little circle at the end of the sentence, incidentally, is a Japanese period, always written as a hollow dot. Or, if you’re a teenage Twilight fan, as a tiny heart.)

No, it’s not vocabulary (or, in Japanese, tango) that’ll kill you; it’s grammar.

The grammar of your own language is invisible. The grammar of the language you’re trying to learn? Painfully salient.

I’m grasping for a food analogy here, and came up with one that I’m sure has been used dozens of times before: Words are ingredients. If you want to make a familiar recipe but are missing an ingredient, big deal: you go to the store and pick up a bag of flour. Similarly, if I don’t know the word for “monkey” in Japanese, I can fire up the Google Translate app and get the answer.

Grammar is the finished dish. If you want to go from flour, butter, sugar, and eggs to cookies, you’re going to need a recipe. That can be a recipe from a book, or a formula you’ve committed to memory, like Michael Ruhlman is always telling you to do.

I’m skeptical of Ruhlman’s insistence that every cook move beyond recipes, because I know plenty of great cooks who always use recipes and are perfectly happy doing so. In the realm of language, though, it’s so true as to be tautological: proficient speakers don’t use phrasebooks.

This is all rarefied and theoretical. Let’s get practical. Here are a few sentences I can say in Japanese:

  • I ate sushi in Tokyo.
  • Bob is my friend.
  • What time do you wake up?

That’s pretty good, right? But here are a few sentences I don’t know how to say:

  • Will you be my friend?
  • If it rains, I will bring an umbrella.
  • I asked Bob about the weather.

…and about six trillion other sentences that aren’t the most simple declarations or questions.

This is the frustration of grammar: you are always stepping into mental quicksand. It’s so automatic to go from “you are my friend” to “will you be my friend?” in English that I didn’t even notice how much the language contorted itself to get from one sentence to the other until I wrote them both down. (Imagine trying to learn the general underlying rule here, and how tempting it would be to fall back on “You are my friend, yes?” In Japan, I will be Yakov Smirnoff!)

How am I going to fill in the gaps? (And at this point, it’s all gap.) For one thing, I’m going to school. And I’ve found a remarkable book, something like the Ratio of Japanese language. More on both in the next post.

Meanwhile, are there any topics you’d like me to cover? I’m planning a big assault on kanji soon.