This post is about why–after four years in Japan–I still can’t speak the language properly, let alone read it. From the get-go, let’s all agree that the real reason for my terrible Japanese is that I don’t study. However, writing about something I don’t do would be boring, while the linguistic intricacies of Japanese are fascinating, so we’ll go with the latter.
In phonetic writing systems, speaking and reading reinforce each other, so by doing one you effectively learn the other as well. Not so in Japanese, which relies heavily on characters borrowed from the Chinese a millennium and a half ago. These characters, called kanji, express ideas, not sounds.
Like many languages, Japanese combines multiple word stems (in the form of kanji) to create new words with more specific meaning. For example, 鉄道 tetsudou combines 鉄 “iron” with 道 “path”. This “iron path” is the “iron rails”–鉄道 translates to “railroad”. However, the pronunciation is rarely as simple as compound words like railroad. Instead, each character is pronounced differently depending on if it’s standing alone or if it’s used in conjunction with another stem. English is similar. For example, one’s house can have either a sunroom or solarium, depending on how pretentious one is.
Tropical Storm Danas is currently passing over Japan, so weather advisories are posted with the warning 強風. Now, I know these signs say, “strong wind”, as in “Be care of strong winds due to today’s typhoon.” I know this because 強 is the character for “strong” and 風 means “wind”. However, I have no idea how to actually pronounce 強風 in Japanese. As stand alone words, 強 is pronounced tsuyo and 風 is kaze. But 強風 is not tsuyokaze.
Sometimes the opposite happens. At my train station, there is a billboard advertising a local university that offers courses in 法科. I have no idea what subject 法科 is exactly, but I can pronounce it–houka. This is possible because I know the pronunciations of each of these kanji individually from us with other words. 法 is hou like 方法 houhou “way” or 法王 houou “pope”. Ka is used in words like 科学 rika “science” and 科学者 rikasha “scientist”. Thus houka, whatever that is.
Only on rare occasions does the character system work to my advantage. Sometimes I can guess a word’s meaning from the stems plus the context. Recently at a church prayer service, the worship leader used the word seika. I know the stem sei means “holy” because it’s a prefix in a variety of religious words, like seishou–”scripture”. Ka can have various meanings, but as we were singing, I could assume the stem meant “music” in this case. Holy + music = “hymn”.
Most of the time though, I still can’t figure out if I’m supposed to push or pull. Which is fine because Japanese people aren’t so great at English either.