Mother Tongue Tuesday: Japanese

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Japanese road sign

Last month I listened to Reverend Kakihara from the Tacoma Buddhist Temple speak at a Lenten series in my church. The minister, born in Japan, described his faith beautifully and I learned many things about Buddhism, especially about Jodo Shinshu Nishi Hongwanji Buddhism which he practices.

At the same time, watching his mannerisms and listening to his speech patterns felt like a step back to an earlier time of my life. My career in English as a second language began with hundreds of Japanese students who came to Western Washington University in the early 1990’s in the Asian University America Program (AUAP).

I assisted in ESL classrooms as a university student,. After classes, my conversation partners made me sashimi and served me green tea in a formal ceremony. I learned about the three writing systems of the language, the alphabet sounds and even managed a limited vocabulary with words like really, you’re welcome and thank you (not too hard since “Domo Origato, Mr. Roboto” was popular not too long before my college days).

green tea

The green tea I drank was not from a bag like this. It was a powder and my friend prepared it with what looked like a mortar of the mortar and pestle variety.

sashimi

Sashimi was one of my first food adventures.

Most of all, I got the chance to see Japanese young people experiencing a radically new language and culture, something I better appreciated when I went on my own brief adventures.

Japanese Tidbits from the UCLA Language Project 

  • Japanese is a language isolate, meaning it is not easily related to any other language
  • Japanese uses three writing systems: kanji, katagana, and hiragana. Kanji is based on the Chinese writing system and has thousands of characters. The other two systems are more similar to the English alphabet (although not related in the slightest) because there are limited letters that represent specific sounds that can be rearranged to create words.

kanji rice

  • Japanese is a subject-object-verb language rather than the subject-verb-object order of English. “I give money” would translate to “I money give” in Japanese.
  • Japanese marks the adjectives as past or non-past similar to the way it works with verbs.
  • Japanese does not mark nouns as singular or plural.
  • Matsuo Basho was one of the innumerable famous Japanese poets.

I don’t have any Japanese students today but I’m lucky to still have a few connections with my former students and friends. And as hard as the language is to learn for English speakers, it can be done.

Here’s a video with English subtitles of a college friend from the days when I worked with AUAP students. Marci went on to master the language, is now living in Japan, and convincing students like Noriko to come to America to study. (Marci starts at 00:51.)

http://vimeo.com/91907492

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Mother Tongue Tuesday: Japanese

  1. Zarkon

    Nicely done. You’ve really been exposed to a lot of Japanese culture.

    As an English speaker I’ve found Japanese to be very difficult (German was much easier). Men’s speach, women’s speach, formal polite speach, informal speach and often the subject is left out and is supposed to be understood from the context. Ai Yi Yi.

    Each time I visit Japan I find that I can keep two (2) year olds endlessly entertained, Adults not so much. Our children however, learned two (2) languages simultaneously from the beginning and speak both fluently. Hard to say what their mother tongue would be, though they know their mother’s tongue. 🙂

    • Karrie Zylstra

      Hi, Zarkon – I have heard that learning to speak Japanese is difficult for English speakers. I admire you for being able to entertain 2 year olds. I don’t think even they would be amused by my 3 word vocabulary.

      As for your children’s mother tongue, I guess they have more than one mother at least as far as languages go. Or maybe they have a mother and a father tongue? I have always envied kids who were raised with more than one language and wonder how much more complex their brain structures might be from my own.

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