I wonder if anyone’s actually polled the percentage of otaku that have at some point tried to learn Japanese. I wonder what a follow-up of such a poll would reveal about the percentage that actually attain some level of fluency. Anyone who watches subs on a regular or even semi-regular basis will be able to pick up a wide variety of everyday phrases and a decent slice of vocabulary. The observant ones might even be able to pick up some simple sentence structuring, verbs, and grammar. It’s a pretty awesome thing when you first realize that, hey, you know a bit of another language.
Undoubtedly, that’s why a lot of younger fans will insert bits and pieces of what they know into their speech or text online. It’s like a secret language, something esoteric to share between friends, and everybody likes thinking they’re special. Like Pig Latin though, the language is actually not so secret, or at the very least, the popular tidbits of the language that young fans like to parrot are not so secret, and they tend to annoy everybody over a certain age. Ostracized and mocked by the rest of the community, the young fans reach a point where they stop tacking -chan and -kun after all their friends’ names. There is a brief “maturing” period. And then they decide that they’re going to knuckle down and learn Japanese… for real this time.
I imagine that most people will take a few shots at memorizing their kana and then give up. They’ll retain all the romaji vocabulary and phrases they know, and maybe they’ll still use it now and again in a mocking or less-than-serious manner, but that’s about it. Some will succeed in memorizing their kana and master some grammar, but kanji stops them dead in their tracks. The last handful plow right on through, kick the JLPT’s ass, and then run off to Japan to teach English because that’s your stereotypical otaku dream. I wonder, are there any fans that listen to the language on a regular basis, but who have never had any interest whatsoever in learning it? Or is it just innate to want to understand something you find yourself so submerged in? The latter makes sense to me, but it’d be interesting to hear the answers to the contrary.
Being Chinese, I’ve always felt this persistent guilt for wanting to learn Japanese more than I wanted to re-learn Mandarin and Cantonese since I pretty much lost my fluency in both by the time I was eight. That guilt, for the most part, has kept me from seriously pursuing Japanese fluency. Now, it seems that I have a good chance of being able to go to Japan for two weeks in December as part of a college trip. I guess that’s as good an excuse as any to get a move on, right?
So I got my hands on My Japanese Coach for the Nintendo DS because it was easy and convenient. It’s far from the most sophisticated learning device in the world, but hey, I still don’t know how serious I want to be about this. The game opens with a placement test, which aims to start you off in the right chapter based on your existing knowledge. I found that to be kind of iffy though. Since all the questions are multiple choice, lucky guesses will end up opting you out of lessons you might need. Yeah, I know a bunch of pronouns and the colors, but I didn’t know any of the days of the week and I got out of that chapter with some lucky guesses. Not cool. I need to learn this stuff, man. (Still, you can go back and do the skipped lessons, so it’s not a huge deal.)
Playing through it, the set-up of the game leaves a lot to be desired. Each lesson is fairly short and will either cover one new concept, like months, days of the week, colors, or a certain verb, or two sets of kana (I’m not that far in the game yet, but undoubtedly, later chapters will expand to include sets of five to ten kanji per lesson). The game won’t let you progress to the next lesson until you’ve “mastered” all the new vocabulary or kana introduced in that lesson. You gain mastery points by playing through games. It sounds decent enough, but I found most of the games to be absurdly easy, thus making it way, way too easy to “master” things.
You can unlock new games as you progress through various lessons, but seriously, out of the seven or eight games I have so far, I only really like one of them, and that’s the one that gives you a word or kana and makes you write it. It’s useful for forcing you to memorize your kana, but it’s pretty annoying for writing actual words (in kana) since you have to write each character one at a time. Longish words like げつようび (getsuyoubi, Monday) or じゅいちがつ (juichigatsu, November) really make me wish the kanji lessons would come up faster. The game also isn’t all that great at recognizing mistakes in your characters. As long as you have the right number of strokes and the shape is kinda right, it’ll count it correct. It bothers me immensely that it doesn’t take stroke order into consideration even though it does mention its importance at some point. The other games are okay as far as drilling in meaning associations, but among other things, having to play the whack-a-mole game makes me feel like an idiot.
Currently, I’m just about done “mastering” hiragana, but honestly, I still don’t feel very confident in it. Kanji, in all its apparent complication, makes a helluva lot more sense to me because of my Chinese background, but hiragana doesn’t seem to follow any discernable pattern as far as I can tell. I mean, き(ki) and さ(sa) are completely different sounds, but their characters are so similar. ら(ra), ろ(ro), and る(ru) make slightly more sense. Kind of, except that れ(re) and り(ri) don’t follow. Incidentally, Mandarin has a pronunciation aid system similar to furigana, but I never learned it, only pinying, which is comparable to romaji. My father says that both hiragana and katakana characters are based off kanji words that start with the sound they represent, but that doesn’t really help me if I don’t know those kanji words.
My Japanese Coach is an okay aid. It’s easy enough to pick up on a daily basis, but you have to play back through old lessons pretty frequently to actually memorize things since you can “master” them so quickly. It’s just as well though — after all, you have to work at any language to learn it. No tool is going to just hand the knowledge to you. I might come back and write about the game some more when I’ve progressed further into it. At present, I don’t plan on getting much else in the way of language learning tools because I’m poor and don’t have a lot of time anyway. I would love to learn Japanese, but it’s still not a real, hardcore serious goal yet. I really think I need to reattain some level of fluency in Chinese before that can happen.
In the meantime, it’s back to the hiragana charts!