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03 September 2008 @ 07:25 pm
Japanese lessons!  
I've decided to offer simple Japanese lessons here--partially for anyone who's interested, but mostly because I think writing everything I know (which isn't much...) out in a format for explaining to other people will help me remember it better. I'll do them every "when I get around to it," but I'll make sure to tag them all "benkyō" so they're easy to find. And now:

This is the first thing I'm going to go over, though a full course in either is way beyond the scope of a group of LJ entries. Also, you technically don't need to know anything about either to be able to understand Japanese, but it's really disconcerting to be in a place where not only do you not know what anyone is saying, you can't read the writing either. Anyway...

Japanese has three main writing systems: hirgana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are both syllabaries and kanji is a logographic system comprised of 1945 "standard" character (called jōyō kanji) and upwards of 15,000 other characters that are either archaic or rarely used. Japanese sentences are usually a mixture of the three types of writing. Hiragana is used to write grammatical functions and for words that don't have kanji or for which the kanji aren't in common use, katakana is used to write foreign words and kanji is used for native Japanese words.

Hiragana and Katakana
For learning Japanese writing, these two are the place to start--a full list of the characters and how to draw them can be found here. Katakana is probably the most useful for a beginner. Something like 10% of the Japanese language is made up of foreign loan words, many of which are from English (though not all--part time worker, for example, is arubaito, from the German Arbeiter, or "worker"). Hiragana has 46 characters total--katakana has a few more to represent the range of foreign sounds. The number of characters in hiragana is also the maximum number of sounds used in native Japanese words, which leads to a lot of words sounding the same or being extremely long (for example, the way to say "I need to sleep" formally in Japanese is nenakerebanarimasen).

Learning these two, with practice, isn't that hard. It took me about three weeks to learn hirgana and then two to learn katakana.

Kanji were borrowed from China hundreds of years ago, but at various times. Some characters still mean the same thing as they do in China, some don't. Kanji usually are written with anywhere from 1 (一 ichi, "one") to 34 (鬱 fusa, "depression") strokes. Stroke order is fixed, meaning that each kanji has a given order in which you're supposed to draw it. There's a set of rules which can help you figure out how to draw kanji you haven't seen before which I'll get into later. A useful kanji dictionary can be found here, though note that that site is not a Japanese dictionary--it'll only look up kanji readings or English words which directly translate into specific kanji.

As I mentioned before, learning kanji isn't essentially to being able to understand spoken Japanese, though it can help remember words. I always remember kazan ("volcano") because of the kanji that comprise it--火 ka, meaning "fire," and 山 san, meaning mountain. There's also some nice imagery in some of the words--花火 hanabi ("fireworks") literally means "fire flowers" and 天の川 ama no gawa ("the Milky Way") literally means "The River of Heaven."

Sadly, there's no easy trick I've found to learning kana or kanji--you just have to memorize them. For those with Facebook, kanji box provides drills and quizzes on both to help fix them in your memory.

Next time...basic sentence structure.
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q99q99 on September 4th, 2008 05:03 am (UTC)
This could be interesting :)