Travel to Japan means discover another culture, other landscapes, another way of understanding the world and existence, and it is also discover another language.
And Japanese has a reputation for being a difficult language, not because of a complex grammar, but because of these two syllabic “alphabets” hiragana and katakana, plus kanji ideograms coming from China.
Having studied Chinese, Lô told us that even if the pronunciation is different – there are variations of kanji pronunciation between Chinese and Japanese, although the phonetic base remains the same – the idea is well preserved. So even if she cannot pronounce the words, she can understand the general idea in kanji, at least for those that she knows. In principle, knowing 2000 kanji is sufficient to read a newspaper in Japanese.
Japanese is one of those Far Eastern languages ??whose teaching is often considered as rare. In Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, there are only five schools that offer Japanese as second or third foreign language (source: Japan Embassy in France).
So we were both amazed and delighted to discover Japanese courses given by a cultural association in a nearby town. Since October, we follow the first course given by a native Japanese: one hour and half, once per week.
The association has the reputation, somewhat negative to some, to organize activities for the 3rd age. This is not at all the case of the Japanese course . It is full of active people planning maybe a trip, or even thinking to start living in Japan. There is a half-dozen of students that are unable to follow (as regular curriculum) a Japanese course at their school. This is for them an additional course, but even still students and without (yet) a degree, they are really motivated. There are also some who follow this course because their son or daughter married a Japanese. Learning the language is then essential to communicate in the same family.
The atmosphere of the course is both sympathetic, studious and fun. Our teacher made ??us work many adjectives in “i” and let us to learn from current and useful vocabulary in everyday life, from polite expressions to the names of fruits and vegetables. We can now make simple sentences and we began to learn to read and write hiragana.
We follow also another method (the famous Pimsleur), which consist in learning few phrases by heart, so as to retain the structure and be able to transpose, and especially to learn easier the vocabulary. Simply memorize lists of words is not easy and we do not have the young children learning speed. It is necessary then to contextualize.
However, it is quite unrealistic to think that we will communicate in Japanese during our trip. The courses are supplemented with other methods, and at least we have the language skills to not go look like barbarian peasants and say to our interlocutor that we do not understand a word of what he says (sumimasen, wakarimasen) . Another very important phrase that we will use probably much: sumimasen, eigoga Wakarimasu ka? (excuse me, do you understand English? ).
Our Japanese teacher told us that in his country, children at age of 6 already mastered katakana and hiragana. The entrance to the school marks the beginning of learning kanji. The French school made ??me the impression of being completely underdeveloped.
I read that the transcript of the panels in Latin characters began during the country’s occupation by U.S. troops after the Second World War. Fortunately, the Japanese have also realized the tourism potential of their country, and displays in romaji have proliferated in Japan. We can at least know roughly where we are and what direction we head.
We will still be almost illiterate in the country of the Rising Sun, which I find quite scary. I am a little afraid to find myself in the same position in Italy: while I understand the whole language, my inability to express myself and to make myself understood sometimes makes me look like a silly girl. When my brain is full, I feel like locked in a slurry language bubble of words and sounds. This feeling of helplessness is very unpleasant, especially when it leads to resignation.
My older brother, who went to Japan twice, tells me that I have do not worry: with hands and fake plastic plates on the fronts of restaurants, we can always be understood, or at least survive (that is to say, not starve|). Yet the Japanese are known to speak English poorly and they run away foreigners to not find themselves in embarrassing situations where they would be forced to speak the broken English, which would be humiliating for them. But people changes, I hope we can meet Japanese who totally prove to be false this stereotype.
So we’ll see how it goes, but I dread enough the language contact.