Today I finished my third full week of Japanese instruction. I now have 62 hours of direct instruction and many hours of study under my belt. I am able to tell someone where I am from, what types of sports (or foods or drinks) I like, and that my husband works at the U.S. Embassy. I can tell you that next year I will move to Yokohama, then to Sapporo. I can tell you that the umbrella (or key or cell phone) right there is not mine.
The past weeks have passed in a blur of words, syllables, confused looks, blank stares, and laughter. Most of each day consists of my classmates and I playing a version of Japanese Mad Gab that is both painful and hilarious. (If you don’t know what Mad Gab is, check it out here.) We are presented with sentences in hiragana and proceed to sound them out, syllable by syllable, slowly. So slowly. “I… lie… lie… kuh… Oh! Like. I… like… pee… sa. Pee… ta? No. Pee… za. Oh! Pizza! I… like… pee…za. I… like… pizza.” Then ten minutes later the same sentence shows up and we repeat the process because we have already forgotten how to read it.
The second week of class we participated in a little mini-exchange. All the Japanese classes were mixed up, and teachers rotated into the different classrooms to practice introductions and basic conversation. I can only imagine this as sheer torture for the instructors, who go from classroom to classroom asking, “What types of foods do you like?” and “Do you like golf?” over and over. At some point, feeling emboldened, I tried to say that my brother also attended the University of Texas in Austin. Because I didn’t know the words for brother, university, or any past tense verb, I think I stuttered out, “Austin’s Texas student is (how do you say brother)?” The teacher’s slack jaw and furrowed brow told me all I needed to know about my ability to create new sentences.
We attended a lecture about Japanese pronunciation that included the definition of a “uvular n”. I can’t get into specifics (because I don’t totally understand them) but think of it like this:
Can you hear the difference between “road” and “load”? Well, a Japanese person can’t. Feeling superior? Don’t. Turns out there are sounds in Japanese that we can’t really hear, either. Or, at least, it is really hard. Hence the need to learn terminology like “uvular n” and other such craziness. And the need for hours of listening practice.
Yesterday we spent two full hours learning how to tell time in Japanese. Yes, they use the same time-telling system as we do. But I now have a whole new appreciation for little people who have to learn to tell time. It is a harrowing journey to learn how to say the words for the hour, the minutes, and a.m./p.m. Let alone expressions like “ten til”. Oh, and you may remember from my last post that some numbers have different names when referring to hours. But not minutes. So, yeah, the two hour time-telling session was not even a drop in the bucket. If you asked me the time right now it would take me a full 30 seconds to give you an answer.
As an end-of-the-day handout our teacher passed us a helpful list of counter words. When I say “counter words” you might be thinking “numbers”, which are words we use for counting. Let me explain to you that counter words are the different terms used to count different objects. For example, different words are used to count people, small animals, long/thin objects, machines, thin/flat objects, or books. When counting minutes, different words are used depending on which number of minute it is (imagine we called them “three minutes, four pinutes, five pinutes, six minutes, etc.). I don’t even know what to think about this.
I have spent the past weeks trying to imagine what our sensee is thinking as we struggle through basic reading and time-telling. As we stutter and misspeak and celebrate tiny successful sentences (spoken 1/10th normal speaking speed) I try to imagine what is going on in her head. I am guessing she drinks heavily at home. Maybe she has a blog that details our complete inadequacy as Japanese students.
Maybe someday, with enough work, I’ll be able to read it.