Ask Sensei: Midwinter Edition

It’s about halfway through winter, which means life here in east Texas is chilly and rainy. And yet I’ll take it gladly over the Minnesota snow and ice that I braved for 16 years. Moving closer to the equator: I recommend it highly.

This time, three readers have asked questions via Instagram. First, @gablumpot wonders: How to easily learn Japanese? Lol kanji so hard… Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the short answer is you can’t. In fact, so is the slightly longer answer. Very few foreign languages are truly easy to learn, and Japanese is certainly not one of them. (Neither is English, by the way: I say all the time that I’m glad it’s my native language, because I’d hate to have to learn it.) Kanji are actually not the hard part in my opinion, but rather it’s the grammar, which is just about as unlike that of English as one could imagine. I think you’re best off taking classes for starters. Perhaps your local community college offers classes. There are also Japanese clubs and Asian language academies hidden in the unlikeliest of places (when I lived in Minnesota, I found one in a nearby mall). Don’t worry about the kanji at first, but start with the two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana. It’s absolutely crucial to have both syllabaries down cold in order to have any chance at learning Japanese. After all, one can write perfectly comprehensible Japanese using only kana, although it will look childish to a native without even the commonest of kanji being used. All that being said, I think learning a foreign language is one of the best things one can do for one’s brain. Dive in, get lessons, even get a language partner (something I have yet to do but really should), and see how it goes.

Our site’s new Art and Media Director @sophiadean20 asks, What’s your favorite thing about the Japanese culture? The main thing one has to get down before looking into Japan is that this country is a monoculture. Regardless of political persuasion and social circumstances, I think it’s fair to say, Americans are used to a multicultural society, and have come to expect it. Japan is exactly the opposite of a multicultural society. That’s not to say that there aren’t multiple people groups in Japan (sit in any train and look around you, and you’ll discover the idea that all Japanese people look the same is pure fiction). But regardless of family background and the inevitable minor local variations, native Japanese people by and large share one culture. Some might disagree with me, but I think the best thing when visiting Japan is to embrace this feeling of being on the outside looking in, and just watch carefully. Perhaps not to the last person, but most Japanese people are eager and proud to share their culture, and pleased to see foreigners enjoying it. Except you might want to leave the Hello Kitty cosplay at home. Or at least, save it for Akihabara.

Along with his question, @justinsayana brings a cheerful greeting: Good day Sensei! I am just curious how are you when you are 27 years old? I think you are asking me what was I like back then compared to now. The short answer is that I was an entirely different person. I was about five years out of college and attending graduate school in Michigan. I had only just become a Christian right after graduating from college. I thought I had a lot of things thoroughly figured out. After more than 20 years attending the school of hard knocks, I’ve learned that I wasn’t nearly as smart or as wise as I thought. But then again, ask me again about these current days when I’m 70, and I bet I’ll say the same thing. I don’t mean to sound depressing, but one of my most common failings is to be ashamed of my past — not so much what I did, but how I saw myself, what I thought, the way I saw the world on a daily basis. But the apostle Paul was both smarter and wiser than I am, and I don’t think he was kidding around when he wrote Philippians 3. I don’t presume that the middle part of the chapter refers to a literal forgetting of our past, like wiping everything from your USB drive. But at least it means that we shouldn’t be held captive like that to the way we used to be. Middle age is a very different thing from young adulthood, and with any luck, I’ll have it figured out by the time I’m a senior citizen.

And with that, please keep warm and guard your health, everyone. Sensei does not like it when students miss class. Not even Shiraishi-kun.

5 thoughts on “Ask Sensei: Midwinter Edition

  1. Re: learning Japanese, I have found that one way to make learning a foreign language easier is to learn any other foreign language first.

    What? I’m serious. 😀 We think using words, which means learning a new language is learning an entirely new way of thinking. If you’ve already had the experience of going beyond your native tongue to comprehend an alternative way of thinking / communicating, it won’t be as difficult the second,or third, or whatever, time as it was the first. That’s not to say that the grammar / vocabulary one learns in X language will have any direct bearing on Y language, just that stretching your brain makes you more mentally flexible.

    I’d also guess it’s great to get a good grasp of grammar through your native tongue. For example, all languages needs verbs and nouns and so forth. How exactly they work is going to be different, of course (and every language has some unique aspects!), but if you know the elements that compromise the grammar of a language, it’ll help you recognize and understand those same elements in a different language. “Oh, so that’s how I know which of two nouns is the subject and which is the direct object.”

  2. I started learning Japanese about a year and a half ago, but I’ve been slacking off. I really need to get back on track. さようなら!

  3. Thank you for the insight of Japan! I’ve always though they were so gentle and the way of life so peaceful. It’s on my bucket list to go and visit Japan. Thanks!

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