I Think I’m Learning Japanese

A while back, Aaron borrowed the Pimsleur Language Program Japanese: The Short Course audiobook from the library. It was really almost on a whim — we were looking through the books-on-CD, and there it was. We hadn’t booked our trip yet, but we’d seriously discussed it; so Aaron borrowed the CDs from the library and ripped them to mp3s, which we promptly loaded onto our respective iPods.

One of the basic tenets of the Pimsleur Approach is that you listen, repeat, and engage in “conversations” with the native speakers on the CD — but you are NOT supposed to go look up how to write or spell the words. This is problematic for me, as I am naturally a visual speaker: I remember what words look like. Some people remember what letter a word or name starts with; I remember how many letters it has. If I can’t see how the word is formed properly, I’ll make it up in my head, and that’s probably not good.

For example, in the first lesson, you learn the word for “a little,” which is pronounced “skōsh”. Knowing what I know about Japanese already, I knew that the romanji spelling was probably “sukoshi”. While I really, REALLY appreciate the correct native pronunciations, not knowing how things are spelled (in our alphabet, anyway) makes some words difficult for me to remember.

I’ve discovered a solution: fellow bloggers who have already completed the Pimsleur Method lessons. These individuals have transcribed the conversations, new words, and review words in each lesson. I glanced over the Lesson 3 notes briefly before I listened to Lesson 3 today during my lunchtime walk, and I think it helped.

My favorite phrase right now? Watashi wa Nihongo ga sukoshi wakarimasu. Demo mada jouzu ja arimasen.

I’m also enjoying the JapanesePod101 Survival Phrases. I’ve taken to listening to one 30-minute Pimsleur lesson during the beginning of my lunchtime walk, then following it up with a 10 to 15-minute Survival Phrase podcast. I find that it brings me down slowly from the intensity of the Pimsleur method of learn-and-recall, but it lets me stay in the zone just a little while longer and learn some more vocab in a more light-hearted way.

Both JapanesePod101 and Pimsleur are teaching me phrases that will be ultimately very helpful in Japan, I think. Pimsleur is giving me stuff like, “I’m sorry,” “I understand Japanese a little,” “Do you understand English,” and other standard niceties… so far. JapanesePod101 is teaching me stuff like, “(Repeat) one more time, please,” “Slowly,” “What is your name,” “All right (OK),” and other helpful tips, like using the “magical ‘wa'” to infer a question. I’m enjoying having the dichotomy of the formal vs. the informal, and I like aspects of both. If I had to choose only one, I’d pick Pimsleur, hands-down… but I really do prefer pitting the two against each another for a more robust learning experience. ^_^

I had a bit of a Japanese epiphany today, and it combines my otaku geekery with my musician geekery. It occurs to me that some vowels in Japanese are pronounced like you would “ghost” notes in jazz. When I marched in the Bluecoats (a drum corps known for performing jazz), there was one particular phrase in which the brass staff had us “ghost” a note. That is, we pushed down the valves that would produce the note, but didn’t actually blow any air through the horn. The result is a note that is almost audible; it’s difficult to explain verbally, but makes perfect sense if you have a musical background. (Musicians and former musicians, back me up on this.)

Some Japanese syllables — most notably, “su” and “shi” and “ki” (and many others, I’m sure, in various word positions) — have vowels that aren’t voiced. They don’t seem to be silent, exactly, but they aren’t as pronounced as the others. And it struck me today, during my walk, that those vowels are like ghosted notes. You move your mouth like you’re saying them, but no sound really comes out. The result is a vowel that you might almost hear if you know it’s there. Not really like a apostrophe… it’s still there, just not emphasized, or really voiced at all. (Japanese language enthusiasts, tell me if I’ve got it right.)

I’m really enjoying learning a new language, and for a purpose, working toward a goal — that goal being basic communication in a foreign land at a specified time in the near future, rather than a high school or college exam. I’m enjoying making my brain wrap itself around new concepts again. It’s a feeling I hadn’t realized I’d missed.

OMG Japan trip! *squee*

One thought on “I Think I’m Learning Japanese

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  1. I would suggest learning katakana, the alphabet for foreign words, since it is used to spell out English words (usually), or at least words you know, like “sandwich” or “ramen” or “bus”. There’s a katakana list in the back of the rough guide to Japan, and play this game which is free.