Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Learning Japanese

I love languages. One of my favorite ice-breaker questions is: if you could have any super power, what would it be? Two most popular answers I have heard are being able to fly, and ability to read other people's mind. For me, the answer is always to be able to speak other people's languages instantly.

I learned English and took French, German, Spanish, and Russian for a while in college in China. But English is the only one that still sticks with me. Chinese way of teaching foreign language in 1990s was to focus on reading and grammar. So at the time of my college graduation, I still sounded like a five-year-old in English conversation.

Curious about how American universities teach foreign languages (also to earn credits for my East Asian Studies minor) , I took a semester of Japanese last year and, what an experience!

The 6-credit course was super intensive with eight classes a week. The professor and all TAs were Japanese native speakers and each discussion section had a dozen or so students only. The class was like a boot camp challenging our eyes, ears, mouths, and brains every single day. We spent more quality time with our TA than with our significant others. After a while I felt that my life had been taken over by Japanese and my head had become a memorization machine. The security of my apartment had greatly improved against burglars because the bunch of Japanese chatters (recording) there never shut up.

After surviving the semester, I think I like the approach of the class. From the very beginning, it emphasizes reading as well as listening, speaking and writing all at once. For example, as part of the final exam, we had to write and give a speech in Japanese in front of our class. It felt pretty cool for a Chinese to give a Japanese speech about her German friend in an English speaking country. I also learned a few tricks from the class in case I shall teach Chinese in an American university someday. For example, difficult grammar (e.g. te-form in Japanese) can be made easy to remember if you turn it into lyrics of a popular song (e.g. Santa Claus is coming to town).

Taking Japanese also intrigued me further about its similarity with Chinese. Japanese borrowed a lot from Chinese, such as kanji or Chinese characters, to develop their written language during the Tang dynasty (618-907). In the dialect of my grandparents' hometown in Lixian, Hunan province, they use the word "zuo-ne" to express sympathy: that's too bad. But the word doesn't exist in Mandarin nor do I know how to write it in Chinese characters. Then I heard the Japanese word for the same expression, "zan-nen." I was shocked how similar it sounds to "zuo-ne" and wonder if both words came from a common ancient Chinese word. If that's the case, what a marvel it is for the two words to remain similar after more than a thousand years of time and thousands of miles apart.

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