East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Tired of Tanaka-san: adventures in Japanese learning


My story with Japanese is long and involved. I first got me a copy of Teach Yourself Japanese when I was in high school. I was fascinated by the East, I had a knack for languages, the book was cheap… oh, come on, do I really have to make excuses?
The Teach Yourself book was good but as a high-schooler I had too much to do already. I had much more success with the Teach Yourself French book. We’ll get back to that.

My brother did take Japanese and Chinese in University, and then worked with Japanese artists as a music promoter. Back when he was doing it, his Japanese was good. Today he says he’s out of exercise, but that’s just his perfectionism speaking. He’s good.
Some of it brushed off on me. At the turn of the century I could manage a basic survival exchange, and if my counterpart was not talking too fast, I could understand what they were saying. I could read about sixty kanji. Basically like a Japanese pre-schooler.
I took a formal course, paid with the income from my very first job.

There had been, at the time, the promise of a research post in Japan, in Shimane, and that had been a big incentive to learn as much as I could.
Then the research position fizzed out (I’ll have to write a story about that, one of these days, because surreal doesn’t even start to describe it), I got royally fed up with the otakus, and I started doing other. I learned a programming language or two.
I learned Spanish.

Now, French and Spanish are good choices. First, being European, France and Spain are basically my next-door neighbors. Second, Spanish is extremely widespread as a language in the world – more than French, more than German, that would be the next obvious choice.
But most important, French and German, compared to Japanese, are easier to exercise. They use our same frigging alphabet.
I was able to do a lot of exercise reading whatever came at hand.
I read newspapers and magazines, I read books.
Maybe I’d screw up the pronunciation, but the words were there.

Because once you have a smattering of a foreign language and a working knowledge of the grammar, the trick is using that language, to acquire a vocabulary. Nouns and verbs, adjectives and pronouns.
Keep going at it, and you’ll make it.

The problem with Japanese – and Chinese, and also with Arabic and Russian, languages I’d love to learn – is the first stumbling block of the written form.
And I sometimes wonder if my being helpless when it comes to drawing and sketching might have something to do with my difficulties when it comes different alphabets – my Egyptian hieroglyphs, that I studied briefly in 1992/93, are not that good either, after all.

But as I said a few days back, now it’s really easy to exercise any spoken language – we can get subtitled movies (even on Youtube!) and we can listen to songs and radio programs. As a result of various courses and stuff I tried during the years and an intensive immersion with reruns of Gundam and other cartoons, the Miss Sherlock Holmes series and a ton of records, I got back to the point I can get the gist of what someone is telling me in Japanese.
Now it’s time to get to the next level.

So I dug out the handbooks me and my brother put together through the ages, and then I started going through Japanese for Busy People and I met again frigging Mister Tanaka. It was a flashback, and I suddenly remembered why I had found the going so difficult the last time I had tried to work on my Japanese with my sights set on a lower-than-lowest proficiency level: the narrative at the base of Japanese language courses is boring as hell, and has very little to do with me.

In general, all the Japanese language courses I have seen (and I have seen a few) work on two possible set-ups…

  • Set-up the first: you are Sumisu-san, an American kaishain or possibly a bengoshi here in Tokyo on behalf of your company. You receive an extensive introduction to pronunciation, and then meet Tanaka-san, that will be your main contact during your stay in Japan. In the first three chapters of the course you’ll learn everything about calling cards, office space, secretary, boss… And then of course station, bank, and how to give directions to your cabby. Meanwhile, you get Katakana and Hiragana. Then you’ll learn numbers, and a big list of verbs.
  • Set-up the second: you are Jimu-san, a Brit tourist that will be spending two weeks between Tokyo and Kyoto. Tanaka-kun is your pen-pal, and he’ll show you around. You find the Hiragana and Katakana table spread over two pages. A note on pronunciation. You’re in for a quick overview of presentations, then you’re off for a tour of the station and the airport, a nice chat about your hotel accommodations, how to ask for directions on the street, why you should avoid shouting “Tasukete!” You also learn numbers, and how to ask for the prices of stuff – mostly electronics.

The third setup – you are an exchange student, that is the classic premise for European-language courses – just doesn’t happen in Japan, apparently. Which is a pity, because apparently exchange students go to the pub, catch a movie or a concert sometimes, and while they mostly speak of classes, they actually do something interesting for a normal person without business or tourist interests.

And so I thought, wouldn’t it be good, to have a language course that does not expect us to be either here for business or leisure, but that throws at us something more exciting?
And I don’t mean a language course in which we are gun-runners, pirates or astronauts (even if the astronaut one would be great to acquire a good technical-scientific vocabulary, I guess), but something that’s a little more alive than handing our damned meishi to Tanaka-san.
Someone somewhere decided that the language course must involve the narration of someone that’s similar to the student: another student or, in the case of Japan, a businessman or a tourist.
What about an armchair traveler or a guy that loves stories?

In the end, I went back to my old, bulletproof Japanese for Today, an artifact for a more civilized time (it’s thirty years old), a merciless meat-grinder of a course that starts throwing kanji at you on lesson two. I’ll couple that with some old copies of MangaJin reprints, and old copies of Japanese in Mangaland to explore special topics, and a pack of flash-cards to work my memory. And I’ll keep listening to songs, and watching movies and stuff.

The target is, by the end of 2009, to be able to read a few paragraphs and talk with mister Tanaka of something different than train timetables.
After all, a guy does need a hobby, right?
And writing used to be mine, but it’s not a hobby anymore.

LATE CORRECTION: the date above is 2019, of course not 2009.
OK that using our brain and learning new things we can hold back the aging process, but Japanese is not hard enough to actually reverse it.

I’ll keep you posted, and I am open to suggestions, of course – do you know a good course, a nice book, some trick or other?
Please tell me.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “Tired of Tanaka-san: adventures in Japanese learning

  1. I’m also learning Japanese right now. For conversational Japanese and even more importantly the cultural nuances I can’t recommend the Youtube videos of Misa-sensei enough https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBSyd8tXJoEJKIXfrwkPdbA


  2. You’re so ambitious! I studied Chinese for a couple of semesters and found it much easier than people said it would be. But I’ve never studied any other Asian languages. Good luck!


    • Thank you. I’m not sure whether’s ambition or foolishness, or boredom πŸ˜€
      I gave a look at Chinese and decided it was not for me. I have a super-easy coursebook here on my shelf, and I never used it.
      My brother studied it, but in university they taught him classical Chinese.
      Japanese seemed more manageable, when I started it. Sometimes I think I was wrong πŸ˜›


  3. It looks like studying Japanese stimulate spontaneous time-travel, “by the end of 2009” show us where you will find yourself at the end of the course. πŸ™‚
    Maybe there’s a story here, who knows?


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.