December 24, 2010 | Japanese

Yes to Kana, Sorry to Kanji

There's only so much a girl can do.

I have been consuming a balanced diet of Pimsleur lessons, Rosetta Stone, and my various Japanese books.

Japanese Books Work Better With Coffee

Today in my Kana de Manga book by Glenn Kardy, I read, “Children in Japan learn to read and write hiragana and katakana (collectively known as kana) long before they are introduced to Chinese characters, or kanji.” As I proceed, it has become clear to me that of course I am not going to bother with kanji for this project. Learning thousands of Chinese symbols is not exactly a realistic goal at the moment.

It is, however, realistic to think I could at least try to learn all the hiragana and katakana. What’s another 92+ symbols to shovel into my brain?!

Seriously, though, one of the most enjoyable aspects of this project is studying new writing systems. It is calming, like art therapy, or like I would imagine art therapy would be had I ever done it, or seen it, or had anything whatsoever to do with it.

The abovementioned book relies on manga cartoon images (whatever those are; I am not up on my cartoon images) to help teach the language. I don’t really get what manga is, but this is a very cute book with amusingly smart-alecky text, and I have been finding it quite helpful.

For one thing, the book explains a couple of issues that have been confusing to me. I read in it that “the l sound…is almost nonexistent in Japanese, with a Japanese approximation falling somewhere between a d and an r to English-trained ears, and usually romanized with an r.”

What a relief. I have found that so bewildering in my Pimsleur lessons. A word will sound one way in one lesson and then another way in the next. To my ear d and r and l are radically different, so hearing those sounds used almost interchangeably is kind of bizarre.

From My Rosetta Stone Lessons: Why No Spaces Between Japanese Words?

From My Rosetta Stone Lessons: Why No Spaces Between Japanese Words?

In addition, the manga book has informed me, “All Japanese words end either in a vowel, or a consonant that can sound like either an m or an n, depending on the word….There are no other consonant endings in Japanese.” This is totally unlike English, where words end in all kinds of crazy ways.

A question, so far unresolved: why are there no spaces between Japanese words? Everything runs together.

I thought I would get an answer to this from one of my sources, but so far, nothing. There was a time, many centuries ago, when Latin had no spaces between words either, but I didn’t realize—I guess I should have—that this was a feature of some modern languages, too.

Comments (6)

Jordan • Posted on Mon, January 03, 2011 - 10:34 pm EST

Hi Ellen,
  Pimsleur Portuguese has bewildered me quite a bit in a similar way: The male and female speakers pronounce the same words differently, and I don’t mean how a female would say it vs how a male would say it. It happens right from the beginning Vol.I, lesson 1. This could be a regional or even a social variation,  I’m not sure. I really enjoy studying Portuguese, I think you will too.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, January 03, 2011 - 10:41 pm EST

I can’t wait for Portuguese! Yeah, I spend a healthy chunk of my time confused these days. :)

Jack • Posted on Mon, February 07, 2011 - 12:58 am EST

Hi Ellen,
Just saw the WSJ article and thought you have a very interesting project - like Benny the Irish Polyglot’s Fluent in 3 Months goal, but with a New York twist.

To try to explain your question about why there are no spaces in Japanese: well, the answer is that they basically aren’t necessary with normal use of kanji and kana. That’s not to say that they switch between writing systems every word - they don’t - but the heavy use of particles and the incredible regularity of conjugation makes it much easier than English to distinguish between words and keeps you from going too cross-eyed. It’s said that the use of kanji is what lets Japanese and Chinese get away with having no spaces, while in Korean they’re more necessary.

Of course, all these scholarly theories could be hogwash and it’s just a matter of getting used to it.

Either way, best of luck with your studies!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, February 09, 2011 - 6:15 pm EST

Thank you, Jack! Particles are starting to pop out at me periodically and make word boundaries easier to determine, but reading is very slow going. And as soon as kanji is involved, it is all over for me, since I don’t know any of those characters.

What also confuses me is that sometimes I see text with spaces, but maybe that’s because I am looking at basic books designed to help beginners like me!

Kayle • Posted on Thu, April 19, 2012 - 1:25 pm EST

I adore the man’s voice in Pimsleur, but the lady’s voice seemed…off. I looked it up online and native speakers have said that she speaks with a Chinese accent, so she may not be a native speaker. Any resources to help with gender specific speech?(I am a teenage girl and would like to sound like one in Japanese ^.^;;)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, April 19, 2012 - 2:20 pm EST

Kayle, I wish I could help with the gender-specific speech question, but I can’t. I was hanging on for dear life with Japanese and was glad to be able to communicate in any gender! Thank you for your great comments on this and other Japanese-related entries. :)

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