Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Learning Japanese Loanwords: Do They Make You Lazy?

I recently read a review of Giles Murray's 13 Secrets for Learning Fluent Japanese that got me thinking about loanwords and how derided they are by some, so I thought I would revisit this post and get some of your ideas.
This post has been updated in May 2009

Cosplay-Zoku by bass_nroll, on Flickr

My Initial Thoughts on Learning Japanese Loanwords

When I first started learning Japanese, I concentrated heavily on authentic Japanese, hiragana and gaining an understanding of traditional culture. I put to one side katakana and avoided using loanwords in speech, thinking somewhat mistakenly they would get in the way of learning real Japanese.

At the time I first went to Japan in 2003, there was a backlash against the use of English loanwords that went all the way to the Japanese Diet. Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi became upset at the use of words that he said meant nothing to the Japanese public.

A Brief History of Japanese Loanwords

What I failed to recognise at the time was the use of borrowed words in Japanese has a long and colourful history. If we forget for a moment that kanji was borrowed from Chinese, and with it most of ancient Japanese culture, the use of foreign words began with Portuguese and Dutch traders in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Until very recently English loanwords were not as common as say Dutch or Portuguese, and during the Meiji period French and German words were borrowed and adapted for use with the local language. Uncovering some of these word origins is sometimes like a brief tour of Japanese history and its unfolding interactions with the modern world.

Some Japanese are not aware of the origin of these words, and may often mistake them for legitimate English words, which can make for some amusing conversations. There is no mistaking however that loanwords are an integral part of the Japanese language and may provide an a valuable resource for learners of Japanese as a second language.

Tapping into the Borrowed Lexicon of Gairaigo

All you need to do to tap into this resource is get over the cultural cringe. So let's take a look at some common misconceptions people have about loanwords.
  1. What can be said with a loanword can be said in real Japanese

    This is not always true, as loan words were historically introduced to describe things the Japanese did not have, like cameras (カメラ). The way in which they are used is also different from the English. Take for example the English word moody (ムーディ). Upon hearing this most people would presume the speaker means "prone to mood swings", when in fact the nuance is similar to "romantic".

  2. Real Japanese don't use loanwords

    While you might bemoan the gradual loss of a nations identity through the forces of globalisation, there is no doubting that Japan is becoming ever more westernised. Japanese see the adoption of western customs and ways of speaking as a positive way of engaging with the outside. It's cool to pepper your speech with borrowed English in Japan.

  3. Loanwords distract you from learning real Japanese

    Loanwords are a useful resource for Japanese learners of English, and may actually help Japanese learners of English retain vocabulary. The Japanese use loanwords to learn English, you can also use them to learn Japanese, think of them as fast food for language learners.

  4. Modern pop culture isn't authentic Japanese culture, neither is slang

    It really depends what you define as "authentic". Examples of modern Japanese culture such as cosplay (コスプレ) are no more or no less authentic than samurai drama or kabuki. No matter what aspect of Japanese culture you are interested in there will be a range of loanwords in use.

  5. It's impossible to keep up with new loanwords, so why bother

    Loanwords tend to be very specific to the context in which they are used. If you are working in IT you will need to know a certain number of loanwords that are specific to that industry. If you are interested in manga and anime (アニメ), then a different set of loanwords might be useful. You may not need to know them all, but having a vocabulary that works for your interests is important.
So there you go. There is quite a bit you can learn about Japan from loanwords, and you needn't be shy about using them.

Controversy surrounding the use of loanwords

I can't believe that only now, in May 2009, have I stumbled across this review written in 2001 which slams Giles Murray's advice in his entertaining book of techniques for learning Japanese. The main argument against the use of loanwords is that you limit your own proficiency while causing the Japanese to look down upon you. The critic gets emotive and cites "linguistic discrimination" before calling the author ignorant and warning his readers not to use "these words to a grotesque and unnatural degree".

Sure, you can overdo things, even in English. There is no doubt in my mind however, that loanwords have their place in the Japanese language. It would be short-sighted for anyone serious about learning the language to overlook them.

I'm interested to hear your opinion. What is your attitude towards loanwords? What do Japanese think of gairaigo? New loanwords are coming into use everyday. Do you think they dilute the Japanese language, or enrich it?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

In a grove - what's your version of Japanese?

Let a Ghost Dog Teach You Some Language Learning Tricks

A recent post on Rashomon by Jon got me thinking about the relationship between culture and language learning, and how inseparable the two are. Language does not occur in a vacuum, and often we forget to lift our heads up from the kanji cards and textbooks long enough to soak up the culture that is all around us.

One of my favourite movies of all time is Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog - The way of the Samurai", where Forrest Whitaker plays a hit man retained by the Mafia. Ghost Dog, despite being 500 years too late and on the other side of the world, sees himself as samurai and lives by the warrior code of Bushido. It is clear the reclusive Ghost Dog doesn't see the world in quite the same way that others do.

Rashômon (Cast)
Rashômon (Cast) by bluelephant, on Flickr

Do you face your daily study with a warrior's conviction?

Ghost Dog has given himself over to the way of the warrior, each day he faces death with the same sense of fearless conviction. The books he reads are therefore not just an aid to his study, they are his reason for it. His adopted culture forms a framework for understanding and responding to interactions he has with other characters in the movie.

When we are learning a second language, culture becomes even more crucial to making sense of things. Can you imagine learning Japanese without having any notion of kimono, samurai or sushi? Some people cringe when they hear about my love of natto, but can really say you've tasted Japan without trying it, or many of the other unsavoury foods you can find there?

Akira Kurosawa chose the old gate at the southern end of Kyoto, to frame his film Rashomon in the dim light of moral decay. Ghost Dog gives Rashomon and Other Stories as a gift to a young girl he befriends in the park. It is not well known that the plot for the film Rashomon was based on a short story, "In a grove" by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, in which seven unreliable narrators tell of the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife.

Giles Murray has written an excellent translation of the story, accompanied by the original Japanese text and readings in Japanese in his book "Breaking into Japanese Literature".

"In a grove" may have been one of the books read by Whitaker in Ghost Dog. It's a classic of modern Japanese literature, that demonstrates how each person constructs their own version of reality. When I read it's multiple points of view, I get a chaotic and contradictory picture of what should be a simple crime of passion.


How do you immerse yourself in Japanese, especially authentic Japanese? Do you believe we construct our own version of reality when we learn another language? How so?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Making the most of your stay in Japan.

Does Japan live up to your expectations?

I've been watching the Japan Blog Matsuri for sometime and finally decided to get in there and have a go. Thank you to Nick from The Long Countdown for reviving it and keeping the crowd moving on JapanSoc. I follow Nick on Twitter, you should too! Thanks also to Bill for this months topic.

I recently returned home to Australia from 5 years in Japan where I was teaching English. I'm still teaching languages, including Japanese at eduFire. I'm an unashamed Japanophile and will probably move back at some stage with my wife and kids.

You Can't Have Your Lion Cake and Eat It Too
You Can't Have Your Lion Cake and Eat It Too by Rainbowhill LL, on Flickr

I've met all kinds of people who have decided to come to Japan, for whatever reason. Some that barely survived, some that thrived and still others that couldn't get out fast enough. And whenever I found out they were leaving I always asked them the same question.
"How did your expectations of Japan match the reality of living here?"
It's kind of a loaded question, because most people who launch right into an answer haven't really thought that hard about it before. Most people that have got a lot to talk about at this point are those that have decided that Japan didn't meet their expectations, and for that reason they're going home. They're usually disappointed with the way things turned out.

You can imagine some of the answers, you might be surprised by others;
  • "I thought there would be more nightlife"
  • "I thought more people would speak English" (honestly?)
  • "I don't really like the food"
  • "People are hard to get to know here"
  • "I don't like teaching children"
I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.

Now I don't often get the chance to ask the question of people who really love living in Japan, because most of them are still there! But one thing does seem to important to making the most of your stay in Japan. The fewer preconceived ideas you have about what it's going to be like, the more open you become to the possibilities, and this means more fun!

There are other things go hand in with this, like understanding your motivation for going, having a plan when you get there, and giving yourself enough time to really appreciate the culture. The less these things are based on external factors, the more chance you have of seeing them through.

My motivation for going there grew out my love for martial arts which developed when I was a boy, it was just a natural extension of a childhood dream. I embraced culture through my association with other martial artists and found this deepened my experience. I also made a lot of friends this way, and it enabled to break away from the negative little gaijin ghettoes you find in every Japanese town.

The plan I had was always to learn the language, and pay down debt/save some money. I figured the first goal would be much easier than the second ;-) so I gave myself 5 years at the outside. I hadn't really learnt any Japanese before arriving, so initially Japanese was about survival; asking for directions, getting on the right train, that kind of thing.

Very early on I made Japanese lessons a priority, but even then I didn't rely on my once a week lessons with the obachan too much. Every chance I had, my books were out, I was soaking it up, like a sponge. Being immersed is good, but having your eyes and ears open is even better. Many people think it'll just happen via osmosis. Believe it, there are people living in Japan, longer than 10 years, who don't speak a word of Japanese, I've met them.

Patience was not always one of my strengths, but certainly something that developed during my time in Japan. I used to get frustrated easily when people couldn't understand me. Now after spending countless hours in a cubicle with people who's knowledge of English was limited to 'haroo', 'O-Kei' and 'bai-bai', I've learnt to be a little more forgiving.

Everyone goes through some rough times, no less when you are in a strange country, many miles
from loved ones. It really helped to know that I had a purpose, and to re-evaluate that along the way. Initially the chance I thought I'd give Japan was 3 months, if I absolutely hated it, at least I'd give it that much time. Once I reached that point, I gave myself another year, but then something happened, I really started to enjoy myself.

Sure I missed home at times, but I made sure I stayed in touch with people, and scheduled a couple of visits.

So in a nutshell:
To make the most of your time in Japan, go with an open mind, understand your motivation, prepare yourself for differences, and embrace the culture.
Thanks for reading, I'd really like to hear your ideas in the comments. If you've been to Japan, what advice do you have to offer people who are thinking of going? If you are thinking of going, do you have any idea of what it might be like to live there?

A special shout out to Chris from Nihongo Notes, it was his post "Learning Japanese, Blogging and how not to be perfect" that gave me the inspiration for getting back into blogging with a vengence.