“En japonés, hay cuatro alfabetos” I say in fairly ropey Spanish. It’s 1998, my brother is getting married in Madrid soon, and I’ve decided to add Spanish to my Japanese degree. We’ve been asked to do a presentation in Spanish about something we know, so I thought I’d do it about Japanese, seeing as I’ve been spending the past year or so slogging away at one of the hardest languages in the world, and it’s certainly on my mind.
My first presentation in Japanese class had been a bit of a disaster. We were asked to tell the class about our hometown – a nice simple way to start things – and so I looked up some neat interesting facts about the great city of London. My first thought is that throughout the world, probably due to Charles Dickens, London is famous for being foggy (he’s the reason Christmas is associated with snow too). When I lived in China, clearly everyone got the Dickens memo as they told me on a regular basis that London “is a very foggy city”, even though frankly it isn’t.
So I get out my trusty Japanese character dictionary, and find a character that means fog. ‘Funiki’ is the Japanese for ‘atmosphere’, and the first character, ‘fun’, means fog, so that must be the word for it. Impeccable logic that will stand the test of time. But maybe not a Japanese test, as ‘fun’ actually means something completely different.
Picture the scene. I stand up in front of all my new classmates in Sheffield University, to speak Japanese for the first time in front of all of them. I proudly say the sentence I’ve been practicing all week – “Sekkai no naka de, Rondon wa fun de yumei desu”. Perfect, flawless, grammatically correct Japanese though it was, turns out ‘fun’ doesn’t mean fog. Miyuki-sensei burst out laughing, asked me what I was trying to say, and pointed out that the word for fog is ‘kiri’. ‘Fun’ means, and I quote, “how do you say it in English… dog shit?”.
Learning Japanese has its complexities as you’d imagine, not least that it simply didn’t grow up in Europe and has entirely different grammatical concepts that you have to get your head around. For example, adjectives have tenses, they aren’t adjectives at all, and are instead called keioshi. These mix with verbs in different ways depending on if the verb is transitive or intransitive, which is great to know, unless you have no idea what transitive or intransitive means. Take that, multiply it by a thousand, and you have learning Japanese in a nutshell.
Big numbers in English are in blocks of three – thousands, millions, billions – but in Japanese they are in blocks of four. So a million is 100-ten-thousand. Added to that is that years are referred to by how long the emperor has been on the throne, and you can definitely start to get lost when you’re counting.
The main thing about climbing the mountain that is Japanese is the family that I found when learning it, my ‘fun’ Japanese class, who started with 40 people and eventually narrowed down to 11 who graduated in 2002. I’d say we had all considered quitting at some point but through mutual love, support and a vague level of respect and laughing, we managed to pull each other through. I’m glad we all worked together through the hard times and all end up with fluency in something very different. And now you all know the Japanese for dog plop.
I got an A for the Spanish presentation by the way.