In this Language Loves Me series, I will be featuring language learners from all over the globe. They will expound on their tempestuous (or tepid) linguistic love affairs. This week let’s dive into the delicious details of…..
João’s love affair with 日本語
The Important Things
Who are you?
Hello there! My name is João (I usually introduce myself as John, people have a hard time with the ‘ã’)! I’m the face behind Travelholic Nomad, a cultural off-the-beaten path online travel blog. I started travel blogging when I decided to leave my boring university student behind and pursue a path of nomadic happiness, which would provide me with the chance to fulfill my real passion in life: connect and get immersed in new cultures. For the last 15 months, I’ve visited over 30 countries and met unique and inspirational people, who’ve helped me grow as a person, but most importantly as a world citizen. In the end of the day, travel comes down to one thing: the people you meet, and what you learn from them.
When did your love affair with Japanese begin?
It started 5 years ago, right after I came back home from a trip to London. It was my first solo trip ever, and as any travel addict, the first thing that popped into my head when I came back was “What is my next destination going to be?”
At this moment, my knowledge regarding Japan was very limited. I knew about Tokyo, but if you sum it up that was, unfortunately, pretty much it.
I remember this moment very clearly: I was searching the web for amazing destinations around the World, filling my bucket list with endless countries and cities. At one moment, I stumbled upon a Youtube channel that had incredible videos of Japan. I started watching, and after 3 hours I was still on it. That was the moment Japan became my main obsession, as a travel destination and as the country I want to end my life in.
I started researching like a madmen ways that would enable me to move to Japan, but being 19 at the time there wasn’t much I could do. All the options I had required one skill I knew nothing about: speaking Japanese. That’s when I decided I was going to learn the language, whatever and how long it took.
What do you love about learning Japanese?
I’m going to be honest with you: at first I completely HATED learning Japanese. The first few weeks were a disaster, and with every day that passed, my will to give up grew stronger. But I kept fighting against it, and eventually my passion won over the frustration. I started to love Kanji, and the complexity that goes behind each and every one of them. What I most love Japanese is the intonation of the words: if you change the way you pronounce a vowel, the word gets a completely different meaning! For example, ええ (which is pronounced ‘ee’), can mean ‘yes’, ‘must I?’, or ‘What?’, all depending on the amount of intonation you put on it. If this isn’t amusing to you, I don’t know what could be!
Is it a monogamous relationship, or are there other languages in your life?
Oh yes, my love for Japanese is shared with 4 other languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese and English. But at the end of the day, it’s Japanese the one that holds the sweetest and biggest chunk of my heart. It was the language I most invested, either in terms of time and money, and it’s the one I enjoy talking the most.
Where did you study, and why?
I’m currently in Portugal for a few weeks, resting after a non stop 10-month trip around Europe.
I actually studied Japanese on my own, for the first year! By the time I decided to enroll in a uni course, I was automatically placed in level 5, which was one of the biggest gratifications I ever got in life. In my opinion, anyone can learn a new language on their own, you just need to invest time in it. And it’s not 1 or 2 hours per day. When I was learning Japanese on my own, I would probably spend 5 or 6 hours everyday studying the language: 2 hours writing, 2 hours reading and 2 hours speaking. There are obviously easier languages out there you can aim to learn and that wouldn’t take as much effort and work as Japanese, but the principle is the same: work hard until you master it.
How did you study?
Books were the way I learned Japanese on my own for the first year, and there are 2 of them which I think are essential to anyone wanting to learn the language: Genki and Minna no Nihongo. Both of them give you a great insight into the japanese grammar and vocabulary, and you should have at least one of them.
When it comes to learning Kanji, ‘Remembering the Kanji’ by James Heisig is hands-down your best bet. His Kanji memorizing system is splendid, and you’ll pick the process up in no time.
Once your knowledge has evolved a bit, you should install Anki on your laptop. It’s a flashcard app, and it is the best way to train Kanji and vocabulary memorization. On one side of the card you write the japanese word, and on the other side the translation in your desired language. It’s a very easy and effective method to learn those hard japanese words you can’t seem to remember ever!
What cultural medium helps you most, and how?
I listen to a lot of Japanese music, and I started watching all the shows that I used to watch with Japanese subtitles or audio. I think you have to find what you’re most comfortable with! For me, the listening was much harder than the reading, because my ears had a hard time picking up the Japanese accent of some regions, so I forced them to listen to that exact accent over and over. It worked out pretty well!
What are some fun facts about Japanese?
Grammar: There is no verb conjugation! Coming from a native language as complex as Portuguese, I found it really odd that the verbs didn’t have different tenses.
Vocabulary: There are different levels of polite language to learn, called “honorifics”. This is what differentiates a “dumb foreigner” (or gaijin, as it’s called in Japanese) from someone who’s actually fluent in Japanese.
Spelling and pronunciation: A single kanji can be pronounced in various ways, depending on its meaning for occasion. For example 木 (tree) may be read in three different ways : ‘moku’, ‘boku’ or ‘ki’. ‘Moku’ and ‘boku’ are called 音読み(onyomi) and ‘ki’ is called a 訓読み(kunyomi). Onyomi’s are words that derived from the Chinese pronunciation, and kunyomi’s are words that existed in Japanese before the introduction of Chinese characters.
When do you consider a person fluent in a foreign language?
In my opinion, a person is fluent in a foreign language when they can have a regular conversation with no problems whatsoever. For example, I would consider someone fluent in Japanese if they traveled to Japan, and could ‘survive’ throughout the day by only communicating in Japanese with everyone they met.
What is your favorite word, phrase, idiom?
賞がない(shoganai). It basically means ‘it can’t be helped’. I love it, because it represents the Japanese way of thinking very strongly. It basically is a philosophy: it means that if something is out of your power/control, it’s best to quickly accept it and move on.
Can you tell an amusing story about a miscommunication or mistranslation you experienced?
This was definitely one of the most hilarious moments I had with miscommunication in Japanese: I was speaking to a Japanese friend of mine through Skype, and I was telling him what I just had for lunch. ‘Chushoku no tame ni neko o tabeta’ I said. He looked at me very weird saying ‘Naaaani desu ka?’ (Whaat did you just say?) So basically, cat and meat are very similar words in Japanese: cat – neko; meat – niku. Somehow I mixed both words and told him I had cat for lunch. It took me a while to understand why he was so shocked, but once I did I couldn’t stop laughing!
In your experience, how do travel and language learning interact?
Travel is, whether you like it or not, immensely connected to language. The culture of every country is influenced by its language, and if you plan to get culturally immersed when you travel, you should at least make an effort to understand the basic phrases and expressions of the local language. For my part, when I travel, I always do a ‘pre-study’ of 10-15 standard phrases like ‘thank you’ or ‘good morning’, and you know what? The locals just LOVE IT when you go the extra mile to actually interact and connect with them! If you’ve never tried it, I advise you to do it before you visit your next country.
Thank you João, We appreciate the glimpse into your Japanese Romance!
Are you learning a language and would like to share your story with the rest of us? Don’t be shy, we all need encouragement and inspiration!
If you have a linguistic love story to share, please email me at: aplacelikemeinagirllikethis(at)gmail(dot)com