So I wrote in my last post about my Utada Hikaru interest. Well, I really loved the songs, but there was one problem – I don’t speak Japanese.

For those who don’t know me, this kind of thing drives me crazy – If I find something really interesting, I have to learn as much about that subject as I possibly can. I’m like a sponge – I crave learning new things and soak it all up as much as I possibly can. I quite often go overboard and immerse myself in whatever the topic is. Sometimes its downright debilitating, and I just saturate myself.

So, really liking the songs wasn’t good enough for me. I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. I started google wandering.

I first found a web page that translated the Keep Tryin’ lyrics to English, representing the Japanese characters as romaji. I thought this was awesome. So, what did I do? I memorized the song in a few hours so I could sing it from memory. In Japanese 🙂

Languages fascinate me. Mouth formations, syllabic pronunciations, vocal inflection, grammar – you name it, I’m interested. In my opinion, Linguistics is the perfect balance of left-brain and right-brain activity, and I’d like to think my brain is equally as balanced (I sing first tenor and enjoy numerous artistic hobbies to balance my logic-heavy career path). If I didn’t love Computer Science so much, I know I would have done something professionally in languages, maybe becoming a UN translator or something.

Maybe that’s why I enjoy CS so much. I love the algorithmic thought processes and problem solving that I experience when programming, but I get a semi-linguistic satisfaction as well – there are a lot of programming languages out there today as well, some as different from each other as spoken languages. But I say semi-linguistic satisfaction though, because although you learn different grammars, programming languages don’t exercise right-brained speech functions.

So anyway, while memorizing the Romaji lyrics, it wasn’t good enough to read it and just sing along. I very carefully watched the video over and over again, staying in sync with what I was reading, so I could watch exactly how Hikaru (everyone calls her Hikki) formed her mouth to pronounce the words. Because of this, and my past experience with learning languages and focusing on strict pronunciation, I would now venture to say that I could sing the song with enough proficiency to pass as a long-time or maybe even native speaker. Especially in a karaoke bar where a lot of the natives could be drunk 😉

So, in my google wandering, I found a lot of sites/blogs talking about Hikki, how much they liked her, etc. Of course, most of these web sites were in Japanese, using Japanese characters. Well, that was one more thing I didn’t understand, so, you guessed it – I went to learn about Japanese writing…

The Japanese writing system is composed of 3 character sets – Kanji, which is the older ‘traditional’ character set, and 2 simplified sets, Hirigana and Katakana, together called ‘Kana’ for short. In my research I found that there are a common core of 2,000 Kanji characters, half of which youth learn formally in school, but there are actually a complete total of around 48,000 individual Kanji characters. Japanese spend their whole lives learning and remembering the full Kanji set.

The reason why is that Kanji characters represent physical things and ideas – one character for the word ‘tree’, another character for the word ‘bush’, and yet another for the word ‘forest’. This alphabet originates from the ancient Chinese character set, which is very similar even today and equally as complex.

Kanji and its Chinese parent are a complete opposites of Roman and Greek based languages, like English, which are entirely phonetic in nature: a very small set of characters are used together to represent sounds. Those sounds together form spoken words.

So, as might be expected, Japanese’s other two ‘simplified’ character sets (Kana) are phonetic in nature, like English. Hiragana is used for representing standard Japanese words and phrases. Katakana is an entirely different alphabet primarily used in representing formal names and places, especially foreign names.

Romaji is not really a separate character set – its just a hacky name for using Roman letters to form Japanese sounds so westerners can learn to pronounce the language without learning new character sets. At the end of the day though, any serious student of Japanese is far better off learning Hiragana and Katakana while learning vocabulary to immediately start training their brains in a proper manner – this is how elementary school children in Japan learn. Romaji is actually counterproductive to someone learning Japanese, because it acts as a crutch and prevents the student from reaching the full potential of being fluent and literate in Japanese.

It is interesting to note though that computers in Japan expect Romaji input which the operating system then converts into the respective character sets. This is done for practicality – could you imagine what a keyboard would look like if it had to support all the different character sets?!? Today its very common for Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana and Romaji to be used in the same document. So, one must really learn all 4 to be perfectly literate.

So where did I end up after this maelstrom of searching?

I’m going to start Japanese classes later this month 🙂

Yeah, yeah, I know this is going overboard and I’m a little nuts, but why not? My brain craves a scholastic environment pretty often actually. But I don’t want to have to go through full enrollment in a university again, so this is a great option for me. The classes are twice a week in the evenings and accomodate my work schedule perfectly.

I did this a couple of years ago for Spanish to continue what I learned while living in Spain. I’m now quasi-fluent in Spanish and feel pretty comfortable in that language. Unfortunately, my vocabulary has been decreasing since then…

Who knows…in a few months, I could be functionally fluent in Japanese too (which learning to speak is, in all honesty, much easier to learn than Western languages – its just the writing system is much harder).

All because of a few Utada Hikaru songs 😉