February 27, 2017

Katakana: The Japanese-English Secret Decoder Ring

My sabbatical linguistic goals for Asia were focused on one language -- Japanese. 

Trying very hard to be culturally appropriate!
The pie in the sky goal was that I would study Japanese every day and improve my limited skills both before arriving *and* while in the country (where it is always easiest for me to study a language).  Also, I was determined to be able to read both Hiragana and Katakana before the end of our visit to Asia.

Classic example of 1/3 hiragana, 1/3 katagana, 1/3 kanji at the Sake Tasting.
Turns out, the study every day while in *other* foreign countries where no one speaks Japanese plan did not go well.  The logistics of managing travel while in South East Asian chaos plus a desire to enjoy the things we did do, plus my brain attaching to the local sounds of the local foreign language, meant that I just couldn't (or didn't) want to make much time for Japanese in South East Asia.  I probably only fit in 1 Japanese study session per week for the first 6 weeks of the Asia trip.

Oh, well.  I started studying for real when we boarded the first plane (of 3) for Japan.

Hiragana is the curlier/rounder phonetic system they teach schoolchildren first.  Japanese words are written in Hiragana when they are intended to be easy to understand.  If you know your Sushi fish orders in Japanese, for example, you can easily read or recognize Maguro, Sake, Ika, Hirame, Saba, Uni, etc. which are written in Hiragana on a sushi menu (or traveling sign on conveyer-belt sushi).

Example of hiragana train help.
If you get on the wrong train in a rural area, they will often write the name of the previous and last train station in Hiragana with arrows, which is super helpful if you couldn't recognize the Kanji (complex imported Chinese characters) in the station, couldn't understand the announcements, and you need to know if you are headed in the correct direction.

Nighttime view of Kakegawa Castle.
Hiragana had already saved me a couple of times on our last visit, so I knew it was a valuable thing to know.  However, I'd originally thought that Hiragana would be super helpful, but really, it was only helpful where the level of help you need is the type of written information that would be helpful for a fluent Japanese-speaking 1st grader who is learning how to read phonetically (i.e. NOT ME).

What I'd learned last time was that the average thing I'm trying to read in Japan (menu, sign with directions or warnings, etc.) is likely 1/3 Hiragana, 1/3 Katakana, and 1/3 Kanji.  I know about 50 Kanji from my Mandarin studies and even though they pay dividends in both Japanese and Chinese, I didn't intend to do any more work on them this trip (because they are hard!).

Katakana is a separate, 2nd phonetic writing system (more angular and sharp) that is used to transliterate foreign words into the Japanese phonetic system.  Initially, I was a little annoyed that I had to learn 2 different phonetic systems for the same sets of Japanese sounds.

Hiragana "Gi" flashcard -- typical Japanese vocabulary with explanations.
But then, I started my Katakana flashcards.  The Romaji (Roman alphabet transliteration) for all of the examples were so easy to understand.  Unlike Hiragana where I can only sound out things and match them up if I *already* know the word in Japanese, Katakana is for FOREIGN words.  Guess what?  Most of the foreign words in Japanese are from English!

Katakana "Gi" flashcard -- note the English cognates.

All of a sudden, just by learning 48 phonetic symbols, I could read things and sound them out and understand a *ton* more of what was going on.

Washington Hotel Plaza
The only visible sign for our hotel from the street
Katakana for the win!
I've *never* studied a language where there was an imported subset of the language that was derived from English and called out to you in a completely separate writing system.  It's seriously mind-blowing.  You just learn a character set and something that is incomprehensible is magically translated into English-sounding words with a heavy Japanese accent.

I basically walked around sounding out
signs all day and night.
I tried to explain it to E, but I'm always getting excited about linguistic stuff and wanting to ramble on about it and we are more than half a year in to the year of travel, so at this point E usually just sort of just mumbles appreciation for the points I'm making and half-listens.  That is, until we sat at an Izakaya and I sounded out the various sections of the otherwise incomprehensible drink menu:

Bi-ru (long i, like ee in English) -- Beer
U-wi-su-ki (long U, like ewe) -- Whisky
Wa-i-n  -- Wine
So-fu-to-du-ri-n-ku (long O, like sew) -- Soft Drink
A-i-su-ku-rii-mu -- Ice Cream

And so on...And then, his mind was blown too!  He's watched me try to remember the vocabulary necessary to translate a menu too many times to count.  This was not that!  He could listen to me sound things out, and, often, because he was only listening to the noises, he could understand what it was supposed to be in English while I was still focused on the Katakana and how to pronounce each one correctly. 

French Fries? フライドポテト (Fu-ra-i-do-po-te-to) (e like Spanish, "ay")

Katakana is like a secret Japanese decoder ring for English speakers!  There are even multiple words that have a traditional Japanese pronunciation as well as a Katakana imported foreign pronunciation and you can just totally cheat and use the foreign pronunciation.  I've *never* leveled up in my comprehension of a language as fast I did learning Katakana.

Typical hand-written menu

We had fun deploying this power for the rest of the trip.  We could now go into small local restaurants with no English or pictures and handwritten menus (where we couldn't cheat with Google translate) and bumble our way to get seated, and then sound out the portion of the menu in hiragana and katakana and order.  It was great -- typically 50% of the time we knew what we were getting, 25% we knew some of what the ingredients were but not all or the preparation so we were usually pleasantly surprised, and 25% of the time, the server either refused to serve us what we requested, or explained in more detail because we clearly didn't fully understand.

Final Thought: Of course the best example of leveling up and superpowers I've ever experienced in real life come from an experience in Japan.  Of course.


Arvay said...

Does your huge smile in photo #1 give you away as 'Merican? :)

bt said...

@Arvay - probably.

Jen said...

I discovered the same thing when I was in Japan. On my first day, searching for my capsule hotel in Osaka, there was only one sign in katakana that indicated where the hotel was (in an alley, with no addresses). Of course, knowing Kanji helped enormously as well, but I could only read and not pronounce the characters.

bt said...

@Jen -- the Kanji/Hanzi symbolic writing system is so fascinating. In many ways it is obviously *so* much more useful than a pronunciation-based system (for comprehension of the reader). But, then, when you are in the moment, understanding the Kanji and not knowing how to say them at all and trying to get anything done is super frustrating... so different than all the other languages I've studied.