Learning kana by butchering the English language

April 20, 2011 – 12:32 am

I was recently asked how I learned the Japanese writing system. Actually, there are three: hiragana and katakana, which are phonetic systems, and kanji , which are basically Chinese characters embedded into Japanese text and pronounced as Japanese words.

The answer was that I was really bored the summer before I started high school, and had no qualms about butchering the English or Japanese languages. I’d also recently read Ladle Rat Rotten Hut – so when I pulled out Japanese stuff from my local library, I went “wait, these are phonetic systems… they’re just different ways of writing sounds.” So I happily started writing English sentences in the Japanese phonetic writing system.

For instance, a poem beginning:

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

Becomes…

りすてん まい ちゅづれぬ あん ゆ しゃる ひる
li-su-te-n ma-i chu-du-re-nu a-n yu sha-ru hi-ru

おぷ で みづないっと らいど おぷ ぱいる れびる
o-pu de mi-du-na-i-t-to ra-i-do o-pu pa-i-ru re-bi-ru

…and so forth.

Basically, I learned kana as an alternative phonetic system with which to write English, then switching to use the same phonetic system to write Japanese once I had it down. (I never did build up a good Japanese word vocabulary – but I can still read and write kana fluently to this day. I just don’t know what the words I’m saying mean.)

Kanji, on the other hand, I never did find a good way to learn. It helps to think in terms of breaking characters down into radicals, but beyond that you just have to memorize each one, as far as I know. I did learn that studying Chinese and Japanese back-to-back is a bad idea, though; to this day, when I’m reading Chinese, sometimes the Japanese pronunciation of a word will pop out in the middle, confusing the heck out of everyone – and the reverse happens as well. I still haven’t figured out a way to learn grammar, either. But that’s what further explorations are for.

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  1. 2 Responses to “Learning kana by butchering the English language”

  2. I wonder whether you would better like my pal’s site Kanji Damage which includes “Introduction, or why most kanji textbooks suck”.

    By Sumana Harihareswara on Apr 20, 2011

  3. Oh my gosh, yes. If ever I go back to Japanese, I’m using that method – it’s like a better version of what I tried to do with Chinese characters but didn’t have enough knowledge of the language (or resources around me who knew Chinese) to do properly.

    And the writing is hilarious – would that all textbooks be like that, replete with YO MAMA jokes.

    By Mel on Apr 22, 2011

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