Sunday, March 11, 2012

Learning to Read, Again

I don't remember what it was like to not be able to read English; I can't remember that far back. I know from what I've been told that I started reading simple things as far back as preschool and never stopped. I kind of wish I did recall that experience now, because without that knowledge the next thing I can fall back on is the conviction that I must be able to learn to read, since I've already done it once.

Read Japanese, that is. Recently I've had Japan on the brain, and this has manifested in actual academic study of the Japanese language through the University of British Columbia's continuing education program. Despite my failed attempts to sign on with the JET Programme at the end of my university days, I never had a real opportunity to study the language in Ontario. Right now I'm capable of extremely basic conversation, but speaking a language is only part of it - if you can't also read it, you'd better be a pretty good bluffer if you have to spend any significant amount of time in a society that speaks it.

You've probably heard that Japanese doesn't use an alphabet natively. Instead, it uses two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, as well as kanji, an array of Chinese logographic characters of which up to three thousand or so are in common use in Japan. The familiar Western alphabet isn't unknown over there, though - it's called romaji, is often used in a Japanese context on things like street and destination signs, identification, and computer interfaces, and it's taught in the schools. So, even if a Japanese tourist visited Canada with only a limited command of English, written material wouldn't be completely unfamiliar.

The reverse is, unfortunately, not the same. I've heard rumors that some high schools in British Columbia offer Japanese as an elective language class, but otherwise it's pretty much no dice unless you attend a university with a sufficiently sophisticated languages department. Neither is there a particularly strong presence of Japanese writing in Canada, so far as I've noticed. Not even my package of authentic miso soup has any. The result of this was that when I started trying to learn hiragana and katakana, they were completely alien systems that bore no resemblance at all to anything I'd ever seen or heard of before.

Over the course of a few weeks I did manage to eventually wrestle katakana to the ground, but for a while there it was a struggle that would leave my mind blank at the most inconvenient moments. Hiragana presents its own challenge that I still have yet to take on squarely, and kanji... there's a lot of kanji. But it would've been considerably simpler, I think, if this had been the sort of thing that I'd been exposed to through society during the course of my life.

In retrospect, in some ways it's almost surprising that there wasn't very much of this. Back in the 1980s, when I was growing up, one of the dominant cultural assumptions in the West was that Japan was going to rule the world thanks to the unrelenting power of its keiretsu megacorporations - the bursting of the economic bubble put an end to that particular assumption, but even so. In other ways, though, it's not surprising at all - until very recently, Western culture in general was rather provincial and xenophobic against anything that wasn't considered to be a subset of "the West." Sure, there are sushi and pho places on practically every street corner now, but twenty years ago the situation was vastly different.

So I'll continue learning. Nevertheless, I can't help but look at photographs of subway station signs from all across Japan, seeing their names given in kanji and romaji both, and wondering why not even the SkyTrain does the same in reverse. I mean, they're replacing the signage anyway. Sometimes, the will to read comes from the most unlikely places.

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