I will never forget the humbling experience of moving to a country that lacked a Roman language. The addition of ‘characters’ in three different forms to my visual vernacular was a challenge I will never forget, nor that I ever took lightly.
Composing text from symbols is a classic art form that I admire and respect. The precision required to create a Kanji character, in a certain stroke order, making thousands of picture symbols using the same basic lines – wow. The background and history of this language dates back thousands of years, and is well documented (as the best of linguistic historians will tell you).
More pertinent (yet annoying) to myself, though, were the simple ‘Katakana’ and ‘Hiragana’ symbols, two sets of messes of shapes that I knew I would need to understand in order to have any ease in the country in which I chose to spend a 4-year block of my life.
So I started right away with the easier Hiragana. I bought simple books, complicated books, Kanji books, picture books, acronym books, mnemonic books, roman-letters-accompanying-symbols books; you name it, I had it. A plethora of resources all meant to further my understanding of the complicated Japanese language, all eventually collecting dust in the corner shelves of my study room (er, kitchen). For my first months here, symbols such as: き、ぎ、じ、ず were all Greek to me, and to make it even more complicated, Hiragana words, when read, are only written forms of Japanese words. So, once you've mastered how to read 'とり', you have to then know what a 'tori' is.
More challenging yet, though were the simpler form of the Hiragana symbols, the ‘Katakana’ script, given to gaijin (foreign) words. Symbols such as: キ、ギ、ジ、and ズ were evidently intended to not only make foreign words stand out, but to make my reading life more difficult. I came to refer to the act of synthesizing Katakana as the ‘partner game’; played with one person as the reader, and the other as the one who listens for possible matches in the English language.
Friend 1 (reading label): ブルーベリー. Bu-ru-be-ri.
Friend 2: Bu-ru-be-ri?
Friend 1: Yeah, that’s what it says: ‘Buuu-ruu-beh-ree’.
Friend 2: Hmmm. Bu-ru-be-ri? Buu-ru-be-- oh! Blueberry!?
Friend 1: Oh yeah! Blueberry…
One thing that can be said about this return to illiteracy is that it gives an adult (and especially a teacher) a window back into childhood, and the adoption of one’s mother tongue, in both written, oral, and auditory form. As I imagine it sounded when we were babies, unintelligible at first, words begin to slowly sound familiar, take meaning, and eventually, make sense in longer strains. Similarly as a reader, the more symbols one can learn to read, the more sense the world makes, and the more intrigued you are to practice more. It’s a startling (yet, obvious?) correlation to our youngest readers, who, after learning the dynamics of the English language, take off reading it in obsessive forms. So it was with my reading as well, and still is, as I find myself constantly (and mindlessly) reading ads on trains. Sure, I don’t have any idea what they’re saying, but I can often get the gist.
And for now, I’ll call that a win, because when in Rome…