Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Kanji, kanji, and more (and more) kanji

There are many obstacles to learning a new language. For most languages these include things like vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure. Then there are the languages where you have to learn how to write in a new alphabet while learning the language. An example of this is the typical English speaker trying to learn Russian because they will have to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

That may be all well and good, but Japanese takes that to extremes. Not only does Japanese have two alphabets that represent the over 50 syllables used in the Japanese language (one for Japanese words called hiragana and one for foreign words and emphasys called katakana) but they use thousands of Chinese symbols - called kanji - as well.

It is the mix of alphabets and symbols that makes Japanese such a hard language to learn how to write and read. It is possible, in fact I would say easy, to be fluent in spoken Japanese and be illiterate as well. Technically, it would be possible to get by with just reading hiragana and katakana, but nothing printed for kids over first grade in elementary school is without kanji of some kind. Every year Japanese students must learn how to read and write a set number of kanji. They have to practice them and learn how to read them and what they mean when used in combination with other kanji.

So, how many kanji do people have to know to be able to read a news paper or a book or write a letter in Japanese (whicgh is basically my definition of a good degree of literacy)? Well, up until yesterday the answer was 1945 characters. You can check out what they look like here. To people learning how to read and write Japanese these kanji were either objects of devotion or symbols of pure hell (or maybe a little of both). Those kanji were what we strived to learn and come to terms with.

Now, though, it is no long that 1945 characters. It is now 2136 characters. Yes folks, that's an extra 196 characters to learn. That would normally be bad news, but there is a silver lining to this dark cloud of woe. The government finally admitted that people don't write kanji by hand any more. Though they still say that writing is important, now that we are living in a world with computers and cell phones that can produce the kanji we want at the touch of a button, reading has taken the front seat for a while.

That is actually an extremely sweeping statement that the government made. It will probably lead to a lot of changes, but it is still early days now. I know that the elementary school teachers that I have talked to about it are all scratching their head as to how to teach these new kanji. We shall see what happens, I guess.

Any way, you can see the new 196 characters below. Get your dictionary out and have some fun with them, but remember, you don't have to bother writing them.

Any way, it is now time for the word of the day. Today's word is 増やす(ふやす). It is pronounced fuyasu and it means increase something.

See you next time at JJNN!

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