Let’s Talk Nihongo 日本語 (That’s Japanese for “Japanese”)

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ベスデス BesuDesu /bɛsuːdɛsuː / n. Language: Japanese. Meaning: 1. A girl with an insatiable desire to travel the world and experience cultures different from her own (whose interview you’re about to read). 2. A Japanophile. 3. Like a Pokémon or… something. Literally translates to “(I) am Beth.”

I’m Beth and I’m a 25-year-old Chicagoan with a passion for all things language and culture. After studying French for three years, I completely switched gears and wanted to study Japanese instead. Since it was a language that wasn’t offered at my high school, at night after school I would head over to my local community college to take their Japanese courses—talk about devotion! I loved it so much that I perused a pretty useless BA in Japanese Language and Culture that landed me a job in Hong Kong teaching English after graduation. Well, I guess it all worked out because now I write about my love of Asia and linguistics full-time for various freelance outlets and on my blog, BesuDesu Abroad!

Numbers for Words

1. How many years have you studied it? I’ve been learning Japanese on and off for the past 5 years. For the past two years it’s certainly been more ‘off’ as I’ve been living in Hong Kong and focusing on Cantonese, but I hope in the next few months to resume studying Japanese!

2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.) 7.5. I have business-level proficiency, but since I haven’t been studying lately, it sometimes takes my brain a bit to remember that I do. I always go back to Japan freaking out that I’ve forgotten everything, but within a day of being there, something clicks and it all comes back to me.

3. Rate difficulty in learning Japanese on a scale of 1-5 for each of the following categories:

     a. Pragmatics/communicational competence. (Appropriate use of language in context.) 4. If you were to break it down, there are roughly 3 levels of politeness in Japanese: plain form, humble form, and honorific form. Only around half of the words are the same across all three forms, where you only have to conjugate the ending, but that means there are a number of verbs that have separate words between each politeness level.
Example? The verb “to see” is miru in plain form, haikensuru in humble form and goranninaru in honorific form. Yikes! Don’t even get me started on all the different suffixes for people based on their age, class and rank.

     b. Grammar 2. Unlike most European languages, there are no gender distinctions in Japanese. Thank god. Yeah, the word order is a bit strange with the verb coming at the end of a sentence, but once you remember the order, it’s pretty easy!

     c. Pronunciation 2. Thankfully, Japanese is really easy to pronounce. There’s a few odd rules thrown in here and there, but for the most part it’s phonetic.

     d. Vocabulary 3. Japanese does have a lot of words, especially with the different politeness forms. Luckily you only need to know 2,000-3,000 words to read a newspaper, which is pretty reasonable.

     e. Spelling 4. This was actually a hard question to assign a rating to! Japanese has 3 different alphabets, which sounds daunting, but that actually makes the language easier.

Since all words are phonetic, it’s really easy to spell out Japanese words even if you’ve never heard before using the hiragana alphabet. Unfortunately, because they don’t put spaces between their written words, reading hiragana becomes difficult, which is why you need to learn kanji, the symbols based off Chinese.

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Language Meets Culture

1. Reinforce for me in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. This is very open-ended, and it’s meant to be ;) 

As I mentioned before, Japanese has three different levels of politeness—I think that speaks volumes for the culture and what’s important. Also, that there’s no real word for “no.”

2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?

That’s like asking what came first—the chicken or the egg! Ever since I was in high school I’ve had a fascination with Japan. Of course I wanted to travel there, but I also wanted to learn the language separately from that.

3. Provide an example of how learning Japanese has helped you integrate yourself or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad. 

Because I was getting my degree in Japanese, it meant I finally had to visit Japan for a yearlong study abroad program. If it weren’t for that, I still may not have made it there yet and I certainly wouldn’t have the same career that I have today!

4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people learn Japanese?

It’s a really fun, and not to mention cute, language! If you know English, and obviously you do if you’ve made it this far through the interview, you’ll already know a huge chunk of Japanese vocabulary.

That’s right, Japanese borrows from English—a lot! Don’t believe me? Let’s play a game where you try to guess the Japanese word:

Buruu berii (ブルーベリー)

Blueberry!

Koka ko-ra (コカコーラ)

Coca-cola!

Aisu kuriimu (アイスクリーム)

Ice cream!

Wasn’t that fun? Now go learn Japanese!

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Some Fun Stuff

1. Favorite word in the language. 

Ugh, this was really hard! I love so many words just for the accent or tone you say them in. After thinking long and hard I was finally able to narrow it down to two words that I love:

Meccha (めっちゃ) which is really just a word to show emphasis, similar to “very,” like meccha kawaii—“very cute.” It’s from a specific dialect only in Osaka, which where I used to live, so it really confuses other Japanese people when I use it. I guess it makes me sound more local!

My second favorite word is yabai(やばい). This word is slang for awesome, awful, horrible, cool, and dangerous. Yup, all those things all in one. So the next time your friend asks you how something was, simply reply “yabai” and let them do the guessing as to what you mean!

2. A word that doesn’t translate directly to English.

Omiyage. This word often gets mistakenly translated as the word “souvenir,” but it’s so much more than that. It’s hard to explain without getting into it, and I’ve written a whole article on it before, but to put it shortly, an omiyage is a gift you’re obligated to buy, usually for coworkers, and it often comes in the form of food.

3. A gesture in this language that differs from English.

If someone touches their pointer finger to their thumb creating a circle, that doesn’t mean OK! It’s actually the gesture for money. To give the OK sign, you’re supposed to shape your arms above your hand to make an ‘O.’ Think YMCA, only… O!

4. Any insane grammatical features/pronunciation/usage rules that blew your mind as a native English speaker. 

There are different ways to say “I don’t know.” One way implies that you don’t know because you don’t understand and the other implies you don’t know because you’ve never learned it. They are not interchangeable and using it incorrectly can create a lot of confusion.

5. Tell us a funny story or mistranslation you made in your language learning process. 
I once was trying to ask someone if they liked “chiken” (chicken), but the ‘e’ sound came out as an ‘a’ sound, turning it into “chikan,” which means pervert! Needless to say they were alarmed and confused—and it took me a bit to realize why!

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And in conclusion. . . .

一期一会 (ichi-go ichi-e) “One time, one meeting.”

This phrase reminds you to take every opportunity, as it may never come again.

Thanks so much, Beth! Make sure to check out Beth’s incredible blog, BesuDesu AbroadTo read more from heroic language learners in the Let’s Talk series, click here. And make sure to follow A Thing For Wor(l)ds on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

  • Mikaela Swedlund

    How fun! I always find the difference in hand gestures fascinating.

  • Beth

    Thanks for having me Jenny!! I hope people enjoy learning a bit about Japanese language :)

  • …Ever since I was in middle school, I’ve wanted to learn Japanese (blame my love of anime, so I love this interview!!…