Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.
I’m going to confess, this isn’t the first time I’ve made an attempt to learn to speak Japanese. In 2009 I took a “continuing education” course at CCAC, which was a two-hour session once a week for two months, from which I learned almost nothing that I hadn’t already gathered from online resources. Then, a couple of years ago, our very own Jeanie tried tutoring some of us in the language as a side project, and while I learned more from there than I had anywhere else, it wasn’t nearly as intensive and self-reinforcing as this formal educational setting. Part of that is, of course, that I didn’t actually spend a whole lot of effort on it outside of the classroom; Jeanie’s a fantastic teacher, but at the time I wasn’t all-in on learning.
But, one thing that she did expose us to was a particular song intended to introduce the order of the numeric place words in Japanese. I’ll get to the song in a moment, but to explain place words, think of it like the words “hundred” and “thousand” in English. In English, we construct large numbers out of the counting numbers and a place word word: four hundred, eighteen thousand, and so forth. Japanese, however, only has counting numbers up to ten, and uses place words for all numbers greater than ten. So, if you wanted to say my age, instead of the English construction of “thirty-four”, you would instead literally say “three tens four”. While we could say that “thirty” is an place word, and that we’re just combining them backwards compared to “three hundred”, the way place words are usually defined is as a single, or the lowest possible amount that word can represent by itself, and that it is multiplied when expressing larger numbers in the same scale. Put more simply, it’s not an place word because we don’t say “three thirty” to mean 90. (I’m looking at you, French.)
So Japanese has place words. But because this counting system was developed outside of the West, and was already codified long before the Meiji Restoration re-opened Japan to the rest of the world, there are certain… shall we say, idiosyncrasies to Japanese numbers. For one thing, their place words go one rank higher than ours, at least while they’re still under the “million” range. The Japanese system is descended from the Indian and Chinese systems, which places the “break” between portions of a number at the ten-thousand mark instead of the one-thousand mark in European-originating systems. In their words, “juu sen” (literally “ten thousands”) is incorrect, but “ichi man” is correct (“one ten-thousand”). There is an extensive list of the words for these powers of ten available at Wikipedia.
In the words of Bill Cosby, I told you that story to tell you this one.
I mentioned above that the previous attempts at learning Japanese had failed to “stick” with me, due in part to both a reluctance to study and a lack of true dedication. It certainly was no failing on the part of my teachers, who have all done excellent jobs in imparting their wisdom. It wasn’t them, it was me. Still, one or two things did manage to stay in the back of my mind, mostly the overblown dramatics of some of the interactions we were learning and practicing. Then there were the visual and multimedia aids that Jeanie used in the hopes that they’d help.
Now, you should know something about me: I learned to read very early in my life, and I was conversing pretty much as soon as I could talk. My mom probably wishes I’d never learned to talk back, but what’s done is done. Anyway, the point is that I pick up on things primarily through repetition and connecting them through experience. For all the failings of early-life education, Sesame Street and The Electric Company were my bread-and-butter for getting me to speak and read that quickly.
So it was probably inevitable that, during the Japanese tutelage that Jeanie attempted, we would wind up watching preschool television, or something not entirely unlike it. We did manage to catch bits and pieces of Pythagoras’ Switch, a children’s show produced by the NHK. But the highlight (?) was a song by Genki Japan called “Ikura desu ka?”. This song will never leave your brain.
Which, I think, is kinda the point.