My Mandarin Chinese Journey: Part 4

My Mandarin Chinese Journey: Japanese

After living in Korea for two years, I returned to the United States and went back to graduate school to finish my MA in English. (I did one semester before I went abroad.) Having already satisfied my language requirement for that degree (German, in my case), I thought I’d like to continue studying Korean. However, Indiana University had dropped their Korean language program for some reason so the course I wanted was unavailable.

Still, I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to study a language, and my time in Asia had made me interested in all things Asian. On a backpacking trip after finishing my service, I’d visited Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and Singapore (among other places), all Chinese-speaking countries, but I’d also spent some time in Japan, which I found extremely appealing. So, I elected to take Japanese at IU. Because it didn’t fit in my course load needed to get the MA, I asked permission to audit the class, which was granted. The teacher even let me take the exams, which kept me motivated.

I haven’t retained much from that one year of Japanese other than my textbook, but I did learn a lot that was useful. For one thing, I learned that Japanese grammar is nearly identical to Korean. Linguists say the languages aren’t related, but that’s hard to believe because of the similar grammar. Also, like Korean, Japanese uses many Chinese characters to supplement their phonetic alphabets. (Yes, there are two alphabets, one for Japanese words and one for loan words.) And there are a great many words that are borrowed from Chinese, often the same ones used in Korea. (For example, the word for university in Chinese is 大学校—usually shortened to just the first two characters, 大学, or in the Pinyin Romanization system, Da Xue Xiao, or the shorter form, Da Xue; those three characters are also used in Korean and Japanese, although they are pronounced slightly differently. In Korean they are pronounced Dae Hakkyo. In Japanese they are Dai Gaku.) Much has been written about both Sino-Korean and Sino-Japanese, and I find it all fascinating.

Another example is the characters meaning “Japanese Language,” which are in the image posted above. In Japanese, the three characters are pronounced Ni Hon Go (Ni Hon meaning Japan and Go meaning language). In Korean, the same three characters mean the same thing but are pronounced Il Bon Eo (일본어 in Hangul). In Mandarin Chinese, the pronunciation is Ri Ben Yu. (Ni Hon/Il Bon/Ri Ben, by the way, literally means Origin of the Sun, which is why Japan is sometimes referred to as the Land of the Rising Sun.)

Unfortunately, my study of Japanese ended when I finished my MA. I immediately started law school after that, and there was no time to take extra classes. I did try to review both my Korean and Japanese during my law school years, but my new studies took priority.

Next up: How I (finally) came to study Chinese.

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