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Friday, August 14, 2015

Writing Japanese Katakana - A Book Review

I liked it very much.

I am talking about the third of four books sent to me by Tuttle Publishing for review is (again) written by Jim Gleeson - this one is Writing Japanese Katakana: An Introductory Japanese Language Workbook.

I had previously given a two thumbs up to his other book Writing Japanese Hiragana (see HERE), and this book is just as good.

Katakana (and hiragana and kanji) is an alphabet used to represent all the syllabaries in the Japanese spoken language. While katakana is used to foreign words and many Japanese words created after 1868, hiragana's alphabet can be used for all other Japanese words. 

Katakana and hiragana are phonetic alphabets...  in manga (comic books) for example, the Japanese creators will use katakana characters to represent onomatopoeic words usually (but will sometimes also use hiragana - just to screw with your mind)

You could even use all of the 46 katakana or 46 hiragana syllabaries to write a Japanese book, but while technically understandable, it wouldn't be technically correct by Japanese standards... sometimes the Japanese expect to see certain words in kanji to be able to understand the sentence. But that's neither here nor there. But it is why learning the Japanese language can be a real bugger. (I'll be reviewing a book on kanji next.)

I have always found the study of languages to be difficult... and I know that sounds strange coming from someone who is a writer and editor in his full-time job, and does three to four differently themed blogs (such as Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife, Pioneers Of Aviation, and You Know What I Hate? and another more adult-themed one listed somewhere to the right side of this blog) on a fairly regular basis, but I freely admit that I am not that good at it.

Even my mother tongue of English - ugh - I probably don't know the grammar as well as I should, but generally speaking, I know how to read, write and speak in a proper manner - I simply don't know what a gerund or split infinitive is or other kinky-sounding grammatical terms.

Not know the basics of one's own language can make things difficult when attempting to learn a new language such as Japanese, but it's not impossible.

So... even armed with the knowledge that I'm not going to be the best student of languages, I've found that when attempting such a daunting task, it's good when the teacher or the work and workbooks instill a bit of fun into it for me.

That's what I have found with Gleeson's work on Writing Japanese Katakana.

I've had the book for about three weeks now, and if I'm going to review it, I'm at least going to review it properly and try it out for myself.

The fact that I have been able to utilize the workbook and have continued to use the workbook speaks volumes (no pun intended... okay, maybe a little) about how Gleeson has managed to engage me - the reluctant student - into continuing to learn a language I may never utilize again.

The Writing Japanese Katakana book isn't JUST a method to learn the katakana alphabet. It's also a way to learn a few phrases and easy sentences - and luckily Gleeson with the use of cartoon images has made it all kind of fun.

Use of the workbook is quite simple, and while similar to his book on hiragana, it is set up differently.

Each letter of the katakana alphabet comes with an initial stroke guide - meaning the order you should move the pen to create the letter. Believe it or don't, pen stroke order is considered very important in Japanese language classes.

Next, you get to try writing the letter... in 31 boxes... so you are practicing the creation of it 31 times... which should give you the skills to write it properly. Use a pencil...

While THIS workbook is actually more complex, in my opinion than Gleeson's Hiragana book, it is more complete in that it describes a bit more grammar - such as how vowels are lengthened, how special combinations are created (such as created the 'w' sound).

It's easy to use... just follow the easy-to-follow prompts and depending on your level of want, you will have the katakana alphabet under your control. Heck.. you want to learn how to write your gaijin (foreigner) name don't you?

Seeing your name in katakana almost makes it seem real that you are in Japan. Have any of you new JETs got your business cards (meishi) yet? Now you exist as a real person in Japan.

The Writing Japanese Katakana workbook also provides many fine example of katakana words... some of which if you heard being spoken you'd have no freakin' clue what was being said.

For example... the following three words were ones I encountered early in my stay in Japan and had no idea what anyone was saying to me.. which can be frustrating for the Japanese saying it because to them, they were speaking English... just in a katakana English-manner. Japlish.
  1. se-ta = sweater (it's pronounced "say-tah');
  2. a-kedo = arcade (ah-kay-dough);
  3. konkurito = concrete (con-ku-ree-toe)
Now you may never need to use the word concrete or even arcade in your time in Japan (beats me why I needed to hear the word 'conrete'... but unless you live in one of the warmer climes of Japan, chances are you'll want a sweater come mid- to late-September.

Gleeson provides a nice vocabulary in his book:
  • Torainguru = triangle (toe-rye-ang-goo-ru)
  • ku-ra = cooler, but really air-conditioner (coo-rah);
  • eakon = air-conditioner (eh-con);
  • kohi = coffee (co-he);
  • terebi = television (tay-rah-bee)
 These aren't Japanese words... these are English words turned into phonetic katakana words.
  • Montorio-ru = Montreal;
  • Banku-ba- = Vancouver;
  • Toronto = Toronto - at least that was easy enough for me to sound out.
  • Ashuri- = Ashley... the name of my first girlfriend in Japan, it sounded like "actually" or sometimes "archery" (Japanese kyudo, a sport she and I played in Japan);
  • Kyasarin = Catherine... the name of a woman I liked (nothing else, unfortunately), whose nickname was 'Gasoline', because that's what her name sounded like when uttered by the Japanese;
  • Samyueru = Samuel... I'm glad I didn't have a friend with that name... it's a tough one;
  • De-biddo = David - see... it's a real bugger sometimes when you hear Japlish (Japanese-English)
 But... along with names, countries and cities and sounds, there are important words in the Learning Japanese Katakana workbook, like bi-ru (beer) and biru (building); me-ta- (meter or gauge) and me-toru (meter as in a unit of measurement)... you have to listen closely... or when written, read it, and then guess what the heck the English word really is judging from the sentence's possible subject.

It's not easy, but it can be frustratingly fun. But that's katakana, and that's Japanese and that's Japan.

Still... if you are going to try, I would recommend starting with Jim Gleeson's Writing Japanese Hiragana workbook from good folks at Tuttle Publishing. The 81-page paperback book is currently available for US $7.67 - because I went to the website and looked it up for you.

Andoryu- Josefu

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