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Learning Kanji From Scratch (Close Enough).

Back when I first started learning Japanese on my own, I knew I wanted to learn how to read and write it before anything else. Learning kana, then the kanji, has been a very fulfilling experience for me. It's much easier than I thought it would be, but I've admittedly not tried to study the hundreds required for exams yet. I've found the learning process to be relaxing, as the study of how the graphemes connect to form words is fun, and I'm finding the writing good for me to focus. It's also proving to be quite nostalgic. I've said a few times here, my mother's side is Cantonese. I grew up around the Chinese language, and raised more or less in the culture as it affected my family. But I never really learnt to speak or read the language very well, and for many years, completely refused to.

As a small child, I was started in the Chinese schooling system in Malaysia.* My parents thought this a good idea, as the Chinese educational system is considered the most superior among the three systems, but also the most difficult. Since I wasn't too bad with my English and could pick up Bahasa Malaysia at home, the idea was that picking up Mandarin in writing should not be too hard. After all, the language, along with other dialects, were things my mother's family easily exposed me to. My first act of defiance, as a seven-year-old, was to completely refuse to enter the Chinese system completely past kindergarten. I had two simple reasons. One, I refused to cut my hair. Chinese schools demanded that female students have their hair trimmed to just under the ear. At the time, I had waist-length hair, and I've spent the better part of my life with long hair, so cutting it off seemed heinous to my little girl mind. The second reason was simply that I expected it to be too hard. The Chinese system has a reputation for being a sausage machine, much more than the other two systems ever were, though they weren't easy on the paper chase either. Children in Chinese schools learnt Chinese culture-specific subjects on top of the national system required for exams. I balked at the idea of learning to write han dze. It was simply too hard.

My parents couldn't convince me to go to a Chinese school, so I entered the National system instead. Later, when they discovered how deficient I was in Bahasa Malaysia, they put me through the private schooling system, which uses English as the medium. In that way, I managed to claw my way through twelve years of the Malaysian education system, on average grades, and no particular desire to excel at anything in particular. I forgot all my Chinese. I could understand, to a certain extent, what was being said around me. I found that I pronounced words so badly, I may as well not have said them, so I avoided speaking any dialect past the age of seven. I lost my ability to read. I forgot how to recognize or write my own name.

Learning Japanese has helped put my mother tongue back in my head. I'm making a conscious effort to learn the Simplified (Japanese use) and Traditional (Cantonese use) characters, learning how to pronounce them in Japanese, then Cantonese, and things feel right. I'm remembering sounds to words I'd completely forgotten. I'm remembering how to make them work together. It makes me happy. More than that, learning to write han dze is a bonding tool with my mother, the person who struggled as I was growing up to try and impart as much of her culture as she could, but always falling short of really passing on the most important part. I think it was embarrassing to have to explain to acquaintances I could understand the dialects they were using, but couldn't speak or read a word of it myself. So, because I want very badly to understand the language to understand a part of my history, and also because I want to be able to converse with my mother someday in her own language, I'm trying.

It's nice to see my mother's face light up when I ask her how to write a character, or if I'm writing a character correctly. I don't exactly know if abandoning the language when I was younger was a good idea, though I realize it was necessary. Coming back to the language as an adult makes me see it in a much more logical light. Certainly, the study of how the pictograms are formed have been enlightening, and the writing, now that it is recreation rather than something I have to take a paper for, is soothing. And it's really not so difficult at all, because of that, because it is also fun to learn to write, and also because, the language is starting to come to life again for me. Just a loose thought, pried free and floating around. But for the record, I really don't speak any language particularly well. I'm always still only learning.

* Malaysia has three educational systems, based on the same curriculum and national examinations, but in different languages: National (Bahasa Malaysia), Chinese (Mandarin) and Tamil.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
atomicduck
Jun. 26th, 2005 05:38 am (UTC)
ahhh... I know exactly what you mean. I'm Mandarin, born in China, but raised in Canada. When I was younger, it was a fight with my mom just to get to characters at the 4th/5th grade level and then I dropped it entirely.

I only developed an appreciation later when I started picking up more complex han zi in TV shows. And I'm learning Japanese on my own now, and I feel sometimes a little guilty when I know the Japanese readings, but have forgotten the Mandarin one. ^^; I'm trying not to let my abilities slip any further.

btw, I'm from Misato's journal (came over here because I didn't want to flood her inbox anymore, haha). Added you back. :D
vampyrichamster
Jun. 28th, 2005 03:51 am (UTC)
Hullo! It was a fight with my mother too. She was never really happy about my lack of language. When I was younger, most of what I understood was just to find out what my relatives were saying about me when they met up. Funnily enough, I only started getting interested in learning Cantonese again because of TV too. I needed to develop a larger vocabulary to understand what was being said! (TVB dramas do have educational value!)

When I started learning Japanese, I looked up the same characters in a Cantonese dictionary to learn the readings. This has been helpful in putting forgotten words back into my head.

Thanks for adding me back! :)
atomicduck
Jun. 29th, 2005 04:30 am (UTC)
Yeah! To be honest, if it wasn't for kungfu, my grasp of Chinese would be worse than it is now. Shows me for the uberdork I am. XD
I got so into TVB shows and stuff I went and read some original Jin Yong novels. It was actually great for picking up Chinese because you already know the plotline more or less, and it's fun. ^_^

...of course, some of those words are completely useless in modern day, haha.
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