I Think I’m Learnin’ Japanese: The “L” And “R” Connection

September 29, 2009

Whenever I think I’m making a breakthrough in studying Japanese, some new twist comes into play that rattles my brain big time. I’ve spent the last two weeks diligently (ehhh, semi-diligently) memorizing my hiragana flashcards so I could wow my teacher this Tuesday. I usually dread Tuesdays – Japanese class usually makes me feel completely deflated and ready to check out United tickets back to America. But not this week! I could get through 85 percent of my flashcards fine! I was going to own the language this week.

Surprise! The situation to flex my memorization skills never came. The first hour of class – devoted to hiragana – instead saw me trying to trace a slew of Japanese characters. My English handwriting is bad enough, so you can imagine just how badly I mangled a series of intricate characters needing to be precisely right or else they become something else entirely. My teacher helplessly tried to get me to get the correct writing down, but eventually gave up and just left me trace away on my worksheet like a toddler. A discouraging start.

But my chance at redemption arrived – the teacher wanted us to repeat after her as she went over the entire hiragan alphabet-thing. I though “here’s my chance – I’ve gotten a lot better at pronouncing this stuff. Time to shine!” I waltzed through it – until we reached the “ra ri ru re ro” column.

I said the five sounds the way Scooby-Doo might talk. This wasn’t right. The instructors explained the “r” sounded more like an “l.” “So, like ‘la li lu le lo?” I offered. No, that was wrong to.

Turns out the correct sound lied in the middle – a sort-of combination of “l” and “r.”

How do you join those two together??????? I spent what felt like the entire two-hour lesson (only really like two minutes) trying out every combination of “l” and “r” but sounded like I’d just eaten a large handful of chalk. When the teachers talked, it sounded like they were just saying “ra” or “ru,” but when I tried I failed for not drizzling enough “l” onto it. They eventually moved on, realizing this was one unsalvageable wreck. Defeated by Japanese again.

I’ve started just laughing hysterically after class because the alternative is breakdown in tears.

(Japanese Fun Fact #20 – Whenever I tell students I was born on August 6, the first thing they say is “Hiroshima Day!” Yes, excited and everything like they just found a leprechaun. Making the situation even stranger is that all week at school I have to listen to student recitations about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It’s like they want me to get up and shout “Harry Truman was a monster!”)

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