NOTE: sloopy is wobbling, and chugging Vick’s products – Dayquil/Nyquil/ZZZquil – who knows? So, as part of a very Japanese Day here at Glibs…enjoy!
(The following was submitted with the gracious assistance and support of Heroic Mulatto in proofreading and lending his academic understanding of the subject)
The difficulty of learning any language depends on the language or languages which the learner speaks to begin with. For a native speaker of Spanish, Italian is a relatively simple language to learn as they share many characteristics. Learning a language from the same group as your native language is much easier than learning one from a very different language group.
English comes from the group of Indo-European languages, sharing characteristics with Germanic languages (German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, etc.), Roman languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.) and Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Croatian, etc.). As different as these languages seem to be from the perspective of a person who might only speak one or even some number of these languages they have much more in common than they do with languages from other, unrelated language groups.
The language group to which Japanese belongs is an open issue with many modern linguists placing it in its own group. In the past it was grouped (somewhat loosely) with Korean and Mongolian. For our discussion we can state that Japanese is very different in many aspects from the Indo-European group.
The word order of a basic sentence in English is subject-verb-object. The word order of a basic Japanese sentence is subject-object-verb. This is probably the first difference between these two languages which the new learner finds out about. Further meaning is added with particle words (in English these are similar to “of”, “to”, “on”, “for”, etc.) and verb suffixes.
Japanese particle words do not correspond directly to any similar words in English. For instance, one of the first two particles the new learner will hear are “wa” and “ga”. There is no word in English remotely similar to either of these particles. The closest explanation for “wa” is “speaking of” with regards to the subject preceding it.
As an example, the sentence “I am drinking” would be “Watashi wa nonde iru”. “Watashi” is “I”. “Nonde” is “drinking”, and “iru” is the Japanese active “be” verb. So a rough translation of this sentence, in Japanese word order, would be “I, speaking of, drinking is”.
So you can see that Japanese grammar is very different from English grammar. But that’s not where it stops. Japanese language reflects the high-context modes of expression of the Japanese culture which means that much of the meaning is inferred from context and not stated explicitly. In standard Japanese conversation it is not uncommon for the subject to not be stated when that subject could be inferred from the situation. So quite often you would hear the above sentence “I am drinking” expressed simply as “nonde iru” since the reference to oneself is pretty easy to infer and thus not stated.
While Japanese is not unique in how it commonly drops the subject from subsequent discussion once it has been mentioned, it can be challenging for English speakers to keep up when a document rambles on for paragraphs, expecting the reader to remember the implied subject back at the top of the first page.
This makes translation into English particularly problematic as the subject is merely inferred in Japanese while the subject is often key in English. When you are explaining a business transaction and the original Japanese text is “it was decided to invest in the venture” without stating who it was who made that decision you have to infer from the body of the text who it was and add that in the English translation even when it is not written anywhere in the Japanese sentence. In translating Japanese to English I often have to make notes to keep track of the subject from one sentence or paragraph to the next. And from my experience, in written Japanese there are no rules against run-on sentences.
The same is common in colloquial speech which is even more problematic as you can’t just refer back to the previous page. I have been in conversations with Japanese native speakers in which one person (not me) begged forgiveness and said they had lost the plot back at “X” (three or four minutes earlier in the conversation).
In common usage Japanese language leaves out huge chunks of words which English speakers depend on to get the full meaning. If I were to translate the content of a normal conversation – only the words actually spoken in Japanese – it might sound something like this :
“Saturday went saw ‘Coriander’
Fun! Liked scene when main character jumped. Laughed.
Want to go see but wait to download. Expensive.
Make copy for me?
The one saving grace of the Japanese language is the simplicity of pronouncing it. It has only five vowels which are the same as those in Spanish or Italian. The consonants are also very simple and easy to pronounce.
The one point of Japanese pronunciation which many new learners find challenging is long vowels. A long vowel is a vowel which is pronounced as two syllables of the same vowel sound. A common example is the two words for “uncle” and “grandfather”. “Uncle” is “ojisan” (short “I” sound) while “grandfather” is “ojiisan” (long “I” sound). To the neophyte these two words often sound the same while to a Japanese speaker the difference is distinct.
The Kanji. Definitely the most difficult aspect of learning the Japanese language. To be fully literate in Japanese you have to know 2 sets of Kana – Katakana and Hiragana – each with 46 Kana characters, and about 2,000 Kanji. Learning the Kana, if you are living in Japan where you see it all around you, is an almost trivial exercise, particularly when compared to learning the Kanji. Each Kana has only one way to pronounce it – it is always pronounced the same except for a few common exceptions.
- The particle word “wa”, mentioned above, is written with the Hiragana character “ha” (は).
- One other particle word “o” is written with the Hiragana character “wo” (を).
- In writing the long vowel for the “o” sound, the second syllable is represented with the Hiragana character “u” (う). This holds true in the unusual case when Japanese words are written in Katakana (the character set which is generally reserved for foreign loan words) and the second syllable is written with the Katakana character “u” (ウ).
To people who have not studied Kanji they seem to be little more than a bunch of brush strokes at different angles with no rhyme nor reason. In fact, the order of every stroke (which stroke is first, second, next, and on through to the last stroke) is fixed as is the point where each starts and ends, even the flair at the end of a stroke – the direction up, down, left, or right – is fixed. Even the visual balance of the character is important and requires years of practice.
The key to getting started is learning the radicals. Radicals are basic sets of strokes, they are often simple Kanji, which are combined into a single Kanji and generally one of them holds a key to its meaning. There are 208 radicals and once you learn them every Kanji you see is easily broken down into its component radicals. Most Kanji are made up of two to four radicals.
There are about 40,000 Kanji in total but very few people have any reason to learn as much as half of that number. I have met one person who had learned every last Kanji – an Australian with a photographic memory who ran a software company producing digital Kanji font sets.
There are a few Kanji which have but one pronunciation. Most have two or three ways to pronounce them and a number can be pronounced several ways – some of which are unique to a specific usage or a place name.
A large number of words in Japanese are made up of two or three Kanji. In this way their usage is similar to English words made up of Greek or Latin root words like “television” or “invisible” which tell you the meaning by their component words.
As an example, there is a Kanji “Roku” (録) which has a meaning similar to “record”. It is used in the word for “register”: “Toroku” (登録), “record sound”: “Rokuon” (録音), and “record images”: “Rokuga” (録画).
But then, just to twist it further, there are a number of common examples of Kanji pairs which have more than one way to pronounce them with one pronunciation not related to how the individual Kanji are pronounced. There is a Kanji which is pronounced Aki, Mei, Myo, (明) and means “bright”. Another Kanji is Nichi, Hi, Ka, Jitsu (日) and means either “sun” or “day”. Together they can be pronounced “Myonichi” (明日) which means “tomorrow” but the more usual pronunciation for this same Kanji pair is “Ashita”. Note that neither Kanji has a pronunciation that could lead one to pronounce this pair as “Ashita”.
If you intend to really learn Japanese I recommend you master the Kana as soon as possible then start learning the Kanji. Knowing Kanji really supports learning new vocabulary. At first you could learn a number of the simplest characters, then get comfortable learning the 208 radicals. Many of the simplest characters are used as radicals so this study does overlap. A few of the radicals have alternative forms – are written differently – and it helps to understand the origin of these alternative forms.
I recommend writing Kanji repetitively. Get a notebook with grid squares and practice daily. You can also use any number of on-line tools. I still use asahi-net.or.jp to brush up from time to time.
You can take some time to get comfortable with the idea of learning Kanji but at some point you will have to accept the challenge and get serious. Set down a goal to learn a fixed number every week and practice them daily. When I got to this point in learning Kanji I was learning 50 new characters a week. The more aggressive you are in learning, the quicker you will reach your goal. When I was doing this I was focusing on recognizing each character and knowing the pronunciations with a lesser focus on understanding the meanings. The meanings don’t often correspond directly to words in English anyway so learning them in context later seemed to make more sense to me.
Contrast all this to Mandarin Chinese which is much harder to learn to pronounce because not only does it have consonants which are difficult for most English speakers to recognize but also is a tonal language – the exact same phonetic sound will have a different meaning depending on the tone. The sound “Ma” can mean horse, mother, scold, or can infer a question, depending on the tone it is pronounced with.
Chinese speaking cultures are also high-context with a direct effect on how the language is expressed which can be difficult for Indo-European language speakers to get used to.
The easiest part of learning Chinese for English speakers is the fact that the basic syntax is very similar – subject-verb-object. Like Japanese they have no concept for an article (the, a, an) which explains why both Japanese and Chinese have a hard time learning when to put in those particles when they first learn English.
Another point where I say Chinese is easier to learn than Japanese is the fact that about 90% of Chinese characters have only one way to pronounce them. The significance of this hit me on my first trip to China after having studied Japanese for ten years. Walking around the place seeing the characters everywhere reinforced my knowledge of them. I would see a character I had learned and know how to pronounce it even if I didn’t know the context it was being used in. In Japan, with the characters having multiple ways to say them, when I saw a character and didn’t know the word or context it was used in I could never be sure which pronunciation was correct.
Korean is probably the easiest north Asian language to learn if you have to pick one. Its pronunciation is simpler than Chinese while being just a bit more difficult than Japanese. The grammar is very similar to Japanese and it is about the same level when it comes to context. The written system is probably the most phonologically consistent script ever devised by humans and although they do use Chinese characters I understand that one can live there in the Korean language not knowing a single Chinese character and never have a problem with that lack.