Sunday, March 24, 2013

Why Japanese Isn't As Hard As It Looks

English: Japanese writing
Japanese writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Jon Wynn

Simply mention to native English speakers that you study the Japanese language and you'll receive raised eyebrows, looks of amazement, and remarks of how difficult it is.

You'll also hear stories of how they always wanted to learn Japanese but they quit after they realized how insurmountable it was.

Although the study of Japanese as a second language is certainly not easy, it's not the impossible task that it's made out to be.

There are a few common areas that are viewed as particularly intimidating to the new student of Japanese. Areas that, viewed from the bottom, seem like huge mountains to climb. The first is the written language.

Standard Japanese is written using Chinese characters called kanji, of which there are over forty-thousand that look infuriatingly alike. Compared to English, with its paltry twenty-six character requirement, this seems painfully complex.

Another is the fact that Japanese has completely different languages for formal and informal speech, and different vocabularies for males and females. When potential students learn these and other facts about the language, they often become demoralized.

But, taken in small doses and armed with a few facts, tackling Japanese may be easier than you think. Like any language, Japanese can be broken down into four areas of study: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Although there is quite a bit of overlap between them, we can examine each one of these areas separately.

Many beginning students claim that they only wish to speak and understand the spoken language, and that reading and writing using the kanji system is too difficult. Forty-thousand characters seems beyond their grasp.

But, the Japanese actually use a number of written alphabet systems in addition to kanji. This may appear to make it even more difficult, but it actually simplifies the situation.

The basic alphabet that young Japanese children learn is called hiragana. Hiragana is a phonetic system that is made up of only forty-six characters, each character representing a spoken sound in Japanese.

Every sound that can be uttered in Japanese can be written with a hiragana character, and the entire hiragana system can be (and quite often is) learned in a few weeks.

To make things even easier, each hiragana character only has one sound for each letter, there are no multiple pronunciations like you might find in English (constructions such as the gh in tough and though come to mind or, even worse, the ea in heart, beard and heard).

One of the main advantages to learning hiragana early in the study of Japanese is the tremendous confidence students gain from being able to read and write basic Japanese sentences. By learning the much simpler hiragana system first, a student is rapidly able to achieve that level.

This is exactly the way that Japanese children learn to write in school. Beginning with hiragana, young students add kanji slowly, over a period of years, to their written lexicon.

Even native Japanese high-school students are only required to learn approximately two-thousand kanji characters by the time they graduate, a far smaller amount than the terrifying forty-thousand.

The ready availability of written material on the web is a plentiful resource for the Japanese language student.

Due to Japan's technologically aware culture, and compared to many other languages, Japanese is extremely common on the Internet. This makes it much easier for students to locate inexpensive reading practice materials and study aids.

Japanese manga (comic books) are available on the Web and are a popular way for beginners to gain exposure to casual written Japanese. Because many manga are targeted toward younger readers, they are often written in furigana, a combination of kanji with small hiragana characters written above, to facilitate kanji learning.

A rapid conversation in Japanese may sound impossible to decipher to the uninitiated, but Japanese speech is much simpler than spoken English in a number of ways. English is made up of more than thirty vowel sounds and twenty consonant sounds. These are combined in various ways to make the hundreds of syllables that we use every day.

The Japanese spoken language uses only about one-hundred syllables, making pronunciation much easier and less ambivalent. One of the most amazing things about Japanese grammar is that a complete, grammatically correct sentence can be constructed using only one word, a verb. The rest can be inferred by context.

This can be used to great advantage by a new student of the language. A large amount of Japanese verbal communication is understood by implication and context; in daily speech, sentences are frequently truncated, both subjects and particles are dropped, and meaning is gathered by inference.

If approached correctly, this can be a great asset to the foreign speaker. By using a smaller subset of the language as descriptive words and by being frugal in ones speech, it is quite possible to convey meaning with an almost native syntax.

But a student will be called on to listen much more than to speak, and developing listening skills and comprehension may be the most difficult of the four areas.

Because of the way Japanese verbs conjugate, often a verb used in one tense or mode will sound completely different from the same verb spoken elsewhere.

This is not really different from English (and many other languages) though, and Japanese verb conjugation is accomplished according to nearly unvarying rules. All verbs are divided into two types, yodan and ichidan, and follow the rules for each type.

Unlike English, these conjugation rules can be learned, which allows one to even conjugate verbs that one has never heard before. In English, conjugation seems to be haphazard chaos at best! For an enlightening example of English insanity, read the poem "The Chaos'', by Gerard Nolst Trenit (also known as ``English is Tough Stuff'').

Japanese listening comprehension, in the absence of a native speaker to practice with, can be practiced through the wide variety of Japanese television shows, movies, music, and other media that comes flowing out of the country. As in the case with written material, the modern student of the Japanese language will never be unable to find something to listen to.

Finally, Japanese has different politeness levels that correspond to colloquial, polite, and honorific conversations.

Many newcomers to Japanese worry excessively about the formality of speaking in social situations and fret over whether they are using the correct honorifics, but even native Japanese have trouble remembering the correct etiquette consistently. Polite speech in Japan is called keigo and is a source of much confusion to foreign and native speakers alike.

Although at the advanced level it can be complex, generally accepted keigo is reminiscent of military protocol in the West. One must refer to superiors as "sir'' or "ma'am'', and certain ranks and positions carry certain modes of speech and behavior. This can be troublesome to learn certainly, but not impossible.

There are a number of other reasons that Japanese is easier than English for a non-native learner: English has hundreds of irregular verbs while Japanese has only two; there is no singular or plural in Japanese, the same word is used for both; Japanese verbs don't conjugate for person and number (one of the more complicated aspects of English grammar), etc.

While studying any language as a non-native requires commitment, Japanese is not particularly complex. The language has a logical structure that quickly becomes apparent to intermediate students, so that learning new vocabulary and grammar becomes second-nature.

As a potential Japanese speaker, don't allow myth to deter you. The mastery of this ancient and civilized tongue is achievable by any disciplined and determined student.

Jon Wynn is the owner of, a digital production company that specializes in Japanese / US music, comic and fiction publishing.

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