I hope you enjoyed my attempt at humor in the previous post about Japanese. As promised, here’s a more serious description of what Japanese is like to give you an idea of whether you really want to board this handbasket. If you are completely new to Japanese and don’t have the faintest clue what Japanese is all about, this post is for you.
So you want to learn Japanese
So you are interested in learning Japanese for some reason; you like manga/anime, you’re family is Japanese, you think Japanese men/women are hot, whatever. But you have no idea how Japanese works. How does the writing system work? What about all those Chinese characters? How should you go about studying it? Is Japanese impossible to master?
Relax. First of all, Japanese is no more difficult than learning any other language. However, I’m not saying that learning Japanese is easy by any means. Learning any foreign language basically means re-learning everything you know in a different language. Take all the knowledge from a typical 12-year education along with all cultural information that you are exposed to everyday, and you have a hefty job on your hands.
The writing system
First of all, you are going to need to master a completely different writing system which consists of hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana is a phonetic “alphabet” consisting of 46 characters and can be mastered in a few weeks. The same goes for katakana as well, because it is essentially the same thing but with different characters. Its main purpose in modern Japanese is to distinguish words that have been imported from a foreign language such as “Internet” or “email”. While things like extended vowel sounds, the small 「ゃ、ゅ、ょ、っ」, etc. might require a bit of time getting used to, mastering hiragana and katakana is not too difficult. And since they are both completely phonetic, you never have to wonder how to pronounce words like “sangfroid”.
The third aspect of the writing system is kanji, which is the Japanese word for Chinese characters. While every word in Japanese is pronounced with the phonetic sounds in hiragana and katakana, most words are written in kanji. You need to learn about 2,000 characters to be able to read most of Japanese. A lot of people panic upon hearing that they have to memorize 2,000 characters but I think it actually makes things easier in a sense. Let me explain.
The hardest part of learning a language is memorizing the 20,000 some words an average adult has accumulated in his or her native language. If you were learning English, this would mean you would have to memorize the spelling and definition of 20,000 separate words, many of which have similar spellings but are totally unrelated. With Japanese, if you learn how to read and recognize just 2,000 characters, it will help you learn a bulk of the Japanese vocabulary which are simply combinations of these characters. In fact, while studying vocabulary for both the GRE and the JLPT, I found that memorizing Japanese words was much easier than memorizing English words and easier to retain thanks to kanji.
Learning how to write all these words with the correct characters is, I must admit, a very, very difficult task. However, in the age of computers, you’ll find that you rarely have a chance to write by hand. And if you’re stuck, you always have hiragana to fall back on.
Every complete idea or thought in Japanese ends with an action. Everything else that comes before describes the who, what, where, etc. but everything concludes to the action. This means that you are going to need to change essentially the way you think in order to naturally express yourself in Japanese. The rest of the sentence is put together by particles that define what role each word is playing in the sentence. In English, sentence ordering often define the role each word is playing such as the sentence, “The boy hit the ball” vs “The ball hit the boy” However, in Japanese, because particles describe the role of each word and attach directly to the word that it applies to, sentence ordering is a lot less strict than English.
Another significant difference in Japanese is the large amount of information that is implied by context. For example, if I wanted to know whether you ate or not, the conversation might go like this.
This is a difficult adjustment for English speakers and they often have a habit of constantly specifying the subject because it’s required for English. However, in Japanese, the subject is usually left out unless there is no way the listener could know what the subject is. This “less-is-more” philosophy of Japanese makes grammar a great deal easier in Japanese. This means that you never have to worry about singular-plural, gender, or subject agreement. Verb conjugation is relatively straightforward as well. All verbs are divided into two main categories with only two exception verbs (most of the time). Conjugation is also very consistent and systematic based on the two main categories so I think it’s fair to say that Japanese grammar is much easier than most romance languages.
Japanese, unlike many languages, have different levels of politeness. While the borders are not nearly as clear-cut, you can roughly divide the levels of politeness into three levels: casual, polite, and honorific/humble. Casual speech is used for your peers and friends while polite language might be more appropriate based on age, social status, and level of intimacy. Honorific/humble forms are used for very formal situations. While polite conjugations are very straightforward and should present little difficulty, honorific/humble language is more difficult because you have to consider social status relative to your position in deciding whether to refer to someone as honorific or humble. For example, your own actions will require the humble form, while those of people above you will use the honorific form. But even people above you will be referred to in the humble form if you are addressing somebody who is above them.
However, the use of honorific and humble forms are quite limited in regular day-to-day conversations, confined mostly to the service industry such as restaurants and stores. In short, politeness levels are an important additional level to learn but is not too big an obstacle once you get the hang of several fairly simple conjugation rules for the polite forms.
While the basic sounds are very easy, when you put them all together, you will most likely have some form of an accent. That’s because Japanese pronunciation is made up of high and low tones and you need to get the ordering of the pitches right in order to sound natural. The pitches are so important that sometimes Japanese people will look at you with a puzzled expression and finally say, “Oh, you’re saying that word!” and say essentially the same word you were saying all along.
You may be wondering, “Can I ever really sound like a Japanese?” It depends to some extent on how old you are and how good your ear is. If you are already an adult, you need to have good ears and skills at mimicking the way other people talk. So far, I know two people who started learning Japanese as an adult yet still have a perfect Japanese accent, so it’s definitely possible. One of them is a Harvard grad and the other a Rhodes scholar but don’t let that get you down.
As you can see from this broad overview, Japanese, just like any language, is very easy in some respects and difficult in others. The greatest difficulty for English speakers is bridging the large gap between English and Japanese and adjusting yourself to the way Japanese people think. And just like any language, because of the sheer volume of information you need to learn, mastering Japanese will, at times, seem like an impossible task and you will feel discouraged and frustrated along the way. However, if you persevere, I think you’ll find the effort well worth it.
If you’re interested in learning more about Japanese, I suggest you check out my guides to learning Japanese.