by Carol Williams
People who'd like to learn Japanese often come across negative opinions about the supposed difficulty of the language. This article is for those of you who had to face such misconceptions and as a result are now in doubt when it comes to putting in the effort to learn the language. Here are 9 good reasons why Japanese is much easier than many people think.
If English is your mother tongue, you'll find more correlations in Japanese that you'd suspect. Japanese has a massive group of vocabulary borrowed from English language. These words are called gairaigo (外来語). They clearly offer native speakers of English a head start in learning the language, helping them to understand and communicate with even the shakiest of grammars and no knowledge of Kanji characters.
Here's a sample of such vocabulary: “table” is “teeburu” (テーブル), “Internet” becomes “intaanetto” (インターネット), “romantic” is turned into “romanchikku” (ロマンチック) and “driveshaft” is translated into “doraibushafuto” (ドライブシャフト). This is quite a variety, don't you think?
Naturally, for communication you'll need to use the Japanese pronunciation of English loan words, but the phonetic patterns are similar. It's enough to learn some Katakana and observe how English sounds are transmitted into Japanese. You'll notice, for instance, that English consonants clusters like “dr” in “drive” will get some extra vowels in the middle. Once you learn these phonetic patterns down, you'll have a powerful language hack at your disposal.
Consider French, Italian or any other Romance language. There are two or three forms of nouns – masculine, feminine or neuter. In Japan, you've got nothing of that sort. And that's not the end of story. Japanese verbs don't need to agree with the subject performing the action. You simply don't conjugate verbs to match their respective subjects.
Instead of learning six different forms of the verb, you'll just need one single verb form per tense. Isn't that amazing? It doesn’t matter who is eating, you'll always use the verb “taberu” (食べる). There exist of course different verb tenses in Japanese, not to mention different levels of formality which should be considered when speaking, but at least learners don't need to worry about matching verbs and pronouns.
Linguists consider Japanese as a “pro-drop” language, which essentially means that speakers can omit pronouns and objects whenever they're obvious to both the speaker and listener from the context. If someone asks you whether you've already had breakfast, you can just say “tabeta” [食べた] (the past-tense of “taberu”). Both of you will know who is the subject of the action and what is its object, so all you need for effective communication is a verb. Isn't that wonderful?
And English learners should be grateful for that! Unlike Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese or Thai, Japanese isn't a tonal language. Even if Japanese speakers can create different meanings by using a high-low distinction (in linguistics it's called a “pitch accent”), you don't need to learn a specific tone for each and every syllable, as you would in Chinese. And in those cases where pitch does change the meaning, the context will be enough to help with efficient communication.
Japanese is syllabic language composed of 45 basic syllables. Yes, that's a bit more than 26 letters of the alphabet, but don't forget that each Japanese syllable can be pronounced in one way. Only one way. Which is not something we can say about English, where an alphabet of mere 26 letters contains way more possible sounds. Most English letters can be pronounced in different ways depending on the word and the letter's location in the word. This is especially true for vowels.
How about Japanese? Pick any syllable, no matter where it's used, and you'll have it pronounced in exactly the same way, every time. The Japanese ‘e’ is always pronounced as a “short e” (ĕ or /ɛ/). And it doesn't matter whether the syllable comes at the beginning, middle or end of the word.
Fortunately for English learners, they can find equivalents for the majority of Japanese sounds in their mother language. Unfortunately for Japanese speakers learning English, the same doesn't hold true for reverse. One of the most common source of misinterpretations is the difference between ‘l’ and ‘r’, which for Japanese speakers figure as two different ways of pronouncing a single phoneme.
You won't find the same problem in Japanese language except for 2 sounds. The Japanese ‘r’ sounds somewhere between an ‘r’ and ‘d’ and is pronounced with a flip of the tongue (like a rolled ‘r’). The ‘tsu’ sound might be problematic as well – English speakers aren't used to pronouncing such a sound at the beginning of syllables.
By adding a sign called dakuten (“voiced marks”), Japanese speakers can reduce and recycle Kana signs by transforming each of the “voiceless” sounds in Japanese into their “voiced” counterparts. If not for these little marks, learners would have to learn dozens of additional Kana symbols.
Yes, Kanji isn't the easiest script around, but if you use adult-friendly techniques, you'll be able to master it in a matter of months. With a positive attitude and lots of motivation, you won't need years for learning Kanji characters. James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji is worth your consideration.
How about some misconceptions about Kanji characters? First of all, they're not pictographs. The vast majority of them are “pictophonetic” compounds comprised of two elements – a “phonetic indicator” which suggests pronunciation and a “semantic indicator” which relates to its meaning. Even if it sounds complex, it's actually very friendly to foreign learners since the signs enable them to make guesses about the meaning of new characters and their pronunciation.
Once you know the meaning of all standard use Kanji, you can usually guess the meaning of compound words. If you wanted to achieve the same level of expertise in English, you'd need extensive knowledge of Greek, Latin, French and a number of Germanic dialects.
It's more a matter of culture than linguistics. You can express anything you like in the Japanese language, but the social norms require people to express themselves incompletely or indirectly. Directness in communication is not appreciated in the Japanese culture and this difference in communication style affects the general perception of the Japanese language
With enough patience and motivation, Japanese is clearly within your reach!
Carol Williams is a team member at Navel Oranges where she develops her linguistic passion keeping in touch with the company's clients all over the world. She mastered five languages learning on her own and she proves that everyone can learn any language by herself or himself.