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August 24, 2007

Japanese is Hard

Well, we survived the move to Wisconsin and are gradually getting settled in. I'm finally (after a 6-month hiatus) beginning to have time to work on Japanese again. Last month marked 3 years, even though halfway through the first lesson of Pimsleur Japanese in July 2004 I thought to myself, "I won't be doing this for more than 2 weeks."

Yet after 3 years (not counting the last few months) of pretty consistent work (daily textbook study, daily kanji study, daily listening practice, weekly conversation practice, and weekly class time for a while) I think I'm still barely a beginner. Ouch.

Over at All Japanese All The Time Khatzumoto, in his regular can-do inspirational style, writes that Japanese is easy, or at least, no more difficult than any other language. That's the same thing I've been telling people for years. But after 3 years of Japanese study, I'm changing my tune. I disagree. Japanese is hard.

The point of contention, of course, if whether you're looking at it objectively or subjectively. Objectively you could argue that Japanese is no more difficult than any other language: they're all learned and spoken by humans who all have the same vocal, auditory and mental apparatus. Babies learn English; babies learn Spanish; babies learn Japanese; and all grow up to speak at a native level. Well, some more than others.

However, someone learning a second language can't approach it objectively, as a baby, tabula rasa. A second-language learner already has a base language with years (ok, for some of us it's many, many years) of experience speaking, hearing, absorbing that base language. And the nature of that base language DOES make some languages more difficult to learn than others. Objectively Japanese is probably no more difficult than any other language. For me, someone who's natively spoken English for decades, Japanese is hard.

Of course, English is hard too...for someone who didn't grow up speaking it. The same is true of Japanese. It's all a matter of perspective. Japanese has its own unique and challenging features, but English has many of the same features. Grammar seems to be a confusing hodgepodge. Vocabulary is a confusing mix of indigenous words and words borrowed from other languages--sometimes even in the same word. And let's not even get started on the writing systems--sure, Japanese has kana and all those kanji, but English has English spelling. Both English and Japanese are complex enough that you simply can't study some grammar, learn to analyze and use a dictionary, and consider yourself an expert--maybe with a simpler, constructed language like Esperanto, but not with English or Japanese. If you want to speak, listen and read, you just have to learn them and learn them until they become second nature.

The key difficulty for us English speakers is that Japanese IS so foreign compared to English. English is a Germanic, Indo-European language. Japanese is...Japanese. If you're an English speaker, you'll have a much easier time learning a related language such as German, Spanish, even Russian, Latin, Greek. Those languages are relatives of English, and share common vocabulary, grammatical structures, thought patterns. Those similarities and family resemblances make it easier for an English speaker to learn, say, German, than Japanese. My first year in college I had to take introductory German. Between late August and late November--3 months--with 5 hours per week of class time, we covered all of German grammar, learned a ton of vocabulary, and were reading basic texts. After 3 years I was reading medieval theologians in German. After 3 years of Japanese study...I'm still learning to read and express basic thoughts. German was a close relative: its vocabulary and grammar were not too difficult to learn, because I already knew related English words and thought patterns, not to mention the writing system.

Japanese is another story. It has no relation to English, apart from a few borrowed words. The grammar is foreign, the vocabulary is foreign, the usage is foreign, the thought patterns are foreign--and by "foreign" I mean completely different, not "English with an accent".

Japanese grammar is foreign. When I started learning, I poked around for a "grammar" in the style of the traditional grammars of European languages. I wanted to see the familiar mapping of verb tenses and conjugations, the familiar tables of nouns, the usual descriptions of syntax which relate target language structures to familiar ones. But such a grammar doesn't really exist: the syntax and structures of Japanese just don't map to anything familiar...and it's really best not to try. It's better to take Japanese grammar as it is than to try to fit it into an alien structure.

Same goes for vocabulary. There are no comforting familiarities between English and Japanese words. Once you get beyond "sushi" you're on your own. Due to the Japanese language's limited phonetic range and plenty of borrowing from Chinese, there are plenty of homonyms. Words can sound the same but have different meanings; I've heard that people will draw out kanji in the air to clarify exactly which word they're using. To the untrained ear many different words sound similar, again thanks to the limited phonetic range. As a result, learning Japanese vocabulary just plain takes more time and effort than, say, Spanish vocabulary.

Look at it this way. Esperanto again: in the late 1800s a hopeful doctor built the Esperanto language with the thought that a common language might result in better understanding among people and help ease tensions and wars. What did he build it from? He used grammar and vocabulary which were familiar to him: Indo-European roots and structures. The result is a language which is not really transparent to speakers of a single language--you need to study Esperanto--but the amount of study is fairly small. Speakers of Indo-European languages can look at Esperanto and see many familiar features, many familiar words, and that familiarity makes Esperanto easy to learn. For a native Japanese speaker with no knowledge of any Indo-European language, however, Esperanto is probably a fairly difficult language to learn. Familiar grammatical structures? Nope. Easy vocabulary? Nope. Esperanto is just as foreign as English.

The same is true of English speakers learning Japanese. Familiar grammatical structures? Nope, or at least very few. Easy vocabulary? A little...but the relatively narrow range of sounds in Japanese means that many words sound quite similar to the untrained ear. Or at least to mine. There are very few preinstalled hooks on which to hang Japanese. In many respects you are starting from scratch, and that makes Japanese more difficult than languages which are at least somehow related to English.

But don't just take my word for it! Even the US government acknowledges that Japanese is more difficult than many other languages. The US government's Foreign Service Institute considers Japanese, Chinese and a few others to be "exceptionally difficult for native English speakers": English speakers need much more study time to reach proficiency in Japanese than in Spanish or Italian. Japanese's foreignness makes it take much longer to sink into English-programmed brains. There are no family resemblances, very little related vocabulary. English speakers have a much longer road to Japanese than they do to Spanish.

So there. Japanese is hard. So what? That difficulty is one of the main reasons I've stuck with it so long, but I'm perverse that way. However, there might be some value in letting beginners know about the difficulties they face when they start learning Japanese. It's wise to be realistic when you face a new challenge: how much effort is going to be involved? how much cost? do you have the willpower, the motivation, the need to spend that time, effort and money?

In 3 years I've seen a lot of beginners come and go. Many of them are just plain unrealistic from the start: they expect to "pick up" Japanese in a few hours so they can play video games and watch anime in Japanese. Others want to be able to talk to their Japanese friends, and some just want a new challenge. Some spend quite a bit of money before realizing that they're really not THAT interested.

There's no sin in being open about the difficulties a Japanese learner will face. There's no point in sugarcoating the challenges: beginners will run into them quickly anyway, and if they aren't forewarned they may simply assume they're not smart enough, not good enough to learn Japanese. To an English speaker, all languages are NOT equally difficult. Japanese is a much bigger challenge than Spanish. Why not state the fact up front? Some will look at the challenge and turn away. Some will embrace the challenge. And maybe more will realize that such a challenge will require more than an hour of class time each week. It requires a new way of thinking, a new method of learning, a stronger immersive approach which will push through the learning barriers and the difficulties with brute force and result in faster, better learning. A method like All Japanese All The Time.

Or you could simply say that nothing worthwhile is easy, so Japanese is one of the most worthwhile pursuits of all.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at 06:17 PM | Comments (4)