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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 August 24, 2007 06:17 PM


Joe, buddy. You're one of my favorite guys, too. So please don't take this as an attack, I just write like a jerk.

No one said it wouldn't take some elbow grease. But that doesn't mean it's "hard" (a four-letter word to me). Come, on, be serious--you're not telling beginners it's "hard" as a frank and friendly warning or statement of fact: you're scaring them; you're trying to intimidate them. And maybe, in your own small way, you're trying to justify to yourself why you may not yet be as good at Japanese as you may like after all this apparent time spent.

You mentioned you've been doing Japanese for three years. Have you read or listened to it every day for every waking hour? Have you memorized all the general-use kanji? Have you ever stopped doing Japanese for weeks or months at a time? Have you ever done very little Japanese? How much have you given to Japanese for how long every day? Do you use an SRS? Every day? Do you write out dozens of sentences every day? Do you watch TV/movies/videos and imitate people? Have you given up any non-Japanese activities and friends that are directly necessary for your survival? For 18 months straight, without pause?

All the time and energy you spent thinking about this and writing this post. That was time and energy you could have spent on Japanese.

>However, someone learning a second language can't approach it objectively, as a baby, tabula rasa.

Why not? You suck at it anyway. Just like a baby. Seriously, I don't even mean this as a thought experiment, I mean this as a fact. There's nothing magical about the extra ignorance a baby has. In fact, it's a handicap. A baby has to learn concepts. Adults already know what stuff is; we know what "sky" and "chair" and "honor" are. All we have to do is map new sounds and symbols. But, the fact that we don't yet know those sounds and symbols still makes the tabula quite rasa to me.

Give yourself a freaking chance, Joe. You're a software engineer; you're smarter than this. Don't let yourself get beat down by notions of so-called "difficulty". All that "difficult" means is that you haven't YET found a way to make it easy for yourself. Who gives a kafuffin what the U.S. can't-find-its-own-rectum-or-train-Arabic-speakers -to-save-its-life(literally) government says? That's just some bureaucrat spending tax dollars writing a dumb document. That's all. Don't take that crap seriously--since when did the U.S. government do your thinking for you? Find the algorithm, Joe. Find YOUR algorithm. But don't blame the problem; that's just weak sauce; that's unprofessional; that's childish (in the bad sense of the word). "Difficulty", our not being children? Kanji? Grammar? How many things are you going to look to blame until you finally look to yourself? Don't blame the game, it's not broken: Fix the player. Japanese is fine. Fix yourself. Be childish in a good way. Work it. Just like your son worked reading English.

For whatever it's worth, I believe in your ability to learn Japanese. No weak-sauce excuses will change that.

Posted by: Khatzumoto at August 25, 2007 06:48 PM

Personally, my experience is with learning Chinese, and I'll have to say that compared to the little bit of Japanese I've glanced from some books, definitely doesn't seem as alien thought wise. Chinese grammar sort of "makes sense" when you learn it, and on that plane Chinese is probably easier than, say, German with all it's exceptions and genders and all. That being said, Chinese makes up for that easy part by having darn hard phonetics.

So if you want my opinion, there's probably a random language somewhere that, by chance, got roughly the same "major features" grammar and phonetics wise as English, and is probably a bit easier to learn (anyone know of an isolative language with an easy phonology?)... although for languages that foreign, the major investment is learning all the totally different vocabulary anyways - at least, that's what learning Chinese is all about!

Posted by: H. Lamontagne at August 31, 2007 08:50 PM

Hey Khatzumoto, thanks for taking time to reply.

No, I'm not saying that Japanese is difficult to try to scare anyone or to (attempt to) justify my own lameness. In fact, I've spent 3 years telling beginners just the opposite: hey, Japanese is easy! Piece of cake! Just do it! It's fun!

But I've also seen a lot of beginners look Japanese in the eye and turn away. I've been tempted to do the same myself. Why is it taking so long? Why am I still so lame? I could be speaking Spanish like a native by now!

All I'm saying is that Japanese (and this would apply to Chinese, Korean, Swahili, Inuit, Navaho, etc) presents extra difficulties to speakers of unrelated languages. It has truly foreign grammar, vocabulary, even thought structure.

That foreignness means that we non-Japanese need extra time, patience, and--yes--work to drag ourselves into any sort of skill with the language. Yes, we should be positive and encouraging to beginners. No, we should not discourage them with horror stories about needing to pound our own heads with spiked hammers just to learn three vocabulary words. But we should be down to earth realistic about some of the difficulties. In that realism, we can offer encouragement and suggestions about how to overcome some of those difficulties.

Take the kanji (please ;). Traditionalists tell of the horrors of learning thousands of random chicken scratchings with their multitudes of pronunciations (because that's what they face). The fact is, learning the kanji is not an easy task. There's no use is sugarcoating--it just takes time, effort and dedication to learn them. There's no sin in telling beginners that, and even gives the opportunity to talk about other, nontraditional methods.

There's a difference between saying "Japanese is difficult" to intimidate beginners and try to make oneself look good, and saying "Japanese is difficult--but in a fun way! And you can do it!" For me, if Japanese weren't difficult I would have given up long ago--it would have become boring.

In fact, I think the reason that your site is so effective and popular is because Japanese is difficult for us foreigners. How many of us spent time trying to build skill with traditional methods? An hour in class every week, an hour doing a few exercises, a Pimsleur lesson here and there...no, it's not going to work. Really learning Japanese takes a different approach--an hour a week won't do, we need 168 hours a week (or as close to that as we can get). Yes, we need quality materials and quality techniques, but we also just plain need a huge quantity of Japanese input to overcome the foreignness and the difficulty of tackling a language completely unrelated to our own.

A few weeks ago I began teaching a training course in Perl for my team at work. Rather than taking the traditional encyclopedic "here are 17 features of arrays and 14 functions that work with them" approach, I've been developing an immersion-type course. In 60-90 minutes per week I can't begin to teach them encyclopedic depth, and they don't need that anyway. They need to know how to read and write Perl automations. What do we do in class? We read and write Perl automations, picking up grammar and syntax as we go, and in our 167 off hours per week I send them programs to read and exercises to write, exposing them to as much real-world Perl and can-do attitude as possible. I continually tell them: It's all about the repetition, baby. It's all about the repetition, baby.

So, to circle around the IT theme, let's talk about scope. The scope of my original post was simply this: for beginning learners of unrelated languages, Japanese has more difficulties than, say, Spanish. Let's not use that to try to scare them away, but let's not sugarcoat it either. Instead, let's recognize that fact, be realistic about it, and provide better tools and techniques and encouragement to those beginners--because we've faced those same difficulties ourselves, and we've discovered that they don't have to destroy us.

Posted by: Joe at November 1, 2007 11:46 PM

I agree with Joe that it is difficult for an adult to learn japanese or any foreign language for that matter. And there is a difference between an adult learning a language versus a child. Children's brains seem to be somehow different than adults and I don't think scientists have adequately mapped these differences yet.

I have never met an adult who was ever able to lose their first language accent when learning a foreign language or who ever became one hundred percent fluent like a native speaker. But that is ok. Accents are sexy and interesting. If we could learn like children, then nobody would have an accent and how boring would the world be?

I lived in Japan in high school. Also, I have been studying Japanese several hours a day for the last several months. I watch Japanese movies and j-dorama, learn vocabulary by playing My Japanese Coach (now on lesson 215), study vocabulary and grammar on the internet...and yet, I'm not sure I would call myself an intermediate even. I saw someone on the internet say Japanese was easy and could be learned in a year with dedicated study. That is just false. I think only someone with very limited Japanese knowledge would make that statement. First, to be fluent in a language, one needs an enormous vocabulary. I think at least 10,000 words are necessary just to understand television and such. I can learn large numbers of vocabulary words in a day relative to the average person. I know this from seeing other people's retention in school and college and by most people's shock when I remember phone numbers with area code without writing them down and such things. I have gotten through about 2000 new vocabulary words in about two months of study. I think this is more than most people can do regardless of their intelligence. And yet, I know that it would be impossible for me to be fluent in Japanese with only one year of study regardless of what study techniques I use. People who underestimate the difficulty of learning a foreign language are blowhards. They are the foreign language equivalent of the morons you see on American Idol--the tone deaf people with terrible voices who genuinely believe they are fantastic singers. Some people have no realistic perception of their own incompetence and believe themselves to have competence they do not possess. These are the type of people who claim a language is easy to learn or can be done in a year and such false claims.

By the way, Joe, have you been to Japan? I have never seen this site before so I don't know your history. If you haven't, try to take a trip there for a few weeks. If you can, go hang out in rural areas with older people who won't try to use you to practice their English. I think that will really, really help you. Having lived in Japan, I can say that I don't see how someone who has not been there could make much progress in learning the language.

Also, have you found 'my soju?' It is an internet site where you can watch free movies and dramas from Asia. Everything is dubbed in English. That really helps because it is the next best thing to actually being in Japan. I watch those everyday and then cross-reference the vocabulary using the internet. Also, I recommend buying My Japanese Coach for the vocabulary. It has 1000 lessons. The first 100 are more like real lessons. There are mistakes in it, though. If you email me, I will tell you more about the mistakes. After lesson 100, there is just kanji or vocabulary to memorize and games that go with them. I have found it very useful to look up every vocabulary word on google before I play the games. I have exponentially increased my vocabulary this way because I have learned fascinating things about the language or the culture as I research each word and made connections to other words that way. Also, it gives each word a context so that it easier to remember.

For learning kanji, I am not personally a believer in Pimsleur. I am happy for the people for whom it works but for myself, I do not like mnemonics as a learning method so I won't use any book that primarily uses this. I prefer a book I found called 'A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters' by Kenneth Henshall. This books explains the etymology of each kanji character (more than 2000 in this book including all official ones needed to read a newspaper). For myself, it is easier to remember the kanji when I understand what each piece of the character originally meant. Also, it allows me to guess about the meaning of new kanji also if there are pieces in the character that I already know the original meaning of or the meaning that has evolved from that.

But mostly I think it is best to know the spoken language before the written when it comes to Japanese because kanji and writing came very late to Japan. So the language evolved much earlier than writing. The writing was mapped to the spoken language not vice versa and if you spend much time in Japan, you might be able to really feel that fact. Of course that is true for every language but for alphabetical writing systems, that does not have as much importance as for a pictoral system. The Japanese adapted existing Chinese kanji to suit their own language. Kanji are an overlay. The Chinese readings for the kanji were incorporated into the Japanese vocabulary much as latin and greek were incorporated into English. But the heart of Japanese is not tied to Chinese or to kanji but rather to something more primordial, just as the heart of English goes back to Old English and then later to Germanic origins. Learning latin would not help you to really understand the soul of English if you see what I mean. Latin syntax is foreign to English. It is only latin vocabulary we have adopted not their linguistic way of thinking or grammar. So in my opinion, to learn Japanese, the spoken Japanese is initially far more important. And until relatively recently, the majority of Japanese people were illiterate so the spoken language has developed mostly orally until the last 100 years. If you visit there, you will really see how that is so.

Posted by: n. bees at December 19, 2009 08:39 AM

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