An honest review of foreign language courses in India would reveal that Japanese is considered one of the toughest languages to master - no matter which level of learning students are at (beginners or intermediate or more advanced lessons). Indeed, the common perception is that Japanese proficiency can elude you even after much hard work and practice.
As a language so distinct from most others, Japanese has an air of mystery about it.
Though no longer considered a linguistic isolate, Japanese forms a family with only the Ryukyuan languages, and its origin remains uncertain. For native Indian speakers, who are scaling new heights in the English language and other foreign languages, at least, the Japanese language is considered one of the most difficult languages to master.
Most learners of Japanese get hung up over a few specific aspects of Japanese, such as Japanese vocabulary, grammar (especially, verbs), multiple writing systems (kanji, hiragana, katakana) while ignoring the nice and easy ones. However, compared to other languages, there are many aspects of the Japanese language that are much easier for learners to grasp.
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What Makes Japanese Sound Intimidating?
Japanese is a beautiful language. And, it is a unique language, in that it has words that don’t even exist in English. And yet, some learners of Japanese quickly get spooked away. This is probably because Japanese, to the novice or non-speaker, can seem very difficult. People say that there are too many Japanese alphabets, that the sentence structure is too different from English, that it’s far too quickly spoken to catch on. Here, we have listed some of the most commonly cited reasons why Japanese is often considered the most difficult language by many learners who want to start.
For beginners, the Japanese systems of writing may pose a challenge. Kanji are Chinese characters that have been adopted into the Japanese writing system. To be considered an advanced learner, one must be able to read approximately 2,000 kanji. However, at the beginning of the series of Japanese lessons you have signed up for, the multiple readings of kanji (depending on the usage) can compound your struggles!
Compared to English, Japanese grammar is “reversed”. For instance, the sentence “I am waiting for my friend to come” would have the same basic syntax in Chinese (“I wait friend come”) but in Japanese becomes “I friend come waiting”. In other words, the verb is always placed at the end of the sentence in Japanese writing. Native Indian and English speakers might find this to extremely unnatural and it takes time to get used to and use without hesitation.
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Particles are heavily used in Japanese grammar. In some respects, these are similar to prepositions in English, but far more widely used. For example, the logical structure for the sentence, “I will read a book in the library” is: I [particle] library [particle] book [particle] read. Incidentally, Korean has a very similar grammatical structure, which is why Japanese is comparatively easy for Koreans to learn.
Another feature that is overwhelmingly used in Japanese writing and speech is honorifics to confer respect and imply underlying power relationships. Honorifics are an integral part of the culture of Japan. However, the use of honorifics is a departure from most Indian languages, culture, and grammar. Moreover, the rules around honorifics are relatively complex, based on the hierarchical position of the interlocutor, as well as the setting in which the conversation takes place.
Multiple Writing Systems
Along with kanji, the Japanese language makes use of two separate writing systems, hiragana and katakana, each of which contains 46 syllables. For a beginner, the initial learning curve becomes that much steeper, as compared to reading, writing, or speaking the Romance languages.
What Makes Learning Japanese Easy?
Did you know that, as a learner of the Japanese language, you don't necessarily have to sign up for a formal Japanese language training course in school or college? It is true when we say that you don’t have to invest in a four-year Japanese course at a university for thousands of rupees to learn Japanese. Thanks to modern technology, you can learn the entire language on your own straight from your smartphone.
English Loan Words in Japanese
If you grew up learning and speaking English in school, you are in luck with Japanese learning. From day one in Japanese, you will have a massive pre-existing vocabulary to draw on thanks to the thousands and thousands of English words borrowed into the Japanese language to date.
The “foreign loanwords”, or gairaigo (外来語), offer those learners with an English background (which most schoolgoers in urban India are) a massive head start, allowing them to understand and communicate a great deal of information even with shaky Japanese grammar and zero Kanji knowledge. Check out these stark similarities between Japanese and English words:
- “mic” → maiku (マイク)
- “table” → teeburu (テーブル)
- “Internet” → intaanetto (インターネット)
- “romantic” → romanchikku (ロマンチック)
- “driveshaft” → doraibushafuto (ドライブシャフト)
You will, of course, need to learn the “Japanified” pronunciation of English loan words. However, the phonetic patterns are highly predictable and consistent. All you need to do is learn Katakana (which can be done over the weekend) and familiarize yourself with how English sounds are transferred into Japanese. Here are a few key patterns to help you get started:
- English loan words adopt the consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel pattern found in Japanese. So you can be sure that any English consonant clusters, such as the ‘dr’ in “drive” will get extra vowels added in the middle. In this case, ‘d’ becomes do.
- In Japanese, no words end in a consonant (with the exceptions of n), so if an English loanword has a consonant sound at the end (e.g. “mic”), you can be sure that the Japanese equivalent will have a vowel tacked on: maiku.
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Absence of Noun Genders in Japanese
Unlike most Romance languages or even Hindi, the Japanese language does not have “masculine”, “feminine” or “neuter” nouns. As part of the culture of Japan, you can just ask for the timing of the next train you plan to board instead of trying to remember whether the noun “train” is feminine or masculine!
In Japanese, learners don't need to learn to conjugate verbs to match their respective subjects. However, beginners do have to learn different verb tenses in Japanese, and there are different levels of formality to consider. For example, take the verb “to eat”. In Japanese, you only need to learn one single verb form for each tense. No matter who does the eating, the verb taberu (食べる, “eat”) stays exactly the same!
- “I eat.” → Yo como. → Taberu.
- “You eat.” → Tú comes. → Taberu.
- “He / She eats.” → Él/Ella come. → Taberu.
- “We eat” → Nosotros comemos. → Taberu.
- “You (pl., fam.) eat” → Vosotros coméis. → Taberu.
- “You (pl.) / They eat.” → Uds./Ellos comen. → Taberu.
Leaving Out Subjects and Objects
Linguists and language experts refer to Japanese as a “pro-drop” language, meaning that pronouns and objects are often left unsaid if the “who” and “what” are obvious to the listener and speaker. For example, if someone asks if you already ate dinner, you can simply say tabeta (食べた, “ate”), the past-tense of taberu (食べる), since both parties already know the subject (“I”) and the object (“dinner”). All you need is the verb.
One Way to Pronounce Japanese Syllables
Japanese is a syllabic language, made up of 45 basic syllables. Each Japanese syllable can be pronounced only one way. This is in stark contrast to English, which despite having fewer letters actually contains far more sounds. Depending on the word, most English letters can be pronounced in various ways. Take the letter ‘e’ for example:
- It can be pronounced as a “short e” (ĕ or /ɛ/) like in empty.
- It can be pronounced as a “long e” (ē or /i/) like in key.
- It can be pronounced as a “long a” (ā or /ei/) like in resumé.
- It can be pronounced as a “schwa” (/ɘ/) like in taken.
- It can be silent (especially at the end of words) like in axe.
On the other hand, pick any Japanese Kana, and no matter where it’s used, it will be pronounced one way only. For example, the Japanese ‘e’ sound (written え in Hiragana) is always pronounced as a “short e” (ĕ or /ɛ/). It doesn’t change if the syllable comes at the beginning, middle, or end of a word.
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Recycling and Reusing Kana
The nature of the Japanese writing system ensures that the number of potential Kana you need to learn is greatly reduced by recycling a small set of basic symbols to represent a much larger number of sounds. The key to this linguistic efficiency is the use of little double slash marks called dakuten (濁点, “voiced marks”). These diacritic marks transform each of the “voiceless” sounds in Japanese into their “voiced” counterparts.
Let's look at a few examples. Note that the only difference between the Kana on the left and right is the dakuten in the upper-right corner.
- ka = か → ga = が
- sa = さ → za = ざ
- ta = た → da = だ
Advantages of Phonetics
Most Kanji alphabets are “pictophonetic” compounds comprised of two chunks: a “phonetic indicator” that points to the character’s pronunciation, and a “semantic indicator” relating to its meaning. This seemingly complex system of writing is actually very easy for learners to pick up.
Learning the most common phonetic and semantic chunks (or “radicals”) enables learners to make educated guesses about the pronunciation and meaning of new characters. For example, all of the following Kanji share the same phonetic chunk, 工 (“craft”). It is pronounced kou (こう), and each of the following Kanji it contains are all pronounced kou:
- 紅 (“crimson”)
- 虹 (“rainbow”)
- 江 (“creek”)
- 攻 (“aggression”)
- 功 (“achievement”)
Non-Tonality of Japanese Language
Unlike Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai, etc., Japanese is not a tonal language. Although the Japanese language does, at times, differentiate between meanings of words using a high-low distinction (what linguists call “pitch accent”), students of the language do not need to learn a specific tone for each and every syllable, as is required in languages like Chinese.
In cases where pitch is used to distinguish meaning, the context of usage always helps to distinguish between word meanings. For example, even though the word hashi can mean “chopsticks” (箸), “bridge” (橋), or “edge” (端), depending on the pitch accent (high-low, low-high, and flat in this case), students will know that somebody wants them to pass the “chopsticks” when at a restaurant, not a “bridge” or the “edge” of the table.