February 27, 2009
February 27, 2009
Last week, I talked about all the ways in which Japanese was not that difficult a language to learn. This week, I’m going to start putting the opposite viewpoint, and mention some of the challenges to learning it. So, in my view, there are four main factors making Japanese ‘difficult’ – for native English speakers, that is. These are: lexicon, writing system, social deixis and discourse structure. I’ll deal with the first two this week, and the second pair next.
First, lexicon – the vocabulary of the language, that is – this can be problematic for English speakers, because the vast majority of the word-stock comes from either pure Japanese or Chinese roots, meaning there’s a proportionally greater burden on the memory in learning the words of Japanese than there is a language like French, for example, which has much in common with English. Something like sixty percent of the word stock of modern Japanese is the result of borrowing from Chinese, with the remainder being pure Japanese. It’s true, of course, that in more recent years there has been considerable linguistic borrowing from English, but it is impossible to get by just with katakana 片仮名 gairaigo 外来語 (‘loan words’). Even where borrowings do take place from English, they often change beyond all recognition once they’ve been adopted into Japanese. An example which is frequently given is the element kon コン, which crops up in words like pasokon パソコン (‘personal computer’), eakon エアコン (‘air conditioning’), and mazakon マザコン (‘Oedipus complex’). As you can see, three terms with wildly different senses in English have been conflated into a single one in Japanese, meaning that your English knowledge will do you little good. It just means, though, that you have to put more effort into learning Japanese vocabulary – something that’s tedious and time consuming, but not difficult per se.
I also acknowledge Mr Torley’s point about there being proportionally fewer words with a one-to-one correspondence in meaning between English and Japanese than there are between, say, English and French: this is certainly true, but I am less convinced that this is as significant a problem for human language learners as it is for machine translation. Machines – and programming – like one-to-one matches, but the real world rarely works that way, and the human mind recognises it. Actually, one of my very first lecturers as a student in the mid-1980s was working on Japanese-English machine translation at the time. He argued, quite convincingly, that because of its syntactic regularity, it was relatively easy to ‘teach’ a machine how Japanese ‘worked’ – particularly as the verb plays such an important role in a Japanese sentence, and the various affixes (negative, passive, etc.) always occur in a predictable order. (You can even do this with classical Japanese, which is much more morphologically complex than the modern language.) The difficulty arose in getting the programme to choose accurately between different possible interpretations of the same sentence, given that the language displays a relatively high degree of context-dependence. My lecturer eventually left university life to work full-time on machine-translation for Sharp, and I’ve often wondered how his work progressed, given that, as Mr Torley says, it’s still the case that Japanese-English machine translation works poorly, if at all.
Let’s move on to the second factor: the writing system. This is a problem, as for historical reasons, the Japanese writing system is undoubtedly the most complex in use in the world today. Briefly, the Japanese first encountered writing in the form of Chinese characters, which, for reasons I won’t go into now, were unsuited to writing Japanese. This led to the rapid development of both hiragana 平仮名 and katakana 片仮名, and also to Chinese characters in Japanese being read as Japanese words, and also with a Japanese approximation of their pronunciation in Chinese. These are what are now known as kun 訓 and on 音 readings. As if that didn’t make the situation complicated enough, many characters were borrowed more than once, after their Chinese pronunciations had changed, meaning that they have multiple on readings, and they could also be used for multiple Japanese words, giving a variety of kun readings. To give one example, the character 生, which has a core meaning of ‘life’, has two on readings (sei and shō) and no fewer than fourteen kun readings (ikiru 生きる, ikasu 生かす, ikeru 生ける, umareru 生まれる, umu 生む, ou 生う, haeru 生える, hayasu 生やす, naru 生る, nasu 生す, ki 生, nama 生, o 生 and nari 生). As you can see, in contemporary orthography, the okurigana 送り仮名, the kana characters after the kanji, will generally tell you which reading is meant, but it’s perfectly possible to write both ikasu and hayasu as 生す, for example, meaning you have to work out from the context which of these is meant, and you just have to know the word in order to tell whether 生 is ki or nama in a given context (o and nari are readings only used in names, but again, either could be possible).
So, with its two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, and kanji, there are a very large number of characters to learn. Hiragana and katakana are not too problematic, though – with a bit of effort you can get a reading knowledge of both of them with about 48 hours of study – the difficulty lies with the kanji. Even though you only need to learn about half the number of characters – about 2,000 – to be literate in Japanese, that you do in Chinese (about 4,000), the fact that almost every single kanji has more than one possible reading, and you need to know a word to be certain of which reading is being used, makes learning to read, and write, Japanese an immensely time-consuming and tedious process. By comparison, written Chinese is much easier, as each character has only one reading, so once you’ve learnt it, you can be confident of how it's read when you come across it in an unfamiliar word, unlike in Japanese. Again, though, there’s nothing really difficult about the learning process – you just have to put up with the tedium of banging your head against the wall of characters and readings, and accept that it’s going to be an incremental one. Obviously, it helps to be in Japan during at least some of this time, because you are surrounded by kanji all the time and can constantly reinforce your knowledge.
It’s difficult to understate the barrier the writing system places in the way of speakers of languages with alphabetic writing systems, if they want to learn Japanese, but on the other hand, you don’t want to make too much of it, either. It’s just something you have to keep working at, and prevent yourself from giving up in frustration. There will always be new kanji to learn, or new readings, and you will always find that you know some readings, but not others for a kanji, or you know the meanings, but not the readings. Part of the problem for us as English readers, I think, although I’ve no objective evidence for this, is that we are so used to associating being able to read with knowing the sound of something, that we tend to panic and think we know less than we really do when we look at a character and find that we can’t say it. What we have to also have to bear in mind is that it’s the same for the Japanese – it’s just that they have more time to learn their characters, and learn them at a time when their minds are more receptive to language learning. They also develop strategies for coping with characters they don’t know if they come across them, and any foreign learner of Japanese needs to do the same, which is something I’ll talk about in a future column.
Next week: social deixis and discourse structure.