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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

February 20, 2009

Japanese is Not a Hard Language

Last year I was invited up to Edinburgh to speak at a conference organised by the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, which is one of a number of centres of excellence in language-based area studies recently established by the UK government (my own department at Sheffield, together with the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds, has formed the White Rose East Asia Centre to conduct research, and train researchers, in East Asian Studies). The conference was entitled Arabic on Campus and Beyond and was on the teaching of Arabic language, so a Japanese specialist like myself might seem to be an odd choice of speaker, but the final session was called ‘Comparative Perspectives’ and for it specialists in other ‘hard’ languages were invited to discuss what was challenging for learners of their languages, so the Arabic specialists could see if there was anything they could learn from the way these languages were taught.

The ‘hard’ languages discussed were, perhaps not surprisingly: Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, too, of course (it just so happens that those four languages were the ones I considered taking at university, before I eventually settled on Japanese – but that’s another story). Each of these languages has different features which make them ‘difficult’, although difficult for whom is another question. When they are said to be ‘hard’, it usually means ‘hard for speakers of English, or Romance languages’, because, of course, speakers of languages closely related to them often have few problems acquiring them – Korean speakers manage to pick up Japanese with very little difficulty, for example.

Russian can be difficult as its tense and aspect system is quite complex – and different from what English speakers are used to in their own language. Arabic is a challenge because you have to learn both classical Arabic – the written language of high culture and religion – and the vernacular version – what is spoken by the man, or woman, on the street – and what they speak in Morocco is very different from what they speak in Egypt, for example. With both of these languages you also have to learn a new writing system, too, of course, although both are alphabets, and Cyrillic even has some letters in common with the Roman alphabet used by English. Chinese is usually said to be the most difficult language to learn for native English speakers, even though its grammatical structure is similar to that of English in some ways, because you have to learn the correct tones to speak it correctly, and learn a character-based writing system, but what about Japanese, though?

Well, my presentation was on the difficulty of learning Japanese – for native English speakers, that is – and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the subject with you this week.

Before I went up to Edinburgh, though, I discussed the topic with my colleagues at Sheffield. The first thing that most of them said was, in fact, what my reaction to the topic was, too, ‘But…Japanese isn’t difficult to learn – it’s just tedious.’ This is the largest secret about Japanese: in many ways, it’s not a difficult language to learn – as long as you can stand the tedium of the initial stages. Obviously, as someone who has learned Japanese to a reasonably competent level, I would say this, but let’s see if I can’t at least make a start on convincing you that I’m right.

Let’s start with the ways in which Japanese is easier than English: first, its phonology is much simpler. The number of consonants and vowels that the language uses is significantly fewer – Japanese has just five vowels, whereas English uses over forty – making it extremely easy to pronounce for English speakers. I’m sure you must have had the experience many times of tearing your hair out over some of your Japanese students’ inability to get their tongues round English words – and there’s the reason why: their native language uses many fewer sounds, and you are asking them to make sounds which are completely outside of their normal inventory. By contrast, there’s only a couple of consonants in Japanese, /f/ and /r/ - think of fujisan 富士山 ‘Mt Fuji’ and raku 楽 ‘pleasant’ – which are not used in most varieties of English as a matter of course, and even with these you can get away with using English /f/ and /r/ and not sound too odd. So, Japanese phonology is no problem – what about the grammar?

Well, again, compared to English, Japanese grammar is relatively unproblematic: there’s no number for nouns (isu 椅子 is both ‘chair’ and ‘chairs’); no gender for nouns, as in many European languages; no case endings for nouns, as in German or Russian, for example (isu is always isu, whether it’s the subject, object or indirect object of a sentence); no person for verbs (iku 行く is ‘I go’, ‘he goes’, etc.) – you should try a language like Cherokee which, if I can remember back to my first year Linguistics lectures correctly, doesn’t have person either, but does have inflections for whether an action is perceived by someone else, or is carried out in isolation; only two substantially irregular verbs (iku and kuru 来る ‘come’); only two tenses (past and not-past – and some linguists even argue that Japanese doesn’t have tense at all, just markers for completion of actions); no articles (the/a) and so on. More important than all of these, perhaps, is the language’s general regularity – once you learn a rule, you can follow it and know you won’t really come across any exceptions, so you can learn the language with a fair degree of proficiency quite quickly – unlike English, with its blizzard of exceptions to every rule, confusing nest of tenses, etc. Frankly, it comes as no surprise to me that Japanese need to make a great effort to learn it well: that’s not to say they can’t – as with anything it’s a matter of motivation and opportunity to practice. Many of the young men sent abroad to study after the Meiji Restoration learned English extremely well – keeping diaries in English while away – and they were, of course, extremely well motivated, and it’s the same today: motivated students can do it, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

So, given that Japanese is such an easy language (several of the Arabic specialists came up to me after my presentation and told me I’d almost convinced them to switch to Japanese at this point), why is it that Japanese has a reputation of being a ‘hard’ language? Why is it that that many who start give up, and many others fail to learn it well? Watch this space – I’ll talk about that next week.

« A Love Affair in Five Acts | Main | Japanese is a Hard Language »


Especially looking forward to reading your comments on Japanese particles, such as

- "Sensei, why is that 'ga' and not 'wa' - the other teacher said 'wa' is better!"
- "Ah, well, hmm, no, really, 'ga' is better"
- Why is that?
- Don't ask me...

This made me crazy when I learnt Japanese. I'm fine with it now, but ... yes, waiting for part 2.

I have been trying for a long time to speak Japanese, after reading this very interesting article, I feel encourage to try even harder and really master the language. Michael

Dr. Macauley,

I think your post is very cleverly argued, but profoundly mistaken nonetheless. I'd like to explain why, by making a counter-proposal of my own.

What I would like to propose is a mathematically rigorous method of measuring the difficulty of a foreign language, relative to English. My yardstick is built on two key assumptions. First, the degree of difficulty of a language, relative to English, can be measured by the ease with which it can be read, relative to other foreign languages. (Some readers may object that this comparison is biased against languages using kanji, so in order to make reading comparisons between languages as fair as possible, we can assume that the native English speakers are reading Japanese texts which are written in Romaji.)

Now consider automatic translators, such as Babelfish. Their translations from French to English are relatively accurate, while their translations from Japanese to English are absolutely abysmal. Why? Because the underlying thought patterns - reflected in things such as: differences in word order; lack of simple one-to-one equivalence between words in the two languages; ambiguities of meaning; omissions of words in one language which would normally be expressed in the other; and idioms and metaphors which are unique to a language - are much more dissimilar if we are comparing Japanese and English than if we are comparing French and English. If you doubt me, just think of how hard it is to motivate Japanese secondary school students to read even graded English readers - and ask yourself if you would have the same problems motivating French students to read "Harry Potter" in English. The reason for the reluctance on the part of Japanese students is very simple. Reading English sentences longer than about eight words is very mentally taxing for the students, as there is so much mental processing for them to do.

My second assumption is that the amount of mental processing required to read a passage in a foreign language can be approximated by the number of instructions (i.e. lines of programming code) you would need to feed into an automatic translator, to get it to produce translations at an acceptable level of accuracy. (I say "acceptable" because if you wanted to guarantee 100% accuracy all the time, you'd require an infinite number of instructions.) Let's say that an automatic translator has an acceptable level of accuracy if it can correctly translate 98 (or maybe 99) per cent of the sentences in, say, "Harry Potter" Volume One (a standard text which is fairly easy for most native English speakers to read).

I believe that something like that level of accuracy has already been attained for translations between some European languages, but for Japanese to English, it's still light years away. Let's say it eventually happens in 2030, and the program requires 10 million lines of code, while the Babelfish French-English translator requires one milion. Then I think it would be fair to say, to a first approximation, that Japanese is ten times harder than French for native English speakers.

I haven't commented so far on the difficulty of reading kanji, but if you do the math - 2000 common kanji with about 12 strokes each, versus 26 letters with about 2 strokes each [mainly either lines, circles or semicircles] - you can see at once that Japanese writing is orders of magnitude more difficult than English. No wonder the Koreans invented their own alphabet!

I think a lot of beginners in Japan get discouraged by Japanese people telling them "Japanese is very difficult."
It's almost like some form of brain-washing. Then there is the "We have three writing systems" part which ignores the fact that two can be mastered in little over a week!

Is Japanese a Hard Language?

The market says it is. Average starting salaries of graduates in Japanese are higher than those of graduates in most other subjects. Rates of pay for translation from and into Japanese are higher than those for almost any other language. And all the foreign and diplomatic services that I know anything about pay their staff larger allowances for acquiring Japanese language skills than for other languages (except such languages as Chinese, Korean and Arabic). High prices cause supply to rise to meet demand. If knowing Japanese is so well rewarded, the number of people who learn it to a high enough standard to use it professionally should rise to the point where prices start to fall. If this number remains relatively low, and prices relatively high, that's presumably because learning Japanese to this level is not an easy thing to do. QED.

But in what sense is it hard?
The pronunciation isn't. Any English speaker who doesn't actually have a tin ear can learn to pronounce Japanese comprehensibly in an hour or so. In the dear dead days beyond recall before e-mail and faxes, I received a telephone call from my local post office to say that I'd had a telegram from Japan. They were supposed to read it to me over the phone before delivering the hard copy (a phrase nobody would have understood at the time), but it was in romanised Japanese. "Have a go," I said, and understood perfectly well what the official, who had no idea what it meant, read out to me.

And the grammar (in the usual sense of morphology and syntax) is both relatively simple and astonishingly regular. In my bolder moments, I sometimes undertake to argue that Japanese is simpler than Esperanto. Zamenhof saw language in European terms, and what he invented was a new European ­ indeed, a new Romance ­ language. He reduced the number of definite and indefinite articles from two or three to one, but failed to realise that you can do without them altogether. He made inflection for the plural in nouns perfectly regular, not realising that there's no need for noun inflection at all. When it comes to verb inflection I have to concede that Japanese has more classes of verbs than is strictly necessary, but compared with any other language I know anything about (except Chinese and its cousins, and maybe ­ depending on how you look at it ­ English) it's impressively frugal in this regard as well. It's possible to lay out a complete account of the inflection of verbs and adjectives in Japanese (with every anomaly accounted for) in font size 12 on one side of a sheet of A4 ­ and you can't say that about many other languages.

So what makes it a hard language?

[quote]If you doubt me, just think of how hard it is to motivate Japanese secondary school students to read even graded English readers - and ask yourself if you would have the same problems motivating French students to read "Harry Potter" in English.[/quote]

Actually, I started a hugely successful school-wide reading programme at a combined Japanese junior high and high school. It's not difficult, so long as you do it right. Even students who never read books in Japanese would gladly read in English.

Try reading 『教室で読む英語100万語』 and learn how to introduce easy readers properly.

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