October 05, 2010
October 05, 2010
An off-off university topic today (since it was written when we were all still in the academic off-season……)
This entry is geared towards those relatively new to Japan, although I’m sure the old hands might want to chime in here too.
The eight hardest things about learning Japanese (Part 1):
1. Kanji- Forget what most Japanese say about the alleged difficulty of having three written scripts. Katakana and hiragana are a breeze. The one that causes all the problems (unless you are Chinese) is Kanji.
Especially yours truly. You see, I am not a visual learner. I even have trouble distinguishing between prominent members of my own family so sensitivity to the intricate nuances of Kanji is a real struggle for anyone like myself. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that even if you know the meaning of the kanji you may not know how to say it. And, even if you know how to say it ONE WAY, it may not hold that particular reading (‘on yomi’ vs. ‘kun yomi’) in that particular case.
A lack of Kanji skills can also lead you to speak Japanese that in one sense may be 'legitimate' (for example saying, "Kobe Jishin" for the Kobe Earthquake of 1995) but still sounds distinctly awkward because no one actually says that (the earthquake in question is called the Hanshin Daishinsai in Japanese). Calling a new car an ‘atarashii kuruma’ marks you as a ‘cute’ beginner who is kanji illiterate (‘shinsha’ being how kanji readers would automatically say it). There are millions of examples like these.
2. The lack of aural distinction-
Japanese has fewer possible sound combinations than most languages, which makes it relatively easy to pronounce and very consistent if written in kana. This aids speaking, but not listening. There are numerous important words that are phonetically all but indistinct to most non-Japanese or several hundreds of basic items that vary only very slightly. “Kiita” can mean asked, heard, or worked (as in ‘being effective’). ‘Kita’ (and yes, double vs. single vowels lengths can be extremely hard for English speakers to distinguish) means ‘came’ but also ‘brought’ or ‘arrived’ if conjoined with another verb, and of course, ‘north’ although context usually makes that one pretty obvious. ‘Ita’ and ‘Itta’ can cover “went”, “said” and “was”, three of the most fundamental verbs you’ll ever have the pleasure of encountering, and, as the translitetation above indicates, they aren’t so aurally distinctive either.
3. Polite and rough language- It’s one thing to learn three of four more ways to express a common verb like “eat” (‘kuu’ being the rough/vulgar form, ‘taberu’ the standard/neutral- and of course with ‘tabemasu’ being slightly more formalized version but at least it’s the same lexical item- and ‘meshi agaru’ being the honorific/polite form) and it’s still another to know when, and exactly to/with whom, you should use them. A situation that might seem buddy-buddy and guy-ish might still not warrant a ‘kuu’; even if you wanted to show respect to your mother-in-law using ‘meshi agaru’ would sound weird (like she’s a customer, not a family member). And all this without mention (so far) of using ‘itadaku’ as a humble form of ‘to eat’. And although it is breaking down, age and gender still figure prominently in the choices.
Sidebar- As most readers will know, junior students will generally use more polite (but usually not full-on honorific) language with their seniors. Which is fine if everything goes according to textbook form when seniors are one year older than juniors and so on. But how should a 25 year old freshman address a 20 year old 2nd year student? After all, age also affects the choice of polite forms. And here’s a double whammy that my wife encountered in both her student and doctor trainee days: When my wife was a freshman she joined the volleyball club and, naturally, used polite forms with her seniors. But a few seniors actually failed a few years and thus became underclassmen in relation to my wife. Now which forms to use- upward or downward? Well, the rule is that the initial relationship (the volleyball club in this case) usually trumps the later. BUT, when my wife got her medical license and started practicing in the hospital these former seniors were still students doing the rounds- often with her showing them the ropes. And there is no way that a graduated MD will be using polite language to someone who is still a student, although, psychologically the memory of these students as club seniors is hard to eschew. Apparently, in such cases the use of polite forms might reverse according to settings (the ex-seniors using polite forms to my wife in the hospital, but with her deploying the niceities if (for some reason) she was on the volleyball court with them again.
4. Ellipsis of subjects, circumlocutions, and other clarifying linguistic guideposts-
I was in a park talking with a Swiss guy who lives nearby recently when a dog entered the park, unattached to owner, and looking a bit lost. After petting and consoling the animal for a few minutes, an older woman entered the park holding a torn leash. She headed rather uncertainly towards us. The Swiss guy asked, “Anata no inu desu ka?” (Is that your dog?). This immediately struck me as awkward (and I could sense this with some, ah, authority because the Swiss guy had not been in Japan as long as me and his Japanese was clearly weaker).
Now, some NJ readers might be thinking, “What exactly was wrong with that Japanese? It sounds textbook”. And you know what? It’s not “wrong” per se, but calling a stranger “anata” can be dicey and the “no inu” bit just feels relationally, well, odd. If you’ve been around awhile, you’ll know what I mean. But as I sensed this, I also realized that I didn’t know how to ask that very simple, basic question with any kind of immediate authority or certainty. I’d be tongue-tied for a few seconds. Given time to think, I would have come up with: “Kainushi desu ka?” (Are you the pet’s owner?) or “Otaku no inu desu ka? (Is this your house dog?) both of which are more natural Japanese gambits. Again, if I had time to think.
But the fact is you have to THINK of these circumlocutionary forms, they don’t roll off the tongue as easily as, “Is that your dog?" When this happened, and my inability to come up with the best expression for a standard Japanese situation sometimes still eludes me even after twenty years here, I could understand how our students- after years of study- can feel uncomfortable making even simple utterances in English, believing that there must be some more suitable circumlocutionary formula for, “Is that your dog?”.
The dropping of explicit subjects and objects can be another minefield (*although it occurs in English too, especially in responses, it is not as 'default' as it is in Japanese), most notably in complex narratives (think of gossip about who did what to who) or instructions for complex actions. No service person in Japan says literally, “WE will call YOU and then YOU WILL have to tell us the model number”. Rather, the pronouns, relations and possessives will be hinted at through verbal inflections and context.
Even Japanese people have trouble understanding what is expected occasionally. And they will especially do so when talking to someone like my wife who tends to come up with sudden expressions like, “Hasn’t been done?” when no topic or subject has been broached in the last ten minutes. It turns out that she’s talking about the construction of the new shopping complex that she looked at online earlier and is now reminded of it because she is looking at another building, which happens to be painted the exact same color. What a linguistic doofus her husband must be for nor catching on!
Later, numbers 5 through 8:
- Formalized (must use) expressions
- Word meaning ranges (semantic cognates) vs. Latin/Greek-based languages
- Local dialects
- A lack of some basic stand alone terms (e.g., language, temperature, number)