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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

October 05, 2010

The eight hardest things about learning Japanese

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)

Your thoughts?

« What if university students don't appear to know even basic English? | Main | The eight hardest things about learning Japanese (part 2) »


Thank you for (another) thought-provoking post. My thoughts? I think the examples you give make a case for the value of approaching learning languages organically (with its elements interconnected) rather than in an organized (decontextualized; graded) way. Because if you engage with Japanese as found, the 'hard things' don’t appear. There’s no feeling of, for example, being insensitive to the intricate nuances of Kanji. There is a Kanji, and you gradually get familiar with it each time it appears. Because this happens, presumably non-visual learners are compensating with other abilities.

If you think the above is legitimate, the question then is, how do you engage with a language organically. Just living in Japan didn’t work for me. After 30 years of being surrounded by Nihongo, I learned almost nothing. Then I read “Reading and vocabulary development in a second language,” a chapter by William Grabe and Fredricka Stoller about Grabe learning Portuguese by reading and looking up words he didn’t know in the dictionary. I adapted the method and now spend an enjoyable hour or two every morning reading Japanese and looking up unknown words in both a Kanji dictionary and Japanese-English dictionary. I write every sentence that contains unknown items in a notebook, and when I look up a word or Kanji, I mark the dictionaries with the page number of the notebook on which the word appears. Then, next time I look up the same word, I can go back to the notebook and see where I met it the first--and often second and third—times. All of which helps the word or Kanji gradually stick in my mind without effort.

A year into this, I find I’m for the first time gradually learning Japanese and becoming literate. I guess it’ll take another 5 or 10 years to be reasonably proficient. It’s probably frightfully inefficient, which is why we have language courses that organize and teach a language quickly and efficiently, so you can say “Anata no inu desu ka?” mere weeks after arriving in Japan. But the 8 difficulties of learning Japanese that you list are, I think, an inevitable byproduct of slicing and dicing a language so that it can be taught/learned efficiently.

I wasn’t able to stick with any course of language study, but I can stick with this reading/look up/recording method. Continuing is one key to learning anything, so I’m lucky to have found something I can keep doing. And (desperate attempt to make this long comment relevant!) I’m introducing the method to my university English students as an option they might find useful.

Hi Julian.

Your email serves to remind me as to how many different learning styles can lead to success. Personally, I am much more of an organic learner- almost to an extreme. Without active contexts and big pictures I don't absorb well at all.

Although almost no teacher relies on the "one true method" ideology these days it does help us to realize that some (many) people do learn via a reflective, piecemeal approach like yours- as long as they are mature and autonomous learners, mind you.

I have to say that it was nice to hear someone else say what I have been thinking for quite a while - that Japanese is a tough language to learn. I've been here about 8 years and I am embarrassed by my lack of Japanese skills. I can hold basic conversations and give simple classroom instructions in Japanese but I am nowhere near where I should be after the amount of time I've been in Japan. Admittedly it is for the most part my fault, I haven't put in a concerted effort to study in any systematic way. But I do think that part of my problem stems from the difficulty of the language. So yeah, it's nice to hear that others find it a struggle as well.

That being said, I do enjoy studying kanji every now and then. I have an app for my ipod touch called iKanji (I think that's the name) and it's a pretty enjoyable way to learn kanji. You can learn them by the JLPT levels or by Grade levels. I'm not sure but I think the Grade levels correspond with the kanji that are taught in japanese schools. So, for example, if I study Grade 1 on my ipod I am essentailly studying the kanji taught in the first grade of elementary school (I could be wrong about this though). Anyway, I was recently looking through all the kanji taught through high school and it is just mind-boggling as to how much there is to "learn" (read: memorize). When you think about all the characters they need to learn to read and write, thrown in with the multiple readings as you mentioned Mike, it's amazing that the schools have time to teach anything else. It got me thinking about the seeming lack of critical thinking skills a lot of university students have in Japan. I wonder if all the time and energy spent simply memorizing 2,000+ kanji characters takes away from students' ability to develop other cognitive skills. I am by no means an expert on this so I would love to hear if anyone knows anything about this.

Hi Mark.

I think it has been long and widely believed, if not effectively established, that much of the Japanese student 'culture', even significant strains of the national character (although I don't want to overstate some idea of a monolithic Japanese way of thinking)is affected by the type of mental processes that are needed to process kanji.

Compared to the alleged influence of 'rice culture', the 'kanji effect' is pretty much undeniable.

Another aspect which makes Japanese difficult to learn, perhaps closely related to the polite/rough language mentioned in Mike's post, is the male/female differences in the language. I've heard countless stories of Japanese people saying that foreign men who learn their Japanese from their Japanese girlfriends/wives always sound so feminine when they speak Japanese. I can hear my own students chuckle on the few ocassions when I use Japanese in the classroom, and my guess is its because I use expressions more often employed by women. I can't come up with any examples right now but I know they exist. Just think about how men refer to themselves in some many different ways: "boku", "ore", "washi" and the list goes on. I get teased for using the textbook phrase "watashi" all the time. It's tough to keep track of it all!

thanks very much but there is only 4

Rhys, this is only Part 1 - the other 4 are in Part 2 (link at bottom of article).

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