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The Uni-Files

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

October 12, 2010

The eight hardest things about learning Japanese (part 2)

Continuing from the previous entry (scroll down for that).....

5. Formalized (must use) expressions-
So anyway, I arrive at work on a non-busy day at 8:40. I check emails, inkan a few papers that the secretary brings, put a few items away and then head to the toilet. On the way there, I pass by one of the Gakumuka office workers in the hall. I offer up 'Ohayo gozaimasu'. "O tsukare sama" ("Thank you for your hard work" or, literally, "You have worked hard and must be tired") they respond. It is 9:00.

This always throws me off. It seems odd to offer a post-work remark at such a time, in fact it can almost seem mocking somehow. I wonder if my saying 'Good morning' was then somehow inappropriate. Geez, why can't we just say what we comes into our head? English seems so free and easy in this regard. (I suppose that the riposte to that is that in the world of the Japanese workplace that IS what comes into their heads naturally).

It's the same with simple social graces. I'm out on the streets with my daughter and my neighbour and her daughter. We have to go in the for dinner. And I struggle for the right words. Now, I can say, "We have to go in for dinner" in a hundred variations in Japanese but it feels wrong because, again, a formulaic phrase seems required. So I eventually mutter, "Mou soro soro desu" (Well, it's about time).

There are certain social rules about opening and closing speech events in English too of course but not nearly as many, nor applied so religiously, as in Japanese.

6. Word meaning ranges (semantic cognates) vs. Latin/Greek-based languages-

Generally speaking, English native speakers can get the gist of a lot of written European languages because with Latin-Greek words, a lot of roots are shared. And not only are the words shared but the semantic range of the word will be close or even exact. It doesn't take a linguist to know that Pannenkoek Saus on a Dutch menu equals "stadium debris" (OK, pancake sauce).

But Japanese? No. Where is the demarkartion line between desk and table drawn in English? Not where it is in Japanese. What J word is first in your head when you think of the English word "serious"? Majime, right? Except if you want to say, "It is a serious injury" or "this is a serious political issue", in which case you would use two entirely different words. Japanese adjectives and adjectival nouns in particular cross English semantic borders.

Yes, this one is a two-way street. I'm sure Japanese learners of English find the fact we lexically distinguish between "lights" and "electricity" a bit jarring. And the fact that there are sometimes no single cognates for key emotional words in the 'other language' must make Japanese feel a bit "setsunai".

7. Local dialects-
Yeah, yeah. I know that in Britain I may "have to take a lift to get to the chemists'" (and that they will pronounce sentences like, "You'll need vitamins to deal with the privacy issue in the aluminum controversy" in a way that God never intended) but in Japanese it is not concrete nouns but verbal clauses that tend to carry the local brogue. So, the standard "have to do something" (nanika shinakereba ikemasen) becomes (the now famous) "Dou genka sento ikan" in Miyazaki. Or "...senbai ikan" in Northern Kyushu.Since the verbal clause carries the main thrust of the utterance it is easy to get lost in local Japanese. You may know that the speaker is saying, "solenoid" and "manifest destiny" but you are likely to miss the "not" or the "can't". Somehow, dealing with "Good on ya, mate" doesn't seem quite as far of a jump.

Recently we held a department meeting where the two dominating speakers spoke: 1) a chanko-nabe-level thick, almost exaggerated, Kansai dialect and 2) a Miyazaki countryside patois. I might as well have been in a meeting in Korea.

8. A lack of some basic stand alone terms-
Simple, common words change in Japanese depending upon what their combined forms are. A good example is trying to find a stand alone cognate for "academic". You might come up with "gaku" but this is almost never a term you use alone. It has to be "academic record" (gakureki) or academic skills (gakuryoku), or even "an academic" (gakusha). What's "number" in Japanese? Bangoh? But number four in a list is "yonban" not 'bangoh". And on a paper "4" is a "suji" until it is is configuring something. "Language" is "go" but that word never stands alone. "Eigo" , "gengo" etc. "Kotoba" (usually translated as 'word') can mean language (e.g., "The language he used was inappropriate"). So can "bunsho", usually translated as "sentence""paragraph" or "text". How about "temperature"? "Body temperature" is "taion" with "on" referring to the warmth. But "tai" means body so you can't ask the "taion" in reference to today's weather forecast ("kion" is correct here). Or you can just ask about temperature using the term, "do", BUT you can only use "do" with a number, much, like "degrees" in English.

Other examples that add to what I've been talking about will be appreciated. And even counter-examples, if you wish.

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otsukaresama should be used as a greeting after greeting someone later in the day.
So if this Japanese person already greeted you that day, it would make sense.

"Should be" but in fact I hear it used ever more frequently at any point after the work day has started, and yes, even from those who I haven't seen or greeted yet. That's what always throws me. It seems to have become the absolute, all-purpose workplace greeting... EXCEPT for the very moment you actually stroll into your office.

The thing that always confuses me about this situation is when to use otsukaresama vs. otsukaresamadeshita. When I leave the office before other people I usually say otsukaresama to the Japanese co-workers, and they reply otsukaresamadeshita (maybe because I have finished working?). But I have also heard it go the other way. To Mike's point, Japanese has a lot of formalized expressions but at times they seem to vary quite a bit.

Another thing I always found odd: when I was working at an eikaiwa years ago I sometimes started at 2:00 in the afternoon, and when I strolled into the office at 1:00 the staff would always greet me with an OHAYO GOZAIMASU, even though it was well past morning time. I just came to figure that no matter what time you stroll into an office the standard greeting is "good morning!"

Great read. I agree with these noted difficulties. I can esp sympathize with the Swiss guy and your inability to think of "kainushi desuka?" or something slicker than "anata no...?" I use "sympathize" coz that's one that has stumped me. Awhile ago a coworker expressed some hardship and I said, "ki no doku". She looked mortified, so I went to another item from my vocabulary notebook, "doujyou dekiru" to which I sensed scorn. She actually seemed to walk off in a huff. Altho I can hold my own in long exchanges, short on the spot quips often make me feel like a rank beginner.

As for dialects, I've sometimes felt differences are exaggerated by intonation and mumbling. It doesn't seem to be words. When I lived in Akita I'd try to get even a brief summary of "Akita-ben" words and rarely got more than one or two. But when the obasan rambled, even my wife struggled to understand. While I can't be sure of my reason for incomprehension (it's like, take your pick!) I thought a lack of articulation was a big factor. I feel people in Tokyo articulate clearer. Any thoughts on this? By comparison, I think mid-Western Amercians articulate clearer than NY city slickers for example.

John Spiri

Interesting point, John about being able to handle the longer stuff competently but flubbing the quickies.

The other day I was outside with my daughter and the neighbourhood moms and their kids. One gave my daughter a a few senbei-like chips. After my daughter ate them, on her behalf, I said "Go chiso sama deshita", soon after which they started eyeballing each other with these wry, cough- 'that was odd Japanese wasn't it'- cough, expressions on their faces.

So, at what point does food volume warrant a "go chiso" without sounding perhaps facetious? Go figure...

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