Japanese is such a fun language to learn

by Alexis Ulrich

Last summer, I wanted to spend my vacation in a different way, an experience away from my daily life.

I ended up following a 30-hour intensive Japanese class during five days at a university close to my home, feeling my brain overheating a few hours a day.

Let me share with you a few fun facts about Japanese language from a language geek’s perspective.

Japanese uses two syllabaries and a huge set of logograms at the same time in its written form.

While it seems overwhelming at first, foreigners can start learning in a latin alphabet transcription named rōmaji, for Roman characters. The syllabaries can be learnt on the side, hiragana first like the Japanese children, then katakana, which is quite useful to decipher words of a foreign origin like depāto (from department stores). Kanjis were hardly introduced at that level, so their learning difficulty is still theoretical to me.

Chinese characters, or kanjis

While not really exposed to them, I can say they are still lurking behind the event horizon.

Primary school students need to learn a thousand of them (the official kyōiku kanjis), but the jōyō kanjis, the kanjis of regular use, already counts two thousands more (usually mastered during secondary school), while the hyōgai kanjis, the ones outside the two previous lists, counts about six thousands of them (used for tests of kanji aptitude).

To say the least, these numbers are quite daunting. Especially thinking that each kanji implies knowing how to draw it, its different meanings, and its different pronunciations. Kanjis have usually two readings: the Sino-Japanese one (on’yomi and the Japanese one (kun’yomi). They depend on the time that kanji entered Japanese language, and both meaning and context help you know which one to use.

There is no space.

In their written form, sentences merrily mix hiragana, katakana and kanjis. Yet, you will not find a space to split up the phrase into words. You need to know your particules to recognise when a word ends and where another begins. At least, the verb is always in final position.

There are particules for about everything.

A particule to set the topic of a phrase (wa), another to determine a name (no), one to express the place of the action (de) and one for the destination (ni). And most of them are used in different situations too. While it seems quite a mess shown this way, they are introduced one by one (and one grammatical meaning at a time). These particules do structure the sentences: they keep things in order. Sure, there are a lot of them, but they always follow the word they modify, and they are written in hiragana, which helps with the spacing problems.

The vocabulary is, well, alien.

As a native speaker of French who also knows Spanish, Portuguese and English, I can’t rely on my languages to easily learn the vocabulary. To be quite frank, many words sound like an a priori language experiment to my foreign eyes, like a random juxtaposition of the few possible syllables. Niwatori, nezumi, sakana and kabutomushi may give you that feeling too (resp. chicken, mouse, fish and beetle). You just need to let them flow in, as their rōmaji form does not help understanding them.

Context is key, and concision king.

Every word that can be deduced from the context, like who is talking or the topic of the previous sentence, can (and should) be dropped. What a relief! You can forget pronouns, or make a full sentence with one word.

If you watch subtitled Japanese movies, most often than not, when a person says yes (hai) or no (iie), the translation is way longer, using conditional mode and everything. A nightmare for dubbers.

The levels of politeness let imagine a play on very subtle issues (in that bright future when you’ll master the language, of course).

A simple “thank you” can take three forms depending on the politeness you want it to convey: arigatō, arigatō gozaimasu and dōmo arigatō gozaimasu, from the rudest to the most refined of the three. And you learn it from the first course, which means many veils may be still flying before your eyes.

On a side note, we learned only the polite form in that introduction course, so the informal Japanese is still a complete mystery to me.

You conjugate adjectives (well, not all of them).

There are two classes of adjectives in Japanese: the na-adjectives, or adjectival nouns, and the i-adjectives, or adjectival verbs. While the na-adjectives remain invariable (shizuka desu/deshita, or I am/was calm), the i-adjectives are conjugated and not the auxiliary (urusai/urusakatta desu, or it is/was noisy). Ain’t it cool?

There is always another level of difficulty.

As you may have got the feeling from the previous points, each time you reach a small step of mastery, you learn that it may be slightly more complicated.

Let’s get another example with the numbers.

The Japanese numbering system is fully decimal, with only a few pronunciation issues. But digits are grouped by four and not by three, which means there is a special word for ten thousand that acts exactly as thousand (like in many Asian languages, by the way). 10,000 is ichiman (one time ten thousand), and 20,000 is niman (two times ten thousand).

Quite simple, until you reach compound numbers like 74,001 which is seven times ten thousand plus one (or nanaman yonsen ichi).

But once you master this new splitting-number skill, especially with price tags written like in English, i.-e. grouped by three digits separated with a comma, you incidentally learn that these numbers are not really used in daily life, as Japanese uses counters depending on the shape or type of the objects to be counted, based on historical Japanese numbers, with many pronunciation exceptions.

For instance, if you count eight persons, eight floors or eight generic objects you end up with different words, in that case: hachinin, hakkai and yattsu.

The easy spots

While Japanese may seem quite hard to learn both from a Romance and a Germanic languages perspective (or rather from an Indo-European language perspective to broaden the view), it presents some features which make it easy to learn.

The conjugation is astonishingly simple (at first glance)

Four times only (non-past and past, or rather imperfect and perfect, affirmative and negative form for each of them), and the verb form does not change with its subject at all (yes, it’s even simpler than English for that matter).

Then there’s the potential form, the passive, causative, conditional and imperative…

But at first glance, it’s still very simple.

Many foreign words can be inferred from their pronunciation (or their writing, as they are usually written in katakana).

Many English words have been borrowed and adapted, like television (terebi, テレビ), soccer (sakka, サッカ), beer (bīru, ビール)and wine (wain, ワイン). But also German words during the Meiji Era, like Arbeit (arubaito, アルバイト for part-time job) and Energie (enerugī, エネルギー for energy), French words like mode (mōdo, モード for fashion) or vacances (bakansu, バカンス).

There is no grammatical number (singular/plural) or gender (masculine/feminine), not even articles.

It’s such a relief to me. I remember my German high school classes when for each noun, I had to learn its gender (masculine, feminine or neutral) and its plural form. In Japanese, the same form is used for each and every case.

The context helps you make sense out of it.

The pronunciation is fairly simple.

Well, at least for a French speaker, as the vowels are similar to the French ones. There is no real <r> sound, rather a sound half-way between the <l> and the <r>, but that’s about it. And it’s definitively not a tonal language where the same syllable can be pronounced five different ways (yes, I’m looking at you, Standard Chinese).

Are you hooked, now?

If you have read this article down to here, it seems you are.

Japanese is not an easy language to learn. It presents many challenges, and many years of work to master it. But as any other language, it opens you to a very rich culture. So don’t use its difficulty as a shy excuse, and give it a try.

Japanese deserves it.

Photo credit: Rula Sibai