Thursday 22 June 2017

The "Japanese is difficult" myth

Six Japanese textbooks, including those for kanji and katakana
A selection of Japanese language textbooks
There is a common perception, both inside and outside Japan, that the Japanese language is difficult. Part of the reason is the perceived linguistic/cultural gap with English: the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) ranks Japanese as "exceptionally difficult for native English speakers" and puts it in the highest category V (with an asterisk pointing out that it is the most difficult in this category!). The FSI estimates it would take 88 weeks (2200 hours) for a native English speaker to attain proficiency in speaking and reading Japanese. This perception is reinforced by the discourse of Japanese identity known as Nihonjinron which stresses that the Japanese are a homogeneous people (tan'itsu minzoku) with a "uniquely unique" language and culture.

But is Japanese really that difficult? A couple of disclaimers before I answer. First, it is important to distinguish spoken and written language. Here, I'm going to focus on spoken Japanese, since learning thousands of characters is undeniably tough (even for Japanese children!). Second, while Japanese does have a complex system of honorifics or respectful language (keigo =敬語), even Japanese struggle with this (companies will generally teach this to new employees). So, putting kanji and keigo aside, how difficult is Japanese? First, pronunciation is simple: there are only 5 vowel sounds and no diphthongs and spelling is entirely regular (English has around 20 vowel sounds, including diphthongs, and spelling often doesn't correspond to pronunciation). See this post for a simple explanation of the sound system. Second, grammar is easy-peasy (and I say this as a struggling Spanish learner): there is no gender, no singular-plural, no subject-verb agreement, and no definite articles; subjects, objects, and grammatical particles (wa/ga/o) are often dropped; and there are only two tenses and two irregular verbs, suru and kuru (English, in comparison has around 200!). On top of that, Japanese is full of fixed-phrases that are easy to learn. For the sake of non-Japanese speakers, let's look at a quick example of everyday casual conversation (note that Japanese word order is object-verb rather than verb-object as in English):

ENGLISH  :    Q. Did you eat the apple?           A. Yeah, I ate the apple/it
JAPANESE :  Q. Ringo tabeta(ka)?                   A. Hai, tabeta
                             (Apple ate?)                                 (Yes, ate)

Compared to the English, the Japanese is super-simple: subjects (and the question marker ka) are unnecessary, one doesn't need to worry about articles or singular/plural, and the verb form doesn't change at all from question to answer. So there you have it - the biggest barrier to learning Japanese is often psychological: the stereotype that it is difficult. For those interested in learning, there are loads of good beginner textbooks. For intermediate, I highly recommend this one. Good luck!

Actually, even after years in Japan, there is still one thing I find particularly difficult (apart from colours): when to switch from "good morning" (ohayō) to hello/good afternoon (konnichiwa). My textbook gave 11:00am as the switch over time, but in practice it seems a bit earlier, perhaps depending on when the speaker woke up too! Nobody really seems to know. Interestingly, university students (as well as those in the entertainment industry apparently) will use ohayō when they meet their classmates for the first time that day - even if it is in the afternoon! Maybe the FSI was right after all...