December 3, 2010 | Japanese

Japanese Pros and Cons: A Language Learner’s Perspective

Some early and perhaps ultimately incorrect impressions.

I find myself automatically making a mental checklist of what seems hard, and what seems easy—or at least less hard—about learning Japanese.

First the hard things. One is that you have a lot of courtesy-related language stuff to deal with that you don’t have to worry about in English. What you say will vary based on the degree of respect you need to show a person—for example, is it a stranger or a longtime family friend? A child or an adult? A boss or a delivery person?

I Went to Fairway Looking for Food and Came Home with Grocery-Store Sushi

I Went to Fairway Looking for Food and Came Home with Grocery-Store Sushi

This kind of thing is difficult for Americans, not only because such differences are not captured in our language, but also because it seems undemocratic to make these distinctions explicit in speech.

Okay, when I say “hard for Americans,” I guess I mean hard for me. I should speak for myself.

A second challenge, which I have mentioned previously, is that Japanese is a subject-object-verb language. My brain rebels against this structure—but I just learned today that it is in fact the most common structure among the world’s languages.

In other words, it is more common for humans globally to say the equivalent of “I language like” than to say “I like language.”

I no idea had!

Still, my brain really cries out for a verb before my objects. I like to know the action before I know what is acted upon. “I threw the book” seems so natural to me. I know first who did the deed, second I see the throwing, and third I envision the thrown thing—the book—sailing across the room.

With subject-object-verb order, I first see the “I” speaker and the book idly lounging about. I have no idea what they are up to. Only at the end of a sentence, when the verb finally shows up, does the speaker leap to life and the book get hurled.

I am going to have to suck it up and be strong, though, because I’m for sure going to see this again. “This” meaning SOV—which is what the cool kids call subject-object-verb word order.

Now, some good news about Japanese for native English speakers.

To turn something into a question in Japanese, all you have to do is add the particle ka to the end of your statement. That sounds easier than English.

For example, let’s take the basic sentence, “He speaks Hungarian,” and make it a question.

In Japanese you simply take the statement, just as it is, and stick a ka on the end. No other change. There aren’t even any question marks in Japanese; the ka alone suffices to tell the listener that something is being asked.

When you turn to English, though, a lot more labor is required for the same statement-to-question transformation. Check it out:

Does he speak Hungarian?

In this case, you have to add a new verb at the beginning, a form of “to do” (which I don’t recall seeing an equivalent of in any other language I’ve studied), then change “speaks” to the infinitive “speak,” and then stick a question mark on the end. This is not a simple feat! For non-native speakers, it requires practice.

Another good thing about Japanese: you can leave out words such as “I” or “you” if they are clear from context. The same is true of Spanish, Italian, and numerous other languages. Though not of English, and now that I think about it, not of German.

I love leaving out unnecessary pronouns! As someone who is not allowed to eject pronouns in her native tongue, I find it liberating.

Other sources of relief about Japanese: nouns do not have gender, and you don’t use articles (native speakers of English often have no idea of the torment that “a,” “an,” and “the” inflict on learners of English as a foreign language). Also, singular forms of nouns are usually the same as plurals.

All excellent news, from my point of view.

Café Margot, Whose Owner Is Multilingual (Though I Can't Remember How Multi)

Café Margot, Whose Owner Is Multilingual (Though I Can’t Remember How Multi)

As it happens, I was learning these delightful things about Japanese at Café Margot, site of many multilingual experiences for me, though the experiences have heavily favored Western European languages. And as I was reading, two women came in and sat down to my left.

My heart beat faster. I thought they might be Japanese. They started speaking. It sounded like Japanese.

I listened as I read. It continued to sound like Japanese. I was reluctant to interrupt their conversation, but when I packed up my belongings to leave, I leaned over and asked, “Excuse me. May I ask what language you are speaking?”

“Japanese,” came the answer. I showed them my book. They smiled. Maybe indulgently, maybe sincerely—not sure.

I am not superstitious, but I am going to pretend this encounter is a good omen for this language unit.

Comments (11)

Ken • Posted on Mon, December 06, 2010 - 3:34 pm EST

If you do Thai, you’ll find the same thing, with respect to formal/informal speech.  Not sure if this is Japanese’s case, but this is where their confusing ‘r’ and ‘l’ comes from.

I hear you on that omen, too.  The first time I tried to learn Portuguese was when I was at NYU.  I intended to take an intro class, but got mono instead.  I bought the book, though, and had it with me while doing laundry in the laundromat.  Not seeing the book, an older Portuguese woman came up to me for some reason and asked if I spoke Portuguese.  I pulled out the book and she looked happy.  Then again, maybe I’m missing some key element to this story, like she actually SAW the book before she asked me.  But I swear it was in my bag.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, December 07, 2010 - 1:54 am EST

You learned it, right? So it must have been an omen. :)

Ken • Posted on Tue, December 07, 2010 - 2:00 am EST

I did, yeah. :)  And that laundromat event was 20 years ago!

Donna • Posted on Tue, December 07, 2010 - 4:23 pm EST

Word order in sentences:  Have you not heard the argument that is made for the SOV order for helping one take oral exams?  You watch your examiners’ faces during the construction of your answer and decide whether you will make the answer in the affirmative or not!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, December 07, 2010 - 9:06 pm EST

Hmm, never thought of that. Too bad I had to take my M.A. exams in English!

MartyK • Posted on Wed, December 08, 2010 - 1:03 pm EST

People in the Midwest also have a way of turning statements into questions by raising the pitch at the end and looking confused. This is particularly true among young people (under 25). Not sure if that’s the same as the ‘ka.’

Ken • Posted on Thu, December 09, 2010 - 1:47 pm EST

Marty, Canadians also do this.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, December 09, 2010 - 1:48 pm EST

Wait - they do that in the Midwest and Canada, too? I thought native Californians (of which I am an example) had a monopoly on the pitch-raising strategy! Except we weren’t actually trying to ask questions when we did it.

Luba • Posted on Fri, March 04, 2011 - 1:23 am EST

In Russian you can put words almost in any order - Subject-Verb-Object, Object-Verb-Subject, Verb-Object-Subject etc. That’s because Russian is an inflecting language, so you know the function of the word from its form, not from its place in a sentence. For example in English “Cats eat mice” and “Mice eat cats” are two sentences with completely different meaning, while in Russian “Коты едят мышей” and “Мышей едят коты” means the same. Of course, with the change of the order the meaning changes slightly - you kind of put emphasis on different words, and the register often changes too, but the main meaning is the same.
Sometimes in Russian it’s also possible to omit pronouns, when they are clear from a context, but it’s not mandatory, while in Hebrew in past tense it’s kind of is - it looks very weird when people do not omit pronouns in past tense.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, March 21, 2011 - 3:14 pm EST

Thank you, Luba! I like the “cats eat mice”/“mice eat cats” example. Without inflection you could completely screw up the food chain!

Guest • Posted on Sat, April 20, 2013 - 5:02 pm EST

Interesting post, I enjoyed reading it. I agree with your views on the SOV format, it seems strange to me as an American.

I was once reading a Spanish book on the bus, and an Ecuadorian dude made a short conversation with me (by short, I mean less than 20 seconds), strangely enough he thought I was learning English. I completely forgot about that moment until I read this post.

Now that I think about it, I’ve also read French, Dutch, and Russian books with me in public, but nobody’s ever questioned them. Oh well.

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