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
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)
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.