December 19, 2010 | Japanese

The Hardest Language Yet to Write

Japanese appears to have the most difficult writing system I have studied to date.

Today I came to a conclusion: the Japanese writing system is the hardest one I have encountered so far in this project. Not Korean, not Arabic, but Japanese. I had no idea.

This Workbook...

This Workbook…

...Reminds Me of First Grade and Tracing Paper

…Reminds Me of First Grade and Tracing Paper

As I mentioned previously, the Japanese writing system consists of three different types of symbols:

  • hiragana, a syllabary for words of Japanese origin
  • katakana, a syllabary for words of foreign origin
  • kanji, symbols borrowed from Chinese

Each of the two syllabaries has 46 characters, plus various permutations, meaning over 100 symbols between them to get to know—but the kanji are what could do a lowly language learner in. I have read that an educated Japanese person would know upwards of 2,000 kanji, and that number may be low (I am having a hard time getting consistent information on this point). 

All things considered, there is little hope for me to advance my writing skills significantly in the three months I plan to spend on this language.

Nonetheless, I am going to do my best in the time I have. This afternoon I did some studying in one of my new writing books, Easy Kana Workbook by Rita L. Lampkin and Osamu Hoshino. So far I love this one.

As I am feeling vulnerable about the challenges of Japanese writing, I was interested to read in it the following:

Over the last century several systems of romanization have been developed to represent the Japanese sound system. There have even been attempts at a permanent substitution of romaji for the much more difficult kanji system, although there has never been enough popular support to bring the idea to reality. One of the major problems in making such a substitution is the fact that the Japanese sound system is extremely limited, making homonyms—words that sound alike but have different meanings—the rule, rather than the exception. Since kanji characters illustrate the meaning of the words they represent, they help to clarify what is being written.

Still many Japanese conversation texts use one or another of the various romaji systems, since learning Japanese as a second language by way of kana and kanji exclusively is a slow, difficult process.

Pictured above right are my remedial early writing efforts. It really is like being back in first grade!

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