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Four ways Japanese isn’t the hardest language to learn

23 Comments
By Casey Baseel

It seems whenever a list of the most difficult languages to learn is released, Japanese sits near or at the top. We can see why, as the language does have quirks and peculiarities that can occasionally make you wonder how anyone, even native speakers, manage to communicate with each other in Japanese.

Today we’re going to explain four ways learning Japanese isn’t nearly as bad as some other languages.

1. The writing isn’t as difficult as you’ve been told

Let’s start with one of the most common complaints about Japanese: the three different sets of characters used to write it. The first of these, the characters imported from China called kanji, are a legitimate obstacle on the way to becoming proficient, as there are about 2,000 that are commonly used.

Learning 2,000 characters is no joke, but it’s still a far smaller amount than the number you’d need to become functional in Chinese. Several Japanese kanji are simplified versions, compared to their originals forms, to boot.

While remembering kanji can be an uphill struggle at first, learners eventually reach a critical mass of knowledge, at which point they gain the ability to discern the meaning of words they’ve never seen before. For example, is you know 着 means to put on, 色 means color, and 料 means cooking, you can probably guess that 着色料 means food coloring, even if you’re not sure how to pronounce it (it’s chakushokuryo, by the way).

The other two sets of phonetic written characters are even less of a problem. Hiragana, the set used for writing Japanese words, consists of 46 characters. That may seem like an intimidating number at first, but no individual symbol is particularly complex, and almost all are simple enough to write with two or three strokes of your pen. Learn two a day, and you’ll be completely able to read and write the set in less than a month.

There’s a second set of phonetics, called katakana, which gets used for writing foreign loanwords in Japanese, and it’s also got 46 characters. But before you burn your Japanese textbooks and sign up for French class, take a look at how remarkably similar the hiragana (left) and katakana (right) for certain sounds can be:

ri: り / リ ka: か / カ se: せ / セ ki: き / キ

Once you’ve learned hiragana, katakana comes pretty quickly. Best of all, the pronunciation rules for hiragana and katakana don’t have nearly the same amount of wiggle room as English with its long and short vowels and hard and soft consonants. If you see か written in a thousand different words, for example, it’ll be pronounced “ka” in each and every one.

2. Pronunciation is a snap

Sharp-minded linguists have probably already figured this out, but that point about absolute rules of pronunciation is related to another nice thing about learning Japanese. Having 46 phonetic characters with only one possible pronunciation means there are only 46 possible sounds in the language. While that might seem like a lot, it’s actually a comparatively small set of sounds to train yourself to pronounce and hear. This is especially true if you’re comparing Japanese to English, where the myriad possible reading for the 26 letters of the alphabet and their near-limitless combinations, makes things a lot more complex.

Also, Japanese isn’t a tonal language. That doesn’t mean that it’s spoken by droning flatly like Frankenstein’s monster, but rather that changing your pitch or stress as you say a word doesn’t result in it taking on different meanings like some kind of linguistic shape shifter.

For example, take a look at anything written in Spanish, and notice all the accent marks which the language requires. Or try speaking Vietnamese, which has so many tones that even linguists can’t agree if the correct number is six or eight.

3. Simplified time

For a nation that values precision and punctuality, Japan’s language is surprisingly laid back with regards to time. Japanese doesn’t have a future tense, so “I cook,” and “I’m going to cook” are said exactly the same way.

While that might seem incredibly confusing, context usually makes which the speaker means incredibly clear.

Also, not having a future tense means at least one less grammar rule to memorize. Even English, which seems so straightforward in this regard, has two oftentimes exclusive ways of expressing future actions (if you don’t believe us, next time the doorbell rings, try telling your family “I’m going to get it!” instead of “I’ll”).

Japanese does have a past tense, but there are clear rules for it, as opposed to the largely arbitrary way things are done in English (“call” becomes “called” but “fall” becomes “fell?”). And students of Japanese have it way easier than would-be speakers of Finnish, which has different verb forms for the distant past, ordinary past, recent past, near future, regular future, and far future.

4. Mountains and mountains of source material

Some textbooks make a big deal out of the use of different words used in Japanese depending on the age/social standing of the speaker and listener, even though this is something that exists in other cultures as well.

Still, Japanese does have a few more conventions regarding this than other languages, which is largely a reflection of social norms. There is, though, another way in which Japanese society makes its language far easier to learn than many others.

While you wouldn’t mistake a lot of it for Shakespeare in terms of complexity or timelessness, the Japanese creative industry is a veritable juggernaut in the amount of TV shows, movies, books, magazines, music, animation, comics, and video games it pumps out. Young people are the target market for the vast majority of it, and while that may not always result in the most mature storytelling, it does ensure that the language is largely contemporary and close to the way people are speaking in Japan right now. Walk into any Japanese bookstore, plunk down a few bucks, and you can come away with hundreds of pages of 100 percent authentic study material.

Does learning Japanese take effort? Sure, just like damn near anything in life worth doing. But as all the members of our team can personally attest to, it is possible, and it might just be easier than you think.

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Why old Japanese women have names in katakana -- Ninja life skills: 7 tips to make learning Japanese that little bit easier -- Foreigners in Japan vote for the best-looking katakana character

© RocketNews24

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23 Comments
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One of the easy things about learning Japanese is that if you learn about 50 or so set phrases, you can get through the majority of social interactions.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Also, Japanese isn’t a tonal language. That doesn’t mean that it’s spoken by droning flatly like Frankenstein’s monster, but rather that changing your pitch or stress as you say a word doesn’t result in it taking on different meanings like some kind of linguistic shape shifter.

...this is not true. Like, this is just straight up inaccurate information. Who wrote this?

-6 ( +4 / -10 )

...this is not true. Like, this is just straight up inaccurate information. Who wrote this?

No, it *isI true. In Chinese, changing the pitch of vowels can change the meaning of a word drastically. Not so in Japanese. Only if you mispronounce a syllable do you change the meaning. In informal conversation, you can use an upward inflexion (not entirely sure on the spelling there) to indicate a question, but that's about all really.

I've been learning Japanese for about a year now. All my colleagues at work make the same complaints about the writing, but I don't see the problem. Once you write enough, it becomes ingrained in the long term memory, so you don't forget it. For the most part, I find Hiragana easier to write than Katakana, except in the cases of "mu" "su" "me" "nu" and I occasionally struggle with "ka". One problem I've noticed is that there seem to be variations to the writing of some characters. I initially learned to write "sa" using three strokes, yet I often see the second and third stroke joined as one. I see similar variations with "ki" "ra" "na" "so" "fu" and their respective Handakuon. I'm not sure why there are variations, but they are there. Not that they cause any serious problems. I'm fluent with Hiragana, though Katakana causes problems sometimes. I've got a long way to go on Kanji still, but I'll get there.

Learning Hiragana and Katakana is very helpful in learning the correct pronunciation of Japanese, which is a lot easier than people realise. There are no "magic E's" for a start. Overall, the pronunciation is quite simple to master. I've noticed that if a word ends with "su" or "tsu", the "u" part isn't pronounced, though I haven't found out why yet. Sometimes something similar happens with "ru", but I've only encountered that in songs.

Perhaps next time someone tells me Japan is so hard to learn, I'll show them this article. It really isn't as hard as some of the European languages I could name. I'm not saying it's a walk in the park, but I'd wager that Japanese is easier to learn than English is. Even I struggle with English, and it's my native language.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

No, it *isI true. In Chinese, changing the pitch of vowels can change the meaning of a word drastically. Not so in Japanese. Only if you mispronounce a syllable do you change the meaning. In informal conversation, you can use an upward inflexion (not entirely sure on the spelling there) to indicate a question, but that's about all really.

Actually, it is true.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_pitch_accent

Note: please be careful about making sweeping statements about the nature of a language you've only studied for "about a year".

-2 ( +4 / -6 )

No, it *isI true

No, no it isn't. You've been studying for a year? Congrats, I've been living here for a year.

There are at least two different "hashi," "ima," Nihon," and a plethora of other words. If pronunciation doesn't change meaning, why did my kids laugh when I pronounced a name as "KAtsuo" rather than "Ka TSUo?"

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

this is comforting! Thanks a lot. It'll be worth it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

You're both kind of right. It's not a tonal language, but there are a few words for which the meaning does change according to the tone.

5 ( +6 / -2 )

Mastering the correct pitches and getting the accent (insert any Japanese regional accent here) down correctly can be incredibly difficult and is very important if you want to get your point across without having a ridiculous foreigner accent.

In short, Japanese pronunciation is far from a snap, but it's not quite as horrendous as Chinese.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

One problem I've noticed is that there seem to be variations to the writing of some characters....I'm not sure why there are variations

Just like there are variations in the way the alphabet can be written. Open up the font book on your computer - everything from no-nonsense Arial to Blackmoor to Comic Sans to beautiful Edwardian Script. But as you say, no serious problems, until you get to the older cursive stuff that only the handwriting experts can decipher.

As for the tone thing: some Japanese will try to tell you that homophones (hashi meaning bridge, edge, chopstick: ame meaning rain, candy: ima meaning now, living room etc) are differentiated according to their different tones, but what they mean is stress pattern, not tone (Upgreyyed's wiki link calls it pitch-accent), the stress pattern differs according to the region, and the meaning is usually blindingly obvious from the context - no one talks about eating with bridges or jumping off chopsticks, and candy doesn't fall from the sky except in fairy stories. In fact the homophones are made great use off in rakugo and funny-story telling, which wouldn't be funny at all if the key words were pronounced differently.

Simplified time - this does not make a language easier to learn or understand. Instead of learning a straight-forward future tense for blanket use in expressing the idea of the future, for example, you have to find myriad different ways of expressing a future; use the present tense and leave it up to the context and the ability of the listener to pick up on little hints like next week, or bring in a totally new expression: iku tsumori (intend to go) iku tokoro (on the point of going, and confusingly also the place one goes) ikou to shite iru (on the point of going, or planning to go) iku yotei (planning to go) iku deshou (suppose one will go).

Japanese in itself is no harder and no easier than any other language to learn - millions of little kids here speak it with no trouble at all. The problem arises from people whose own native tongue is different in structure from Japanese; the greater the difference, the greater the perceived difficulty. Next time you find yourself thinking it's just Too Hard, lookit the little kids in a schoolyard or nursery yard, chatting away nineteen to the dozen. If they can do it, so can you. Just stop making problems for yourself comparing it with your own language and asking why?.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

In Japanese what is NOT spoken rather than what is spoken is IMPORTANT.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

The tonal thing is half true and half false. One of the first things you are taught in Japanese is the difference between Ame and aME.

I forgot which one is Sweet and which one is Rain, but that's the point. It is there but it isn't as critical. The combinations are sufficiently few that in real life, in context, you don't need to get it right to make yourself understandable.

Somehow, I don't see you getting away with it in say ... Mandarin. Another pleasant side effect, at least to my ears, is that Japanese leaves a lot of voice modulation range for emotions. In comparison, Mandarin consumes far too much of the available range just to produce those 4 infamous tones and every emotion sounds kind of flat.

To me anyway.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

Japanese isn't that terribly difficult of a language to get to a functional level, honestly, and that's even reading it "decently". The caveat is if you are a visual person or not - it seems to me that visual learners have a much easier time at the kana/kanji than do non-visual learners.

The hard part is catching the subtleties of the language and the natural rhythms to understand it and speak it fluently.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Emphasis and tone are not the same thing.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Japanese is 98 percent not tonal. If you mixed some white paint with 2 percent green paint, would you say it was green paint?

I think the best thing about Japanese is that the basics are simple and consistent, such as verb conjugation. There is no long list of conjugates like in so many languages. You learn Anata wa dou desu ka? You can change it to Kare wa dou desu ka? and no problem. With English there are complications from day one. How are you? does not become How are he?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I have tried asking Japanese people to say the various 'hashi" and then ask another Japanese listener to judge which "hashi" (bridge, edge, chopsticks, and more rarely ladder, which I did not use in the test) the speaker had said. The results of that limited test appeared to demonstrate that meaning is not conveyed by tones, since there was little correspondence between speaker intent and listener interpretation.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

No verb conjugations and no plurals are other things that aid learning Japanese.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Japanese is mostly verb conjugations.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Scrote means that Japanese verbs do not conjugate according to person. One of the most annoy things about English for Japanese is that third person "s". Here is my list of 35 reasons why Japanese is an easy language to learn. http://www.nihonbunka.com/eigodaigaku/archives/en/000158.html

3 ( +3 / -0 )

"Also, Japanese isn’t a tonal language. That doesn’t mean that it’s spoken by droning flatly like Frankenstein’s monster, but rather that changing your pitch or stress as you say a word doesn’t result in it taking on different meanings like some kind of linguistic shape shifter."

Yeah i said that too for a long time. Read what others said about pitch accent and stress. It all depends on whether you want to sound like a native speaker or not. Native speakers say comPUter. If you argue that English has no tones likeChinese that's great. But if you then just pronounce things the way you want you will be putting stress on the wrong places and sound like someone who says COMputer or compuTER. Get it? People will understand but you will sound different. Not only with nouns but there are patterns to verbs and adjectives and their endings.

Get it right now or you'll have you learn (if you want to speak without an accent)

Unfortunately it's hard to find dictionaries with that info.

Of the other hand you could just do your best with mimicking. But if you're in your first year of learning it would pay to listen to your senpais!!

.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If your accent isn't too strong to be understood, I'd argue that it's often actually a good thing.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

There are at least two different "hashi," "ima," Nihon," and a plethora of other words. If pronunciation doesn't change meaning, why did my kids laugh when I pronounced a name as "KAtsuo" rather than "Ka TSUo?"

ok, here's the thing. haSHI is bridge, HAshi is chopsticks, but if you say HAshi when you mean to say bridge, it is still understandable if you say it in a sentense. same thing for aME and Ame (candy and rain).

If your kids laughed when you said KA TSUo, that's not because they didn't understand what you said, but they just thought it was "cute" :)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

People seem to be having a problem distinguishing between stress and tone....

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Once you start to break up kanji in their component parts kanji learning becomes easy. I set up a special site to do just that: http://rtega.be/chmn/

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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