I decided it might be a somewhat cathartic experience if I wrote about my feelings and frustrations when it comes to learning the Japanese language. It’s a subject which is neither bold nor unique, but on a personal level, it is.
Almost as frustrating as the experience itself was to discover upon deciding the topic of this post that someone has already thought of the title “I think I’m learning Japanese, I really think so”. And by “someone”, I mean about 38 million hits on Google.
It’s like that time when I was a young boy and I cleverly changed the title of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” to “It’s a Long Way to the Shop (If You Wanna Sausage Roll)”. I was so damn happy with myself that I just had to tell my friends. Imagine how disappointed I was when they quickly informed me that it had been done before, many, many times.
I guess I could have made this blog post with the title “I think I’m learning Japanese, I really think so”, only for anybody who bothered to read it to mock me from the other side of the internet. But thankfully, we now have Google and I had the opportunity to test the waters before I made a fool of myself like I did with AC/DC.
One could argue that all this does is reinforce my earlier concerns that I lack bold or unique ideas and yet, I maintain that while the scrapped title and the retained subject matter may be familiar and old to many, they remain bold and unique to me. I’m making a compromise by sparing the original title for anyone who might read this, and simply giving my perspective when it comes to tackling the Japanese language.
I’ve heard people say that Japanese is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. But let’s be honest, I’ve also heard people say that English is one of the hardest languages. Some say Finnish because of the ridiculous grammar (I have a certain friend who might have an opinion on that). Then, there are those who suggest Arabic is the most difficult. Cantonese, the list goes on….
All of this is great and all, however, unless you’ve done the experiment in which you’ve learned all the planet’s languages and understand the differences between Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, then you’re not really going to know. And even if you have, you only know how difficult it was from your own unique perspective.
I think that’s the issue at hand when trying to figure out which language is more difficult to pick up than another; it depends on the individual learning it. In keeping with earlier examples, perhaps learning Finnish would be hard for a native English speaker because it has no Latin or Germanic roots. Then again, maybe you’d find it easier if your dream job (€5 million per year + company car to work part-time as a beer taster) was situated in Helsinki …but you had to master the local language first.
We could get right in to the family trees of different languages and why this or that language might be difficult for me as a native English speaker, however, all that stuff is just waiting to bore you to death on the internet, should you wish to seek it out. Suffice to say that Japanese, like Finnish, doesn’t have a lot in common with English when it comes to its roots.
I’d suggest telling people about the Japanese writing system might be enough to turn them off (when I say “people” I’m specifically referring to native English speakers- not that non-English native speakers aren’t people or anything but let’s be honest, they are a bit weird). Hiragana and katakana were far from the hardest things I’ve ever learned but at some point the thought insidiously arrived in my brain that I’d be bashing my skull against the brick wall that is kanji until the day I die.
The English alphabet has 26 letters. Take a look at the back of a shampoo bottle and check out all the ridiculous shit going on there – “stearamidopropyl”, “isoalkylaminopropylethyldimonium” – from just 26 letters. Perhaps I’m mistaken but I think the Welsh get by with only 24. Their solution is to throw about seven L’s in the same word. The point is that if English is “the most expressive language in the world” (quoting Ricky Gervais who may or may not have done his research) and we get by with only 26 unique characters, it makes learning the Japanese written language a daunting proposition.
Hell, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Government agrees with me, having listed Japanese among a handful of others (Arabic, Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin) as the hardest for English speakers to pick up. And sure, the fact that there are formal and informal ways of going about speech, depending on the audience, is surely something I’ll continue to grapple for a time to come.
However, it would be grossly unfair to suggest that I’ve found Japanese totally unagreeable thus far.
There have been times during my initial fight to learn Japanese (it’s still early days yet) where I’ve noted relief at discovering a pleasantly simple aspect of the language. Phonology is one such pleasantry. All I mean by that is that the sounds that one uses to speak Japanese are really quite “even”, for lack of a better term.
Then, there’s the vowel sounds. Sure, when I’m doing a Skype lesson and my teacher on the other end of the internet has me recite sounds like a school kid, I’m using them in a foreign order; a, i, u, e, o, as opposed to a, e, i, o, u (is that a thing or am I imagining that?). But they’re still vowels, right? I guess you could argue that the “u” sounds different or whatever but in Japanese these sounds are constant. In English, “u” and his vowel buddies can have different sounds. It’s got to be confusing for say, a Japanese speaker trying to learn English, right?
Another good thing which I can’t profess to have experience with personally is that, while I’m told that some other Asian languages rely heavily upon tone, Japanese not nearly as much (a quick Google informs me that Mandarin and Vietnamese fit alongside some languages of sub-Saharan Africa and Mexican indigenous languages as those which have otherwise identical words that vary greatly depending upon the speaker’s pitch).
There’s a whole bunch of other things that make learning Japanese seem like a reasonable pursuit. I mean, sticking “ka” on the end of a sentence to make it a question typifies the beautiful pragmatism that contributes greatly to my love of Japan in general. You don’t have to worry about the genders of nouns like those weirdo French, Portuguese, et al. Personally, I find assigning a gender to an inanimate object quite unnecessary and so do the Japanese (practical and pragmatic, see?). Yes, I understand that assigning grammatical gender is a way of classing nouns but today, I just don’t care!
All of this sounds lovely, however, there’s still kanji, right? Well, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll be a lifer, trapped in the kanji prison. However, there might be opportunity for parole at some point thanks to modern technology. While the purists may suggest I need to master stroke order, my smart phone doesn’t agree.
I read something a while back (I wish I could remember the actual quote and where I read it so I could link it) that suggested something along the lines of Japanese being an easy language to get pretty good at, but very difficult to master. That was disheartening for a moment after I read it because I was happy with my progress at the time, and to be honest, I still am. While it appears the worst may be yet to come, I’m determined that I’ll do it anyway. As the quote on the wall at the gym reads “Nothing worth doing is easy”. Now, I don’t know who wrote that but it was probably the person in charge of making up semi-inspirational signs that go in gyms, or perhaps just an internet meme.
Given my laziness on the quote front over the past few paragraphs, I’ve dug up a legit quote;
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Whoa, calm down, Theo! It’s just Japanese….
There’s a billion and one apps out there to help you learn Japanese beyond the Genki textbook. I use a few of them (Kotoba, Tae Kim’s Learning Japanese, Obenkyo, Memrise) but I’m always interested to hear other people’s thoughts, tips and insights. Please feel free to share any you may know of.