Update: if you’re learning Japanese, you might also like to read about some useful language-learning tools.
With my long-overdue enrollment last week in a Japanese school, I realise I have been remiss in explaining the unique experiences involved with being immersed in a foreign – make that, very foreign language. So, here’s a four-month newbie’s guide to Japanese:
First off, you’re blessed with not one, but three alphabets:
- hiragana: the base alphabet, made up of 46 characters. It looks like this.
- katakana: identical sounds to hiragana, but reserved for foreign loanwords and special words. It looks like this.
- kanji: highly elaborate pictograms representing individual words and ideas. Here’s a smattering of some “basic” ones for you. You need to know about 2000 of these characters just to be considered literate. I’m in so much trouble.
Actually, there’s also a kind of B-side alphabet – romanji, which is writing Japanese words using Roman characters (like I’ve done below). It’s kind of a cheaty alphabet for beginners and those without Japanese character sets on their computers.
Some interesting differences
- All three alphabets are used together in writing. That may sounds complex, but is actually handy given the next point…
- Written Japanese has no spaces to separate words – everything runs together. This gave me a lot of grief to begin with. After a while, you start to recognise elements of grammar that separate subjects, objects, verbs and adjectives. The type of alphabet used gives some important clues.
- The basic sentence structure in English is Subject-Verb-Object:I went to the store.The basic sentence structure in Japanese is Subject-Object-Verb:Watashi wa mise ni ikimashita.
I store to went.
- Pronouns are often dropped. Rather than saying “I did x”, you would just say “did x”, and your speaker would assume you are talking about yourself. In fact, you probably find the above example would be said like this, with yourself assumed as the subject:Mise ni ikimashita.
Went to store.This tends to make Japanese sounds very abrupt when you first learn it, but is grammatically correct and very frequently used.
- Spoken Japanese has much less pitch modulation. People vary their tone to add emotion, of course, but unlike English which usually stresses a particular syllable in each word, Japanese words are pronounced much “flatter”, with each syllable stressed more evenly.Try it – say “tomato” as you would normally, stressing the “ma”. Now, say it while evenly stressing all syllables and you’ll get an idea.
- Words can be written horizontally and left to right, or vertically and right to left. You usually see the vertical text used in books and comics and the like – most everything else is regular left to right.
- Almost no plurals! Items are either counted, or the plurality is assumed from context. Whether you bought one or more books, you say “bought book”.
- Although Japanese has more characters than English, it surprisingly (or not) has many less sounds. Think about how many ways you can pronounce “a” in English, or that “g” and “h” make different noises separately, but a different sounds together. After all, English is the language where you can famously pronounce “fish” and “ghoti” exactly the same way. In Japanese, “a” is always pronounced one way only.A pool of less sounds means that:
- Many words sound very similar. Accuracy counts. It makes both speaking and listening a more difficult for a beginner – similar words always seem to run together in my mind. On the plus side, it give you excellent faux pas opportunities when you mispronounce words, because odds are that you’ll be saying another valid word. Which, given my past experiences, is often to hilarious effect.
- On the plus side, there are many homonyms. So, you can learn one word and bond the multiple meanings together in your mind. Plus, there are plenty of punning opportunities, if you swing that way.
Some good differences
- Hands up if you pronounced “corps” correctly the first time you said it after reading it? You’re lying, put your hands down. Japanese has the lovely feature that every word is pronounced exactly as it is spelled.
- More consistent grammar rules (so far). I’m so glad I learned English with my spongy infant mind – conjugating English verbs is a right b*stard. The past tense of “smash” is “smashed”. The past tense of “throw” is “threw”. The past tense of “hit” is “hit”. Crazy. But that’s what you get when you go around robbing other languages willy-nilly.Basic Japanese has three families of verbs which follow fairly regular conjugation rules. Not to say I’m any good at it though – you still have to learn the rules!
Some bad differences
- Counting is a nightmare. Some numbers have multiple pronunciations, which seem to be arbitrarily used in different situations. There’s one word to count long, thin objects, like chopsticks. There’s another word to count flat objects, like dinner plates. There’s more words to count machines, stories of a building, people…. and so on. Better yet, the pronunciation of the numbers changes from number to number, and between different object types.
- Even after learning the meaning of kanji pictographs, you may still not know how to say them. And there may be two or more ways to pronounce a single kanji. Oh, and you can then put the kanji together to make compounds and whole new words. Though these often make sense and are kind of fun to guess at – for example, the characters for “telephone” comes from “electric” and “speech”.
- Until you can read over 2100 characters and have some vocab under your belt, you’re effectively illiterate and mute. Good luck with that. There’s always the universal language though – pointing at stuff.
Enough for now! Next episode: how glorious technology saves the day (again).