Sprechen the Japanese?

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:

Japanese alphabets

First off, you’re blessed with not one, but three alphabets:

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).

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9 thoughts on “Sprechen the Japanese?

  1. *brain explodes*

    Question though. If you are illiterate and mute, how do you ask “So, how’s stuff?”

    [ Nod and smile. And the best thing is, it’s universally understood. Except for those places where they do it the other way around.]

  2. Your blog has changed. I’m confused and scared.

    Oh, wait, am I allowed to use the word ‘blog’ on a wordpress page? See how confused I am?!

    I recently saw a list of really bad icecream flavours. No surprise japan topped the list with such gems as fish icecream, beetroot icecream, squid icecream and chunky horseflesh icecream. Mmmm, horseflesh….

    They make up for it with their games though 🙂

    [ Yeah, I’ve been messing with the skin. A lot of them have stylish yet tiny fonts, which make it pretty hard to read. I’d like to run the skin modestly titled The Ideal Website, but that means I’d have to run WordPress on my own hosting, which would require work, which I have moral objections to.

    Interesting side note – the guys who made that theme were trying to sell it for $1,500, but gave it out for free when no-one bought it. I should have put bets on that.

    Oh yes, and the games here are teh awesome. I could be playing the new Zelda DS game right now while you have to wait three more months. Uh, if I could read Japanese. So to qualify: the games are most likely teh awesome, if I was able to play them. ]

  3. Great post mate. But please, please, tell me you are kidding about the different numerals depending on the shape of the object. Do conversations just stop awkwardly when you have to count something that is both flat *and* long and thin??? Sounds like a recipe for sectarian violence. The brutal war between “Clan Planks Flat” and “Clan Planks Long and Thin” must be mere days away.

    [ I found that people are pretty forgiving when you makes mistakes, but particularly so with numbers. People have told me you pretty much spend two solid years in primary school just learning how to count. I didn’t go into the exact horrors of counting, but here’s some examples:

    base numbers:

    one: ichi
    two: ni
    three: san
    four: yon or shi (which one? Depends on the situation.)

    thin and long things (e.g. chopsticks, trees):

    one: ippon
    two: nihon
    three: sanbon
    four: yonbon (not shibon)

    generic things (useful when ordering food):

    one: hitori
    two: futori
    three: mittsu
    four: yottsu

    I guess you could say it’s similar that we have one, two, three and first, second, third、which don’t sound related. But much worse, applied across lots of categories.

    I also found out that Japanese kids today apparently aren’t learning this stuff anymore – they just use the base numbers and “ko” as a generic counting word. I decided I’m doing that.]

  4. I’m completely disillusioned – I thought this was a PHOTOjournal! Where can I complain about this flagrantly false advertising?

    [ You know, I actually had that same thought just after I posted this. “But”, I thought to myself, “no-one would be pedantic enough to care, would they?” Once again, you prove me wrong sir. Bravo! ]

  5. A very good review of the ups and downs of the Japanese language sir. It brings back horrible memories of learning Japanese in high school 😦 The Kanji was always the part I dreaded the most. Thankfully they never went into all the different counting words – never heard of that before! Good idea phasing it out of school.

  6. Ahhh the memories. 🙂 I always found it easier to learn the various Kanji – before I stopped studying it I think I would have known over 1000.

  7. Punning Opportunities !! Fantastic! English has so many, but to try in another language would be a great challenge. That’s another reason to visit Japan – or do I have to have N months of Japanese immersion before I can pun.

    Great post – well done.

  8. This is just a correction of the info from Tony just in case anyone decides to count in Japan, haha:

    hitori = one PERSON (or alone)
    fuTAri = 2 people
    sannin = 3 people
    yonnin = 4 people

    hitoTSU = one item
    futTATSU = 2 items
    mittsu = 3 items
    yotsu = 4 items

    and ~tsu is what is used to count general objects

  9. Pingback: A quantitative three year blog anniversary « 4000 Miles North

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