Is It Hard to Learn Japanese?
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here and today, I want to talk about Japanese, learning Japanese. How hard is Japanese? Uh, remember if you enjoy these videos, please, uh, you know, subscribe, you can click on the bell here to get notifications. So you may be aware that the American Foreign Service Institute,
and I'm going to put a link to it here in the description box, has put out their evaluation of how difficult a different languages are based on, you know, how many hours of classroom instruction are required to achieve a certain level or fluency or whatever. Uh, I think these, uh, these studies, these comparisons are definitely interesting.
They have a lot of experience watching people in the classroom. I always feel that what's more important than the classroom is the motivation of the learner. So, and very often this means what the learner does outside the classroom is more important than what the learner does in the classroom. So how difficult are these languages?
Obviously the number one factor is how motivated you are. Uh, also another objective fact is, the more language is different from your own the more difficult it's going to be. You have to get used to new structures. You have to acquire a lot of new vocabulary where there's relatively little connection to vocabulary that you have for your own, from your own language.
But I would say that so Japanese is simply in terms of the vocabulary, the structure being very different from say English, if you're an English speaker, is going to be more difficult. However, there are a number of things that make Japanese easier, in my opinion. Um, and you know, when I learned Japanese, I'll tell you I have here.
I just went through my ..Japanese collection and I found, I mean, I have so many different dictionaries that I used because I was looking for dictionaries that were more convenient that were maybe based on a Romanized, uh, you know, look up system rather than basing it on Japanese, uh, alphabet or whatever. And I mean, I did a lot of looking stuff up because I... Here's another one too.
I had to do so much reading. And in those days, you know, back in the early seventies, there wasn't quite as much listening material available. It was hard work. Today with the internet accessing content on the internet, uh, using LingQ, for example, Where you can either use our mini stories, uh, where you can immediately look words up with an online dictionary.
It is easier. Now I will confess that with Asian languages or, I shouldn't say Asian languages, but specifically with Japanese and Chinese, we do have an issue because it's not obvious what constitutes a word. Because if a number of symbols come together to form a word, so where do you split? Where is this...
the boundaries between words? So we rely on different algorithms and they're not perfect. Nevertheless, even though not perfect because as we often say, perfection is the, is the enemy of the good, right? The perfect is the enemy of the good, it's still very effective. So it's easier to do than when I did, but
the, the immediate obstacles with Japanese are number one, there are three writing systems. It's the only language I know of where there's more than one writing system in common use. So they have, first of all, the Chinese characters, which was the first writing system they had, and then they have the hiragana, which is basically, it began as a system of using Chinese characters to represent Japanese sounds.
And apparently there were a variety of versions. Different characters were used in different parts of the country to try and represent the sounds. Because of course the Chinese character is a pictogram it represents meaning, but there is also sound attached to that character. So that was initially used.
And this evolved into hiragana, which is the most widely used phonetic script in Japanese. So You have the Kanji to Chinese characters, which are used, you have the hiragana, which is the most commonly used. But then you also have Katakana, which parallels the hiragana and it's used for, uh, you know, sort of words that are just sort of sounds: crash, bang or for foreign words.
And personally, I found the Katakana very hard because you don't see much of it. So remember in learning any new writing system, It's not whether that writing system is intrinsically hard or difficult, it's how long is it going to take for your brain to get used to that writing system? So if you know, in Japanese 90% of the words or more are written in hiragana , then you're doing most of your reading
in hiragana and in Kanji, in Chinese characters, and you're not doing very much reading in Katakana. So I always found the katakana a bit of a, you know, an obstacle. But so, so the writing system is a problem. Uh, problem meaning you have to put the time in, you have to do... see everything boils down to rating and listening.
The more you read and listen, and particularly read, the more you read, the more your brain gets used to that writing system, the easier it becomes. So I began by doing a lot of reading in hiragana. Because I had Kanji from Chinese, I needed to get used to the hiragana. So I did a lot of reading in just hiragana.
There was a series that are called the Naganuma books, and I just read them all the time. Stories about, you know, folktales from Japan. Wasn't very interesting, but just to get my brain used to it. All right. Several things make Japanese, first of all, more difficult, it's more difficult because it's structured differently.
But it is easier in the sense that it's more forgiving. And what I mean by that is like, I have no idea or very little idea of the sort of grammatical explanations of Japanese, because it's kind of... Japanese to me is like, you know, an old suit that you get used to wearing and after a while you feel comfortable in the suit because you wear it all the time. It's not...
it, the rules are not like... it's harder. It's been like Chinese in that sense. It's harder to really, there are a fewer things to trip you up. So when I think of a truly difficult language or languages, I think of languages where you have, you know, declensions and conjugations or you have gender. So if you use the wrong gender in French or Spanish, it's kind of a bit of a clanger, you hear that.
Uh, if you use the wrong case endings, uh, I don't know. I'm not a native speaker, but certainly I'm quite sensitive, uh, in, in French to hearing someone use the wrong, uh, you know, gender. Although I do it myself, it's unavoidable. It's just impossible to go from a language where you don't have gender and then,
you know, not make mistakes with nouns in languages where they have gender. But in Japanese, there's no gender for the nouns. There's not even singular and plural. So, you know, book is book. Book on the table. Uh, so to my mind that is much more forgiving. Uh, even in terms of their verbs, there's sort of a simple and a more
formal form of every verb. So you have "iku" and "ikimasu", but you can interchange them. So it doesn't really matter. You can sometimes... probably if you're going to interchange you, you err on the side of the slightly more formal, but you can say "iku", "ikimasu".
I never worry about it. I never spend a second thinking about whether "iku" or "ikimasu" is formal. You get caught up in the mood of the discussion. The, the, the sense of what's appropriate. It starts... you start to feel after a while, which word you should be using. You're hearing the people you're talking to use certain forms of the words so you're going to pick up on that.
The very formal, the very polite is more difficult. But you're not expected to use that until you reach a stage where using that becomes natural. That was my experience. I stuck with my "iku", "ikimasu" and at some point "mairimasu", "irashaimasu", whatever started to creep into my usage. These very formal, you know, when you're speaking to someone more senior to you or, and I wouldn't use the word, the forms for someone who is junior to me, I just wouldn't do that as a non-native speaker.
So to my mind, those are things that you evolve into. Uh, some people, um, you know, find it strange that the verb comes at the end, but again, through enough exposure, you get used to that. Uh, so there are less obvious to my mind, and I could be corrected or maybe people will come back at me, but, uh, there are few obvious grammatical mistakes that you can make.
A lot of the language is I wouldn't say vague, but you know, for example, verb tenses, you know, it's, it's you, if you say yesterday, today or tomorrow that determines the tense. So, uh, "ashita iku?" Are you going tomorrow? "Ashita iku?" "Ashita" is tomorrow. "Ashita iku?" "Ashita ikimasuka? " "Ikimasu" "Ikimasuka?" The "ka" is a sort of an interrogative at the end.
All of these things are flexible and you kind of get used to being around people who use the language of certain way and you sort of pick up on it. That's been my experience. Some people find the particles difficult. So by particle, I mean, in Japanese, you go, "watakushi" or "watashi" like when I lived in Japan, I used to always say "watakushi". Now apparently no one says that they say "watashi".
"I" "watashi". "watashi wa..." "watashi ga..."l... "watashi ga..." I have to admit, I don't really know the difference. And you know, I pray presumably in a conversation I'll tend to use one or the other for some reason. And I don't know a what, but it doesn't, you know, prevent proper communication in the language.
Uh, the particles, for example, that indicate, you know, you're going to the, you know, the direct object, so "kore wo..." like, this is the direct job, "anata ni..." so the, you have these sort of direction particles that determine the, the part of speech here. So, uh, you know, the "wo" makes it a direct object "ni" makes it an indirect, like to someone. "kara" is from someone.
And these show up after nouns, uh, and it helps to indicate who is doing what to whom. And you can read an explanation of it, but ultimately you have to get used to doing it. It's not tremendously complicated. There aren't an unlimited number of these particles. Similarly there are words, or at least,
uh, portions, uh, of verbs that attach to the end of verbs, uh, which imply meaning or purpose or reason or whatever, uh, you know, a conditional " iku nara" uh, " iku naraba". And there's often more than one way of saying things. And here again, it's... I find it's a very flexible forgiving language, which like with most languages, it's just a matter of putting in enough time.
So I can, well believe that Japanese takes more time to learn than say Spanish because the structure is very different. Uh Vocabulary, there's very little common vocabulary. There are lone words from English. Sometimes you don't even recognize them. Um, but it's just a matter of putting in the time. And, uh, so I do have,
uh, you know, I have lots of books that I bought in Japanese, including um Japanese sake, The Insider's Guide to Sake, same book in Japanese, but, uh, I bought a small Japanese grammar book, but I find reading through it I just get confused. uUh, I did by just a curiosity the Living Language, Japanese language course, but here again, it's all in Romaji in, in, uh, you know, the Latin alphabet.
And, um, lots of exercises. I didn't find that useful. I just think you have to start in, uh, using things like the mini stories at LingQ. Uh, simple stories. I used to read Naganuma and listened to it I believe. I can't remember. It's almost 50 years ago. Um, and just allow the language to come in you, come into you and occasionally look things up.
Certainly look words up. Uh, and that's how you, uh, you gradually get used to it. So it's not more difficult, but it can take longer. So basically that's what I wanted to say on, uh, uh, Japanese. And, uh, if you poke around here, uh, you can find a number of videos that I have made, uh, talking about Japanese, or speaking in Japanese,
if that is of interest to you. Just go and search here on my YouTube channel. Okay. That's what I wanted to say. Thank you for listening. Bye for now.