[First published 19 Feb 2009]
Last year I was invited up to Edinburgh to speak at a conference organised by the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, which is one of a number of centres of excellence in language-based area studies recently established by the UK government (my own department at Sheffield, together with the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds, has formed the White Rose East Asia Centre to conduct research, and train researchers, in East Asian Studies). The conference was entitled Arabic on Campus and Beyond and was on the teaching of Arabic language, so a Japanese specialist like myself might seem to be an odd choice of speaker, but the final session was called ‘Comparative Perspectives’ and for it specialists in other ‘hard’ languages were invited to discuss what was challenging for learners of their languages, so the Arabic specialists could see if there was anything they could learn from the way these languages were taught.
The ‘hard’ languages discussed were, perhaps not surprisingly: Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, too, of course (it just so happens that those four languages were the ones I considered taking at university, before I eventually settled on Japanese – but that’s another story). Each of these languages has different features which make them ‘difficult’, although difficult for whom is another question. When they are said to be ‘hard’, it usually means ‘hard for speakers of English, or Romance languages’, because, of course, speakers of languages closely related to them often have few problems acquiring them – Korean speakers manage to pick up Japanese with very little difficulty, for example.
Russian can be difficult as its tense and aspect system is quite complex – and different from what English speakers are used to in their own language. Arabic is a challenge because you have to learn both classical Arabic – the written language of high culture and religion – and the vernacular version – what is spoken by the man, or woman, on the street – and what they speak in Morocco is very different from what they speak in Egypt, for example. With both of these languages you also have to learn a new writing system, too, of course, although both are alphabets, and Cyrillic even has some letters in common with the Roman alphabet used by English. Chinese is usually said to be the most difficult language to learn for native English speakers, even though its grammatical structure is similar to that of English in some ways, because you have to learn the correct tones to speak it correctly, and learn a character-based writing system, but what about Japanese, though?
Well, my presentation was on the difficulty of learning Japanese – for native English speakers, that is – and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the subject with you this week.
Before I went up to Edinburgh, though, I discussed the topic with my colleagues at Sheffield. The first thing that most of them said was, in fact, what my reaction to the topic was, too, ‘But…Japanese isn’t difficult to learn – it’s just tedious.’ This is the largest secret about Japanese: in many ways, it’s not a difficult language to learn – as long as you can stand the tedium of the initial stages. Obviously, as someone who has learned Japanese to a reasonably competent level, I would say this, but let’s see if I can’t at least make a start on convincing you that I’m right.
Let’s start with the ways in which Japanese is easier than English: first, its phonology is much simpler. The number of consonants and vowels that the language uses is significantly fewer – Japanese has just five vowels, whereas English uses over forty – making it extremely easy to pronounce for English speakers. I’m sure you must have had the experience many times of tearing your hair out over some of your Japanese students’ inability to get their tongues round English words – and there’s the reason why: their native language uses many fewer sounds, and you are asking them to make sounds which are completely outside of their normal inventory. By contrast, there’s only a couple of consonants in Japanese, /f/ and /r/ – think of fujisan 富士山 ‘Mt Fuji’ and raku 楽 ‘pleasant’ – which are not used in most varieties of English as a matter of course, and even with these you can get away with using English /f/ and /r/ and not sound too odd. So, Japanese phonology is no problem – what about the grammar?
Well, again, compared to English, Japanese grammar is relatively unproblematic: there’s no number for nouns (isu 椅子 is both ‘chair’ and ‘chairs’); no gender for nouns, as in many European languages; no case endings for nouns, as in German or Russian, for example (isu is always isu, whether it’s the subject, object or indirect object of a sentence); no person for verbs (iku 行く is ‘I go’, ‘he goes’, etc.) – you should try a language like Cherokee which, if I can remember back to my first year Linguistics lectures correctly, doesn’t have person either, but does have inflections for whether an action is perceived by someone else, or is carried out in isolation; only two substantially irregular verbs (iku and kuru 来る ‘come’); only two tenses (past and not-past – and some linguists even argue that Japanese doesn’t have tense at all, just markers for completion of actions); no articles (the/a) and so on. More important than all of these, perhaps, is the language’s general regularity – once you learn a rule, you can follow it and know you won’t really come across any exceptions, so you can learn the language with a fair degree of proficiency quite quickly – unlike English, with its blizzard of exceptions to every rule, confusing nest of tenses, etc. Frankly, it comes as no surprise to me that Japanese need to make a great effort to learn it well: that’s not to say they can’t – as with anything it’s a matter of motivation and opportunity to practice. Many of the young men sent abroad to study after the Meiji Restoration learned English extremely well – keeping diaries in English while away – and they were, of course, extremely well motivated, and it’s the same today: motivated students can do it, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
So, given that Japanese is such an easy language (several of the Arabic specialists came up to me after my presentation and told me I’d almost convinced them to switch to Japanese at this point), why is it that Japanese has a reputation of being a ‘hard’ language? Why is it that that many who start give up, and many others fail to learn it well? Watch this space – I’ll talk about that next week.