A Look at the Japanese Language

From here. A look at Japanese, with a view to how hard it is to learn for a speaker of English Japanese also uses a symbolic alphabet, but the symbols themselves are sometime undecipherable in that even Japanese speakers will sometimes encounter written Japanese and will say that they don’t know how to pronounce it. I don’t mean that they mispronounce it; that would make sense. I mean they don’t have the slightest clue how to say the word! This problem is essentially nonexistent in a language like English. The Japanese orthography is one of the most difficult to use of any orthography. There are over 2,000 frequently used characters in three different symbolic alphabets that are frequently mixed together in confusing ways. Due to the large number of frequently used symbols, it’s said that even Japanese adults learn a new symbol a day a ways into adulthood. The Japanese writing system is probably crazier than the Chinese writing system. Japanese borrowed Chinese characters. But then they gave each character several pronunciations, and in some cases as many as 24. Next they made two syllabaries using another set of characters, then over the next millenia came up with all sorts of contradictory and often senseless rules about when to use the syllabaries and when to use the character set. Later on they added a Romanization to make things even worse. Chinese uses 5-6,000 characters regularly, while Japanese only uses around 2,000. But in Chinese, each character has only one or maybe two pronunciations. In Japanese, there are complicated rules about when and how to combine the hiragana with the characters. These rules are so hard that many native speakers still have problems with them. There are also personal and place names (proper nouns) which are given completely arbitrary pronunciations often totally at odds with the usual pronunciation of the character. There are some writers, typically of literature, who deliberately choose to use kanji that even Japanese people cannot read. For instance, Ryuu  Murakami  uses the odd symbols 擽る、, 轢く、and 憑ける. The Japanese system is made up of three different systems: the katakana and hiragana (the kana) and the kanji, similar to the hanzi used in Chinese. Chinese has at least 85,000 hanzi. The number of kanji is much less than that, but kanji often have more than one meaning in contrast to hanzi. Speaking Japanese is not as difficult as everyone says, and many say it’s fairly easy. However, there is a problem similar to English in that one word can be pronounced in multiple ways, like read and read in English. A common problem is that a perfectly grammatically correct sentence uttered by a Japanese language learner, while perfectly correct, is still not acceptable by Japanese speakers because “we just don’t say it that way.” The Japanese speaker often cannot tell why the unacceptable sentence you uttered is not ok. On the other hand, this problem may be common to more languages than Japanese. There is also a class of Japanese called “honorifics” or “keigo” that is quite hard to master. Honorifics are meant to show respect and to indicate one’s place or status in the social hierarchy. These typically effect verbs but can also affect particles and prefixes. They are usually formed by archaic or highly irregular verbs. However, there are both regular and irregular honorific forms. Furthermore, there are five different levels of honorifics. Honorifics vary depending on who you are and who you are talking to. In addition, gender comes into play. Although it is true the Japanese young people are said to not understand the intricacies of keigo, it is still expected that they know how to speak this well. Consequently, many young Japanese will opt out of certain conversations because they feel that their keigo is not very good. Books explaining how to use keigo properly have been big sellers among young people in Japan in recent years as young people try to appear classy, refined or cultured. In addition, Japanese born overseas (especially in the US), while often learning Japanese pretty well, typically have a very poor understanding of keigo. Instead of embarrassing themselves by not using keigo or using it wrong, these Japanese speakers often prefer to speak in English to Japanese people rather than bother with keigo-less Japanese. Overcorrection in keigo is also a problem when hypercorrection leads to someone making errors in keigo due to “trying to hard.” This looks like phony or insincere politeness and is often worse than not using keigo at all. One wild thing about Japanese is counting forms. You actually use different numeral sets depending on what it is you are counting! There are dozens of different ways of counting things which involve the use of a complex numerical noun classifier system. Japanese grammar is often said to be simple, but that does not appear to be the case on closer examination. Particles are especially vexing. Verbs engage in all sorts of wild behavior, and adverbs often act like verbs. Meanwhile, honorifics change the behavior of all words. There are particles like ha and ga that have many different meanings. One problem is that all noun modifiers, even phrases, must precede the nouns they are modifying. It’s often said that Japanese has no case, but this is not true. Actually, there are seven cases in Japanese. The aforementioned ga is a clitic meaning nominative, made is terminative case, -no is genitive and -o is accusative. In this sentence: The plane that was supposed to arrive at midnight, but which had been delayed by bad weather, finally arrived at 1 AM. Everything underlined must precede the noun plane: Was supposed to arrive at midnight, but had been delayed by bad weather, the plane finally arrived at 1 AM. One of the main problems with Japanese grammar is that it is going to seem to so different from the sort of grammar and English speaker is likely to be used to. Speaking Japanese is one thing, but reading and writing it is a whole new ballgame. It’s perfectly possible to know the meaning of every kanji and the meaning of every word in a sentence, but you still can’t figure out the meaning of the sentence because you can’t figure out how the sentence is stuck together in such a way as to create meaning. However, Japanese grammar has the advantage of being quite regular. For instance, there are only four frequently used irregular verbs. Like Chinese, the nouns are not marked for number or gender. However, while Chinese is forgiving of errors, if you mess up one vowel in a Japanese sentence, you may end up with incomprehension. The real problem is that the Japanese you learn in class is one thing, and the Japanese of the street is another. One problem is that in street Japanese, the subject is typically not stated in a sentence. Instead it is inferred through such things as honorific terms or the choice of words you used in the sentence. Probably no one goes crazier on negatives than the Japanese. Particularly in academic writing, triple and quadruple negatives are common, and can be quite confusing. Yet there are problems with the agglutinative nature of Japanese. It’s a completely different syntactic structure than English. Often if you translate a sentence from Japanese to English it will just look like a meaningless jumble of words. Although many Japanese learners feel it’s fairly easy to learn, surveys of language professors continue to rate Japanese as one of the hardest languages to learn. A study by the US Navy concluded that the hardest language the corpsmen had to learn in the course of service was Japanese. However, it’s generally agreed that Japanese is easier to learn than Korean. Japanese speakers are able to learn Korean pretty easily. Japanese is rated 5, hardest of all. Classical Japanese is much harder to read than Modern Japanese. Though you can get by with much less kanji when reading the modern language, you will need a minimum knowledge of 3,000 kanji for reading Classical Japanese, and that’s using a dictionary. There are only about 500-1,000 frequently used characters, but there are countless other words that will come up in your reading especially say special words used in the Imperial Court. Many words have more than one meaning, and unless you know this, you will be lost. 東宮(とうぐう) for instance means Eastern Palace. However, it also means Crown Prince because his residence was to the east of the Emperor’s. The movie The Seven Samurai (set in the late 1500’s) seems to use some sort of Classical Japanese, or at least Classical vocabulary and syntax with modern pronunciation. Japanese language learners say they can’t understand a word of the archaic Japanese used in this movie. Classical Japanese gets 5, hardest of all.

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7 thoughts on “A Look at the Japanese Language”

  1. . A study by the US Navy concluded that the hardest language the corpsmen had to learn in the course of service was Japanese. However, it’s generally agreed that Japanese is easier to learn than Korean. Japanese speakers are able to learn Korean pretty easily.
    Japanese is rated 5, hardest of all.
    I’ve heard though that Hangul is easy to learn and scientific — not sure about actual spoken language

  2. “Chinese uses 5-6,000 characters regularly, while Japanese only uses around 2,000.”

    Actually that’s really a myth built around the Joyo Kanji (Common Use Chinese Character) list the U.S. forced Japan to adopt after WWII. You need about 3,000 to be properly literate in Japanese. In school kids learn approximately 2000 from 1st to 12th grade. You learn more unofficially in college or as you read literature, not to mention a few hundred more for names alone which are often historical variants of Joyo Kanji.

    I routinely encounter Kanji in mundane everyday publications that are not Joyo Kanji. With that said, some Joyo Kanji are very rare and only included in the list because some government bureaus or jurisdictions include them in their name.

    My rough estimates are

    1,000 Kanji as the bare minimum to communicate in a non-literary fashion

    3,000-4,000 for serious literature or technical matters, above college level. Less than this will require dictionary look up quite frequently depending on what you are reading.

  3. “Aozora Bunko (青空文庫, literally the “Blue Sky Library”, also known as the “Open Air Library”) is a Japanese digital library. This online collection encompasses several thousands of works of Japanese-language fiction and non-fiction. These include out-of-copyright books or works that the authors wish to make freely available. ”


    In order to read books form the Aozora Bunko library a Redditor posted these estimates:


    “tl;dr So when it comes to reading Aozora Bunko books, here’s a convenient scale for kanji knowledge:

    <1000 – Forget about it

    1000-2000- There's a decent collection of short stories that you can read, relying on a dictionary.

    2000-2500 You can read more difficult short stories, and perhaps one of the easier novels, relying on a dictionary.

    2500-3000 – You can read about 2/3 of the works in the library, relying on a dictionary.

    4000 – You can read just about every book in the library, assuming you don't mind using the dictionary frequently.

    5000 – You can read just about every book in the library, assuming you don't mind using the dictionary occasionally.

    7744 – You can read every text in Aozora Bunko. Hail to the king."

  4. Personally, I know about 1,500 kanji well enough to read and recognize them. I can identify another 1,000 in the sense that if I see one, I’ll know I’ve seen it before but I just know or remember the meaning and pronunciation. Although, I sometimes I can guess at the genera meaning or pronunciation.

    So my brain has some cognition of about 2,5000 and I’m not even a Jap! With that said, stupid Japanese people probably know less then 2,000 because they forgot them or never really learned in school.

    Kanji knowledge is very likely bell-curve-distributed like IQ with the 50 percentile knowing the 2,000 they learned in grade school. Most college educated people I know claim to know close to 3,000 or more. If you’re Japanese and smart enough to make it into Mensa, 130+ IQ, 98th percentile, you damn well know 3,000+ kanji. A 135+ IQ, 99th percentile, and you can easily know 4,000 just from reading voraciously.

  5. EDIT: “I can identify another 1,000 in the sense that if I see one, I’ll know I’ve seen it before but I just DON’T* know or remember the meaning pronunciation.”

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