On Learning Japanese

I spent ten years of my life studying Japanese. Five years at high school, another year full-time at high school in Japan, three years full-time at  university in New Zealand, and another year full-time at a university in Japan.

I have spent the last ten years forgetting it.

With 2000 characters, each with several, if not multiple, phonetic choices depending on context, it’s not surprising that I am forgetting how to write Japanese. Even Japanese people, who grew up from birth under the Japanese education system, forget how to write their own language if they emigrate. Fortunately, if you’ve learnt how to write Japanese properly, you don’t quite forget how to read it. That’s a small blessing.

Japanese, A Beautifully Complex Writing System, from Smashing Magazine

I recently cleaned out a bunch of stuff and came across a few essays I’d written during my year studying in Fukuoka. I went home a few months later, and spent the next four years teaching rather than learning Japanese, so this must be about as good as my written Japanese ever got. I can still read it easily, but I don’t think I’d be able to write it under exam conditions again.

As you can see, the teacher still found plenty to correct. And as my peer-tutor said one day, as she sat before me, proof-reading one of my diary entries, ‘Stace, I’m constantly amazed at how you never seem to make any mistakes when you speak, yet when I mark your written work, I can see you get lots of particles wrong.’

My theory is that I was indeed making the same mistakes while speaking but they weren’t detected, because I started learning Japanese from native speakers at the age of twelve, while I was still young enough to pick up a perfect Tokyo accent. Having a natural accent means that Japanese interlocutors are constantly mistaking me for being better at Japanese than I ever was. This is a good thing for language development, because I was constantly stretched. People were constantly speaking just a little too fast.

I knew I was pretty good when Japanese people stopped telling me how good my Japanese was and started asking me what I was planning on doing with it, and when I was going home.

I have friends who chose more sensible majors at university. French, for example. I’m not for one moment suggesting that French is easy. I know enough about French to know that it most certainly is not. English speakers find it almost impossible to get the accent right, for instance, unless you’re gifted in that way. The spelling is as idiosyncratic as English spelling, and it only seems to get harder as you go along, not easier.

Apart from the orthography though, which is a time-consuming hassle, what makes Japanese so difficult?

It’s not inherently difficult at all. It is completely different from English, is all. Take an English sentence, say it exactly backwards, and there’s your basic Japanese word order.

Verb conjugation is one thing I’d look at before embarking on another lengthy language acquisition. Verbs are what make languages difficult. Japanese verb conjugation isn’t too bad on a world scale, but verbs do tend to get longer and longer, and ‘passive’ isn’t always passive in meaning — it might simply indicate deference. There’s a horrible, convoluted form of verb called the ‘causative passive’ but it’s not as annoying as the subjunctive of Spanish (which I’ve had a passing dalliance with since).

It’s tiring, living in Japan, constantly tailoring your politeness-level of speech. The Japanese are convinced that only native Japanese themselves can truly judge just how deferential one’s language should be, and I have known white-skinned foreigners living in Japan who seemed to have given up and addressed anyone and everyone in the same colloquial style. And got away with it. (Asian-looking friends don’t seem to be extended the same grace, however.) I always tried my best to modify my verb endings and vocabulary according to my company, but it is tiring. It is hard both grammatically and psychologically. We English speakers have it so easy in that regard. Leave out the fucks and shits and you’re pretty much fine talking to grandma. You don’t have to learn an entire different verb conjugation. And if you go too polite in Japanese, you sound ingratiatingly insulting.

There’s no ‘the’ and ‘a’, and the Japanese don’t bother with plurals unless there’s ambiguity. They don’t have prepositions like ‘to’ and ‘at’ — instead, they have post-positional particles, and as long as you get these right, you can swap words around and put them where you like, to a certain extent. Japanese speakers swap words around with a mind to style and emphasis, however, because their intonation is very different from English — it’s not a tonal language like Chinese — but with so many homophones you need to get your intonation right.

Intonation differs significantly from place to place. So does word choice. Oh, and grammar. Even at the familial level, Japanese is an endlessly pliable language, and I noticed families making up their own words. And grammar.

The Japanese tend to leave the ends off their sentences, leaving English natives scratching our heads at times. On the up side, if you can’t be bothered conjugating a difficult verb, you can leave it dangling and your Japanese friend will either finish off your sentence (which they get right the overwhelming majority of the time) or everyone will know exactly what you mean and you can all move on. The benefits of a SOV language became apparent when I spoke bad Japanese.

We don’t have any ‘particles’ in English; we instead use prepositions to show how words relate to each other in a sentence. Native Korean speakers find Japanese easy in this respect, because even though Korean and Japanese aren’t related (according to historical linguists, anyway) they have a very, very similar structure. Yet if you start with a base of English, it will take you at least five years of studying full-time before you fully understand the difference between ‘wa’ and ‘ga’. These two little particles appear in pretty much every Japanese sentence that ever existed, so when I was told it would take five years, after quizzing a high-school teacher (who’d lived in Japan for 20) I couldn’t quite believe his reply — FIVE YEARS?! — but as I came to the end of my five years of full-time Japanese study I indeed felt I was starting to get a real grip on the buggers. He was right.

And then I went back to New Zealand and taught high school Japanese for another four years and I was constantly correcting ‘wa’ and ‘ga’ in the most basic of sentences composed by my students and they would sigh and roll their eyes and say, ‘What IS the difference between ‘wa’ and ‘ga’ and I would tell them that entire books have been written on the subject, and it would take five years of full-time study… and no-one ever believed me, I’m sure.

I have never learnt another foreign language to a level of good fluency, but I’m told I started with a hard one. Truth is, if I had realised at the beginning how hard I would have to work to learn Japanese, I might’ve had second thoughts, because I’m naturally lazy. But I really, really loved studying Japanese. I can’t explain why, but even today, if I pull out my billions of flash cards, I find it relaxing to go through and test myself, writing out the characters over and over, perfecting the stroke order. It has a calming effect on me. Just as well, because at university we had to memorise fifty of them per week — whilst not forgetting any of the previous fifty — and we were expected to write any and all of them during the end-of-year exams.

By third year, the overwhelming majority of my classmates were recent Asian immigrants who could already write the characters and understood their meanings. They had only to learn the Japanese pronunciations. (Though as mentioned above, this alone is no mean feat.)

I loved Japanese because the longer I studied it, the more logical it seemed. The Japanese have a surprisingly convenient language. It doesn’t seem like it, does it, with their massive numbers of characters and another two syllabaries on top. (Instead of an ‘italics’ version, the Japanese invented an entire new syllabary ie. an entirely new alphabet.) They like to work hard, those Japanese.

But once you are a fluent reader of Japanese — and I was, briefly — you begin to see why Asian cultures aren’t likely to throw out their cumbersome calligraphy and adopt our minuscule 26 letters anytime soon. (In fact, they keep adding more characters to the government set, now that they can write with the aid of computers.)

Once you can read kanji (Chinese characters — the same kind used in Japanese, even though they continue to be called ‘Chinese’) you can read anything Japanese, even if you’ve never seen the word before. You can look at the meanings of the individual characters that make up the new word and , aided by context, you immediately know what it would mean. (You may not know how it’s pronounced, but this doesn’t seem to bother Japanese people, who are used to segregating in their heads the written from the spoken.) Years ago, when privileged kids were still learning Greek and Latin in school, English speakers would have had the same privilege: their education in those languages would help them in deciphering the meaning of an unfamiliar word by morpheme.

I look back on the years I studied Japanese, and I wonder if I might’ve been better off studying something more useful to my life here in rural Australia, like entomology rather than etymology, but I have no regrets. As a wise person once said, there’s no point regretting anything in life unless you’re prepared to regret every single thing that happened between that decision and now.

If I hadn’t studied Japanese I would never have met Debbie, my Australian roommate in Munakata, who five years later introduced me to my husband, who I met up with in England.

Still, did I spend way too long on this pursuit, and would I recommend anyone else do the same? I’m not sure, to be honest. The high school where I taught Japanese dropped it as an option completely after I left, replacing it with Spanish, as did most of the other high schools in the area. There’s no doubt about it: the New Zealand assessment system strongly privileges Spanish and French, in which it takes far fewer hours for an English speaking monoglot to reach a similar level of fluency, yet the achievement based assessment (NCEA) is identical across all of the international languages. For the ‘Latin’ advantages alone, I would recommend Spanish. Not only does it help you with English, there’s the fact that Spanish will come in very handy if you ever backpack around South America… or Spain.

But learning ANY language is better than learning no language. Most (not quite all) of the people I admire for speaking and writing English really, really well have learned a foreign language to a high level. For that reason alone, I wasn’t wasting my time.

Then there are the people who say that they can learn a language in three months, Tim Ferris style. One such person is Benny The Irish Polyglot.

I have no reason to doubt these guys, because they have indeed learnt lots of languages — and I figure if I learnt new languages the same way I learnt Japanese, it would take me several lifetimes to reach that kind of fluency. I might’ve been doing it wrong.

Have you ever learnt a new language in a short space of time? Do you think that some people are naturally better at learning a language than others?

I think so. I’ve known quite a few foreigners in Japan. Some can live there for ten years and speak hardly a word. Others achieve a level of fluency remarkably quickly. Two stick out in my mind: both young men at the time, who for some reason picked up Japanese really, really well.

Is it possible that they never lost Chomsky’s so-called language acquisition device, the one that most of us lose sometime before our seventh birthdays? One of those young men was Russian — one of the hardest languages in the world, even for natives — and the other is a bilingual Australian who grew up speaking German in the home.

I would dearly love to know the answer to all of that. Oh and also, I would like my language acquisition device back, please.