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What makes Japanese so difficult?

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What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby LittleKey » Sun 05.03.2009 6:25 am

I've always heard Japanese as being a really hard language to learn. Thousands of characters to learn, usually a completely unrelated language to your native one, strange grammar, so on and so forth. And these opinions come from people who know linguistics better than I do. And here in the U.S. at least, every time you mention learning Japanese, people say "That's so cool, I've heard it's really hard." But lately I've started to dip my toes into Japanese; learning some basic sentence structure and particles, the kana, a little vocabulary, and what I've noticed so far is...

It's not that difficult! It took about 4 days to learn the kana (I stopped for awhile, but overall study time-wise), what little vocab I know seems to be staying in my mind, and the grammar seems different, but not difficult. I haven't really started kanji yet (other than about 20 of them) but I'm confident that I can efficiently learn them.

So first of all, I'm asking: Is there something I'm missing here? Am I going to meet up with some grammar concept or something that completely baffles me? Will it take an extremely long time to understand spoken Japanese?

And the overarching question here is: What, (if anything) is the reason why Japanese is a difficult language to learn?
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby JaySee » Sun 05.03.2009 7:49 am

I think in the initial stages of learning any language, it might seem that things are easy. That's because textbooks start out with the most basic bits of grammar and sentence structures, which also tend to be the easiest ones. And whenever a basic concept is difficult, it is usually heavily abstracted so that beginners don't get lost and lose interest. For Japanese the difference between the particles "wa" and "ga" immediately springs to mind. These particles you'll probably learn very early on, and the explanation of how they interact will be quite basic (which might give you the idea that there's really nothing to it), while in fact entire libraries have been written about this topic. I think that if you continue studying and reach intermediate level, you'll realise that many things you thought you knew turn out to be much more complicated on closer inspection, and you'll find out that there are much more quirks and features to the language that you hadn't even been aware of at all when you first started learning it. Not just in the area of grammar, but also vocabulary and - very important for completely unrelated languages spoken in different cultures - idiomatic expressions.

As for kanji, learning 20 of them I agree is not hard. Elementary kanji tend to have clear meanings and their shapes are fairly distinct. Let me know if you still find them easy when you've learnt 1000 and they all start to look alike :P
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby furrykef » Sun 05.03.2009 8:57 am

For me it's the vocabulary. I learn Spanish vocabulary quite easily (even when it's not similar to anything I know from English), yet Japanese vocabulary seems to go in one ear and out the other...

On the other hand, I find Japanese grammar to be mostly simple. Yeah, there are tricky points, but what language doesn't have those?

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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby astaroth » Sun 05.03.2009 11:12 am

I think Japanese is rather a logical language: usually grammatical constructions follow quite strict rules. Of course most of those rules are broken in spoken and casual language but otherwise it would be too boring.
When I started learning Japanese I had the feeling I had when I started learning Latin in High School of a very logical, very constructive language. This is an aspect I love of both Japanese and Latin.
That being said, both languages, as any language, depart from those rules for "scenic effect", think of a text of Caesar's (the De Bello Gallico is by far the easiest work ever written in Latin) or even Cicero's and compare those with Lucretius's and you should get an idea.

What I find somewhat difficult of Japanese is the agglutination of grammar, that is (probably it's not the appropriate term the one I used) when a noun, adjective or verb gets modified and then gets modified again and again. Makes the language somewhat predictable but the words jumble in my tongue. I think my neighbors heard me a few weeks ago repeating several times: はらわなければなりません or my favorite あたたかくなかった ... I bet they have some hell of tongue twisters :D
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Sun 05.03.2009 11:26 am

I would say the difficulty of Japanese comes from a number of factors:

- The system of politeness, which affects every single thing you say and has so many small degrees of difference that it can be difficult to know which forms to use in any given situation
- The agglunative system (as astaroth pointed out); one of the CCs from Japanese the Spoken Language has 選ばなければならなくなったら (which means "If it became necessary to choose")
- Relative clauses, which are reversed from English -- the modifying elements go before, rather than after, what is modified. This is simple at first glance but takes a long time to get to where you can process them in real time without having to go back and analyze them

Then if you're also talking about reading, the writing system is immensely complicated; not only are there thousands of characters to learn, but most characters have multiple ways of being pronounced depending on the context, and in addition you have two syllaberies that you have to be able to read fluently.
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby JaySee » Sun 05.03.2009 11:59 am

astaroth wrote:I think Japanese is rather a logical language: usually grammatical constructions follow quite strict rules. Of course most of those rules are broken in spoken and casual language but otherwise it would be too boring.
When I started learning Japanese I had the feeling I had when I started learning Latin in High School of a very logical, very constructive language. This is an aspect I love of both Japanese and Latin.
That being said, both languages, as any language, depart from those rules for "scenic effect", think of a text of Caesar's (the De Bello Gallico is by far the easiest work ever written in Latin) or even Cicero's and compare those with Lucretius's and you should get an idea.


If you look at literary Japanese or Latin you might get the impression that the rules are very stict and it's all very logical (if by that you mean lacking irregularity), but literary language in general tends to be much "stiffer" and conservative than spoken language or casual written language, so this is not strange. Judging Latin by looking at Lucretius's writings is like judging English based on Shakespeare's sonnets. The language used is absolutely not representative for anything but the literary language itself, which makes up only a fraction of the whole and is the most artifical of all manners of linguistic expression. In Japanese too there exists a rather large gap between the literary language and the spoken language. So I think you've got it wrong; rather than saying that the rules of the written language are broken in the spoken language, I'd say the written language adds artifical rules which aren't present in the spoken language, perhaps giving you the idea that the language might have stricter or more logical rules in general (because written language is all we've got in the case of Latin, this idea might be especially pervasive here).

Note that I'm not saying Japanese isn't "logical", the morphology is certainly a lot less irregular than that of most European languages (including Latin which is a complete mess in this regard).
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby yukamina » Sun 05.03.2009 12:31 pm

A lot of people find Japanese grammar difficult because it's different. You have to reprogram the way you form sentences. I don't find it too hard, maybe you don't either.

In my opinion the other aspects of Japanese that make it difficult(for English speakers at least) to learn are these:
Learning kanji
Reading kanji, remembering the readings for kanji words
Coming across kanji words you don't know, because you won't know what the readings are
Vocabulary can be difficult to remember because it's different
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby furrykef » Sun 05.03.2009 2:08 pm

astaroth wrote:(the De Bello Gallico is by far the easiest work ever written in Latin)


Wow, you're not kidding. I can actually read some of it.

astaroth wrote:What I find somewhat difficult of Japanese is the agglutination of grammar, that is (probably it's not the appropriate term the one I used) when a noun, adjective or verb gets modified and then gets modified again and again.


That is indeed called agglutination. :)

Yudan Taiteki wrote:and in addition you have two syllaberies that you have to be able to read fluently.


I dunno, I think that's a drop in the bucket compared to everything else.

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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby LittleKey » Sun 05.03.2009 2:44 pm

furrykef wrote:
Yudan Taiteki wrote:and in addition you have two syllaberies that you have to be able to read fluently.


I dunno, I think that's a drop in the bucket compared to everything else.

- Kef


Yeah, the kana aren't really that intimidating. The worst part about them are the katakana shi and tsu, and so and n. They're so similar, I mix them up sometimes. And kef, I know what you mean about vocabulary. I'm learning Spanish too, and while I could easily see me learning 100 new words in one day, I don't think I could learn more than around 35 in Japanese per day. Although I think that once I became more advanced in Japanese, I could learn more and more words per day; in my opinion, the fact that Japanese is completely unrelated to our native language only matters in the beginning. After awhile, you start to get used to how the words are related to each other and what not.

Also, I realized that when I said I would probably learn kanji well, I was confusing learning them with learning how to use them. Meaning, I think just learning the character for each word (RTK method) won't be terribly difficult for me; but actually learning the different pronounciations, and compounds and stuff for them will be the harder part.
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Sun 05.03.2009 3:15 pm

furrykef wrote:
Yudan Taiteki wrote:and in addition you have two syllaberies that you have to be able to read fluently.


I dunno, I think that's a drop in the bucket compared to everything else.


It's still a piece of the puzzle, though. There's a big difference between just recognizing individual kana and actually being able to read kana fluently in a text. I've seen people who have studied for several years who still struggle with reading kana, particularly katakana.

(Pronunciation and kana reading are two big things that people tend to dismiss as "simple" and then cripple their Japanese for a long time -- I do think they are relatively simple, they're just not quite as simple as people think they are. So you get people who have been studying for years and years and still can't pronounce ん correctly or read katakana fluently.)
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby yukamina » Mon 05.04.2009 11:09 am

Yudan Taiteki wrote: I've seen people who have studied for several years who still struggle with reading kana, particularly katakana.

They must not study very much. Counting study time in years isn't really accurate. One person could be studying 3 hours a day for 5 years, while someone else is studying 2 hours a week for 5 years. I can't imagine the former having any trouble reading kana.
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby NocturnalOcean » Mon 05.04.2009 11:23 am

yukamina wrote:
Yudan Taiteki wrote: I've seen people who have studied for several years who still struggle with reading kana, particularly katakana.

They must not study very much. Counting study time in years isn't really accurate. One person could be studying 3 hours a day for 5 years, while someone else is studying 2 hours a week for 5 years. I can't imagine the former having any trouble reading kana.


I have been studying Japanese for a little over 3 years now, lately I haven't taken University classes so it's not as aggresive studying at the moment. I can say that I can read kana with not problem, but NO way can I read kana as fast as a native Japanese speaker. Often when I watch some programs on Japanese tv, a string of texts comes on the tv at bottom, going from right to left, in a speed where native speakers have no problem. But I often cannot keep up.

Of course you could come with arguments that my kana reading isn't that good after all, but I still agree with Yudan here, even if you can read kana perfectly without mistakes, it still takes a long time to get the fluency of kana at same level as a native speaker.
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby astaroth » Mon 05.04.2009 11:29 am

Yudan Taiteki wrote:still can't pronounce ん correctly

I often hear this ... but I quite don't understand what really means: I mean what's so difficult to the ん sound? (not saying I'm pronouncing Japanese perfectly ... I'm certain I'm not ...)
yukamina wrote:
Yudan Taiteki wrote: I've seen people who have studied for several years who still struggle with reading kana, particularly katakana.

They must not study very much. Counting study time in years isn't really accurate. One person could be studying 3 hours a day for 5 years, while someone else is studying 2 hours a week for 5 years. I can't imagine the former having any trouble reading kana.

You also have examples of people living in a country and still not being able to speak the language (or even care to try).
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astaroth wrote:the De Bello Gallico is by far the easiest work ever written in Latin

Wow, you're not kidding. I can actually read some of it.

Indeed I wasn't :wink: isn't it great? When we were having test in high school, everybody was reciting the mantra "please be Caesar, please be Caesar ..."
After all Caesar was a general, a pretty down to earth kinda guy and his chronicles of the Gallic Wars and the Civil War (de Bello Civile) are a mirror of that, though I remember the latter to be slightly more difficult to translate than the former.
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby kurisuto » Mon 05.04.2009 11:31 am

yukamina wrote:I can't imagine the former having any trouble reading kana.


For what it's worth : I didn't study for 5 years, but still, I do have troubles reading katakana. I read kanji and hiragana way faster (it's even more obvious when I write). We could draw a parallel with what was discussed in the "more than 2000 jouyou kanji" thread : it really depends on what you're interested in and your exposition to katakana (I mean, someone who reads things about Japanese culture would probably have more troubles reading katakana than someone who is interested in computers).
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Re: What makes Japanese so difficult?

Postby NocturnalOcean » Mon 05.04.2009 11:35 am

Try say 店員さんは千円を拾った
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