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If it weren't for the writing system...

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If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby Tatsu no Ou-sama » Fri 09.04.2009 10:36 pm

...would Japanese still be considered one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn? I suppose this same question can be asked about Chinese or any other language with an incredibly hard script. Every time people talk about hard languages, Japanese and Chinese always come up because of the writing, but this seems rather unfair in a sense. The writing system is merely there to represent the language and isn't technically part of the language itself since various different writing systems could be used to write Japanese/Chinese in theory.

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages.[3] Of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and proficiency in reading (for native English speakers who already know other languages), requiring 88 weeks, are: "Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean", with Japanese being the most difficult.


So according to this Japanese is the most difficult, but would it still make it as one of the 5 most difficult languages to reach proficiency if it were romanized?


So what's your opinion? Except for the writing system, what makes Japanese so difficult if anything? And if it is still difficult, is it safe to say that it is still one of the hardest (top 3 or top 5 perhaps) for English speakers ? And if without the writing system Japanese ISNT considered the hardest anymore, than what would take its place as the "supreme" language to learn?

PS-I realize that since this is a Japanese forum most people here won't know anything about Chinese, but if you do, please share your insight.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby mbridge » Fri 09.04.2009 11:24 pm

I think it's the SOV grammar that throws most people off, not the writing system.

In the 50s or 60s, some Japanese writers tried to suggest a romanized writing system, but it was beaten down without hesitation (kind of like the 1920s decree that outlined that Japanese will use a . instead of a 。)
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby furrykef » Fri 09.04.2009 11:34 pm

Tatsu no Ou-sama wrote:...would Japanese still be considered one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn?


Probably. Korean is still considered one of the hardest languages, and its writing system is pretty easy. The hardest major language would still almost certainly be Chinese, though; its tonal system makes it very tough to even become comprehensible in the language. However, I don't really know enough about Arabic to be able compare its difficulty. It could actually be a pretty tough language if you want to speak the colloquial language, because there is relatively little material on real spoken Arabic (as opposed to the "fake" dialect Modern Standard Arabic, which nobody speaks except as a lingua franca). But of course that doesn't say anything about how hard it would be to learn if good materials were available....

Of course, there are many less popular languages, such as various African/Native American/Aboriginal languages, that could be tougher than Chinese. A tonal polysynthetic language would probably be a nightmare. (A polysynthetic language is a language that stuffs an entire sentence into one or two really long words.)

mbridge wrote:I think it's the SOV grammar that throws most people off, not the writing system.


I dunno about that. It rarely poses problems for my comprehension of a sentence, and I never found it a confusing concept at all. Now, it may indeed pose problems for figuring out sentences quickly, or to be able to form them quickly, but that's just a matter of practice.

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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby keatonatron » Sat 09.05.2009 2:17 am

Also note that this list was created by the US department of state, with Americans in mind.

For a Korean person, learning Japanese is easier than learning English. :wink:

It's kind of a difficult question though... I know many people don't even bother with the writing system because it's difficult, and are completely illiterate... But I don't know if any of them are fluent speakers. The only fluent speakers I know are also really good at reading and writing.

So, if it is your position that being able to read and write is essential to learning a language, and we all agree that Chinese characters are hard to learn, then logically Japanese's writing system would be making the language harder to learn.

Although, pronunciation is really easy :P So it seems like you should be able to have successful conversations much earlier in your studies than with a language where a tonal mistake can change the meaning of a word.

I guess from where I am now, I've lost all ability to judge how difficult a language is. I'm studying French now, and it seems really easy (because of my backgrounds in English and Spanish).
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby Minarai » Sat 09.05.2009 8:06 am

Greetings,

undoubtedly, Japanese is one of the most difficult languange to learn.
At first, what can be considered the most complex "thing" about Nihongo, its his writing system of course.
But except this last one, for me, what makes Japanese an hard language to learn is its grammar.

If I read something written in Japanese maybe I'll understand also a few thing. But (for now) I can't imagine me understanding a talk made by a Japanese person. I could understand just simple sentences but not an hard talk.
This is because (I speak for my language) Italian is so far from the Japanese grammar.
It would be very diffcult for me (now) to follow a speech in which the verb is put to the last of the phrase and in which relatives or causals propositions are preceding the main period [If I study severely I hope that one day I will, but till that day I will need a loooot of practise]
Modern Japanese is too different from the modern Italian...

Tatsu no Ou-sama wrote:PS-I realize that since this is a Japanese forum most people here won't know anything about Chinese, but if you do, please share your insight.


I don't know much about Chinese language but I am starting to study it and ,of course, except the writing systiem, I would be of the idea that Chinese grammar itself, is more easy if compared with that one of the Japan. This is because Chinese grammar sounds more "natural" for me >Take care of the SVO system for example...

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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby mbridge » Sat 09.05.2009 8:34 am

furrykef wrote:
Tatsu no Ou-sama wrote:...would Japanese still be considered one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn?


Probably. Korean is still considered one of the hardest languages, and its writing system is pretty easy.

The reason why Korean is "hard" is probably because we have (supposedly. I had no idea about this until I read about it on Korean wiki) six different levels of formality, and there's all these wacky dialects that us standard speakers can't make much sense out of unless we get a translator.

Like 食べます (to eat). The dictionary form is 食べる, and in Korean, 먹다.
When you say it in Japanese, there's pretty much four/five ways to say it:
食え (くえ) -- kinda rude
食べて (たべて) -- informal
食べてください -- polite
召し上がってください -- formal
召し上がって -- formal but informal?? (mind boggling!)

Look at what frightening things happen to it as we move throughout the tense spectrum from the kind of speech you would use to talk about (livestock or some times pet) animals to members of the royal court (an archaic form of speech only used nowadays on historical drama series):

(ご飯) 食べる
(밥) 처먹어. (You say this to like, a cow. Or the pet dog you didn't want ;_; Sometimes angry husbands say this to their kids or wife.)
(밥) 먹어. (You say this to kids that aren't yours, or younger siblings, or pets that you adore)
(밥) 먹어라. (You say this to your own adorable grandkids and kids, your students, or a group of kids)
(밥) 먹어요. (You say this to your husband to get him to eat. Girls use ~yo endings a lot. Some unmarried men use this to tell anyone to eat, including teachers and adult strangers if they aren't certain what else to use.)
(밥) 먹으세요. (Old Wives say this if they are telling a group of men to eat. Men also say this to tell a teacher or adult who is not their parents or an elderly to eat.)
(진지) 드세요. (Young Wives say this if they are telling a group of men to eat, or their in-laws. Men say this to a teacher or a grandparent they are familiar with, or an elderly stranger. Young girls [unmarried] also use this to people who look older than them.)
(진지를) 드십시오. (for some reason he first thing that hit my mind was "this is how the Korean mafia talks." Men who are asking an elderly person they don't know nor are related to would probably use this too.)
(진지를) 드시옵소서. (Archaic term that was once used to address members of the royal court.)
(진지를) 젓수시오소서. (Archaic term that was once used to address members of the royal court.)

And our good friend who was borrowed from China: 식사 하세요. (食事しなさい -- I don't know if this is an expression that Japanese people actually use, but it's a literal translation of the Korean expression.)

You may be thinking "oh, well you guys probably just stick to 2 or 3 formalities in everyday life," but besides the archaic ones I used every single kind of formality every single day. o_O it was so confusing that I typically tried not to talk to anyone that didn't look like my age, because figuring out who gets the upper hand and who gets the lower hand and exactly how high or how low it has to get would be such an embarrassing process, and sometimes also humiliating.

I wasn't a big kid, so when I went to an after school academy (a 塾, so to speak) the other kids in there would be all "Who do you think you are? How old are you?!" and if you were younger you were in big trouble but if you were older you could demand they call you お姉さん and talk politely to you over a one year difference in age. And if you're related to whoever is talking to you so rudely, you could even go as far as figuring out who is an older generation, and in that case age doesn't matter, because if you're the older generation, even if you are 1 and the younger generation is 29 years old, the 29 year old would have to call you oneesan or obasan or obaasan or hiobaasan -- however many generations older you were.

I am so glad I only have to speak English now, where all you have to watch out for is for a few slang words and certain risque subjects.
Last edited by mbridge on Sat 09.05.2009 9:34 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby astaroth » Sat 09.05.2009 9:29 am

Certainly kanji is a part of what makes Japanese hard to learn, but I doubt it would be much easier if it were written all in hiragana (or in katakana or using the Latin alphabet).
The various levels of speech (and especially how to master them) is also another obvious part. And so is the grammatical structure (though I might say at least Japanese is consistently SOV ... not like Latin in which only the verb of the principal sentence comes at the end ...)

... honestly I have no idea of what makes Japanese the hardest language on earth (to learn for an American native speaker) ... what I know is that any list of this kind "leaves the time that they can find" (to literally translate an Italian idiom), that is they'd be interesting to know were I playing Trivial Pursuit, but they all lack the most important component: the subjectivity of the learning. For instance many would say Maths and Physics are difficult subjects, but to some they happen to be as natural as playing piano to others. This doesn't mean to be smarter than others, it's simply a natural predisposition.

mbridge wrote:食え (くえ) -- kinda rude
食べて (たべて) -- informal
食べてください -- polite
召し上がってください -- formal
召し上がって -- formal but informal?? (mind boggling!)

You forgot my favorite 食べろ!(a parent talking to their child ... )

(edit: I → You ... I'm sleepy ...)
Last edited by astaroth on Sat 09.05.2009 9:52 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby mbridge » Sat 09.05.2009 9:34 am

ah man, I knew I left something out. I get so excited to prove a point.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby astaroth » Sat 09.05.2009 9:54 am

mbridge wrote:召し上がってください -- formal
召し上がって -- formal but informal?? (mind boggling!)

By the way, is the difference between those two the same as between 食べて and 食べて下さい?
mbridge wrote:ah man, I knew I left something out. I get so excited to prove a point.

Also you might want to add the use of くれる instead of くださる ... :)
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby JaySee » Sat 09.05.2009 10:19 am

furrykef wrote:
mbridge wrote:I think it's the SOV grammar that throws most people off, not the writing system.


I dunno about that. It rarely poses problems for my comprehension of a sentence, and I never found it a confusing concept at all. Now, it may indeed pose problems for figuring out sentences quickly, or to be able to form them quickly, but that's just a matter of practice.


In my opinion, one of the things I have noticed most hearing native speakers of English speak Dutch, is that they often inadvertently project the word order of their native language onto Dutch. Although both languages in many aspects are quite similar - generally making it an easy language to learn for native speakers of English - the word order is quite different, especially in dependent clauses where Dutch (much like German) switches to SOV. (In fact, some linguists have even argued that the underying structure of Dutch is SOV, rather than SVO).

Admittedly, native speakers of English speaking Dutch as a second language are quite a rare breed so it's not like I come across them every day, but I must say that I have yet to meet one who does not every so often mistakenly use SVO where SOV is needed, even among those whose Dutch is otherwise almost perfect. Then again, word order is probably the hardest part of Dutch, and may be even harder to learn for native speakers of English than word order in Japanese. One of the reasons I think this might be the case is that some of it is the same in English and Dutch (much of the main clause), which perhaps leads to a false sense of familiarity, but large parts of it (the dependent clause) are quite different. Due to the similarities speakers might be more inclined to consciously or subconsciously just "copy/paste" things from English (a tendency that could be reinforced by the fact that even if it's wrong, they'll likely still be understood, often unlike in Japanese).

So while in other areas of Dutch this "copy/pasting" from English most of the time works out fine, when it comes to word order it probably often doesn't. Add to that the fact that Dutch word order tends to be rather strict and governed by quite a few rules (plus the juggling with SVO and SOV), and it becomes easy to make mistakes. Compare this to Japanese where you're relatively safe as long as you put the verb at the end, making it consistently very different from English, but perhaps relatively easy to learn and get used to.

mbridge wrote:and there's all these wacky dialects that us standard speakers can't make much sense out of unless we get a translator.


I think incomprehensible dialects is something that exists for speakers of most, if not all standard languages, so that shouldn't be a reason why any particular language is hard.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby AJBryant » Sat 09.05.2009 12:47 pm

mbridge wrote:(밥) 처먹어. (You say this to like, a cow. Or the pet dog you didn't want ;_; Sometimes angry husbands say this to their kids or wife.)
(밥) 먹어. (You say this to kids that aren't yours, or younger siblings, or pets that you adore)
(밥) 먹어라. (You say this to your own adorable grandkids and kids, your students, or a group of kids)
(밥) 먹어요. (You say this to your husband to get him to eat. Girls use ~yo endings a lot. Some unmarried men use this to tell anyone to eat, including teachers and adult strangers if they aren't certain what else to use.)
(밥) 먹으세요. (Old Wives say this if they are telling a group of men to eat. Men also say this to tell a teacher or adult who is not their parents or an elderly to eat.)
(진지) 드세요. (Young Wives say this if they are telling a group of men to eat, or their in-laws. Men say this to a teacher or a grandparent they are familiar with, or an elderly stranger. Young girls [unmarried] also use this to people who look older than them.)
(진지를) 드십시오. (for some reason he first thing that hit my mind was "this is how the Korean mafia talks." Men who are asking an elderly person they don't know nor are related to would probably use this too.)
(진지를) 드시옵소서. (Archaic term that was once used to address members of the royal court.)
(진지를) 젓수시오소서. (Archaic term that was once used to address members of the royal court.)


Not being able to read Korean, this looks... um... interesting, but I have no idea what any of these are. ;)


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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby astaroth » Sat 09.05.2009 12:53 pm

AJBryant wrote:Not being able to read Korean, this looks... um... interesting, but I have no idea what any of these are. ;)

I kinda felt the same ... all these symbols all look the same :oops: not like kanji! :twisted:
Could you provide furig... err romanization for it? I (seriously) would like to have a feeling of how different they sound.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby ニッキー » Sat 09.05.2009 1:52 pm

astaroth wrote:
AJBryant wrote:Not being able to read Korean, this looks... um... interesting, but I have no idea what any of these are. ;)

I kinda felt the same ... all these symbols all look the same :oops: not like kanji! :twisted:
Could you provide furig... err romanization for it? I (seriously) would like to have a feeling of how different they sound.


I don't speak Korean, but I believe they would be romanised something like this (my additions in bold):
mbridge wrote:(밥) 처먹어 (bap cheomeokeo). (You say this to like, a cow. Or the pet dog you didn't want ;_; Sometimes angry husbands say this to their kids or wife.)
(밥) 먹어. (bap meokeo) (You say this to kids that aren't yours, or younger siblings, or pets that you adore)
(밥) 먹어라. (bap meokeora) (You say this to your own adorable grandkids and kids, your students, or a group of kids)
(밥) 먹어요. (bap meokeoyo) (You say this to your husband to get him to eat. Girls use ~yo endings a lot. Some unmarried men use this to tell anyone to eat, including teachers and adult strangers if they aren't certain what else to use.)
(밥) 먹으세요. (bap meokeuseyo) (Old Wives say this if they are telling a group of men to eat. Men also say this to tell a teacher or adult who is not their parents or an elderly to eat.)
(진지) 드세요. (jinji deuseyo) (Young Wives say this if they are telling a group of men to eat, or their in-laws. Men say this to a teacher or a grandparent they are familiar with, or an elderly stranger. Young girls [unmarried] also use this to people who look older than them.)
(진지를) 드십시오. (jinjireul deusipsio) (for some reason he first thing that hit my mind was "this is how the Korean mafia talks." Men who are asking an elderly person they don't know nor are related to would probably use this too.)
(진지를) 드시옵소서. (jinjireul deusiopsoseo) (Archaic term that was once used to address members of the royal court.)
(진지를) 젓수시오소서. (jinjireul jeossusiososeo) (Archaic term that was once used to address members of the royal court.)

mbridge, please correct me if I'm wrong. ^^
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby furrykef » Sat 09.05.2009 2:01 pm

Well, I must say I'm officially turned off from Korean. :lol:
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby phreadom » Sat 09.05.2009 2:14 pm

I was actually interested in learning Korean awhile back, but when I started to read about how difficult it was I kind of backed away from it. :(

Which is a little silly considering that I still went with Japanese... but... ;)
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