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

Japanese, general discussion on the language

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

Postby Zvono11 » Sat 09.26.2009 9:40 am

Tatsu no Ou-sama wrote:...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.



I don´t think that Japanese language is as hard as a lot of people think it is. Japanese writing system is very hard, but grammar isn´t hard at all, it is even easier than English grammar... But, word order in Japanese sounds a little bit weird, because verb comes at the end of a sentence, so you have to get used on it. I personally learn and speak several languages (English, German, Spanish, Japanese and of course my own native language Croatian). The hardest language of those seems to be German and Croatian.... I have some friends from Austria and Hungary who learn Croatian, and they say that it is one of the hardest language in the world; So if you get used on Japanese, it shouldn´t be hard at all....
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby NocturnalOcean » Sun 09.27.2009 2:55 pm

To say that Japanese grammar is not hard at all is such an understatement. Of course we have to look at from which standpoint we are saying this. For a Korean speaker, Japanese grammar won't be as hard. I don't know how close Croatian is to Japanese but at least for me as a Norwegian native speaker, Japanese grammar offers a considerably huge amount of grammar difficulties.

What I find especially difficult about it, is the vast amount of single words that have a grammar meaning in Japanese.
Also the huge amount of grammar points that are so similar but yet have small nuances. This might be the case for most languages, but I feel it is very apparent in Japanese grammar at least.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Sun 09.27.2009 3:28 pm

Japanese grammar looks simple on the surface; beginners are often impressed by the small number of irregular verbs, the lack of gender and verb agreement, and the relatively simple conjugation system for what's presented at first.

As NocturnalOcean indicates, I think the difficulty of a language's grammar can only be stated in comparison to your native language. Because all languages can express all ideas, it means that you're going to have to figure out how to say everything somehow. In fact, sometimes the grammar being "simpler" can actually make things more complicated because you have to deal with seemingly ambiguous constructions that can express multiple meanings, which native speakers know automatically from context.

Japanese lacks a future tense, which makes learning conjugation easier. But of course Japanese can still express that actions occur in the future, and so the tradeoff is that you avoid learning a conjugation but you have to deal with the fact that a plain verb like "taberu" can either mean a habitual action or a future action, requiring context to know which one. (Speaking from experience as a teacher, the concept that "sushi o taberu" often means "I will eat sushi" takes a long time for some people to wrap their heads around to the point where it becomes instinctive to understand and use it that way.)
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby Endo » Sun 09.27.2009 3:31 pm

I also agree with Yudan Taiteki, a friend told me the more Japanese you learn the more difficult it gets. Everything is easy in the beginning.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby astaroth » Sun 09.27.2009 3:43 pm

NocturnalOcean wrote:What I find especially difficult about it, is the vast amount of single words that have a grammar meaning in Japanese.

By single words with grammatical meaning do you mean the use of 予定, ほしい and the like?
Indeed I find those easy in a way because one just needs to know the meaning of the word itself and then the grammatical concept is clear ... or not quite ... there are so many nuances that I often confuse on which is the most appropriate to use for instance 予定 instead of つもり.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby furrykef » Sun 09.27.2009 4:27 pm

NocturnalOcean wrote:To say that Japanese grammar is not hard at all is such an understatement.


I think this means the opposite of what you intended it to mean. To me this means that Japanese grammar is even easier than "not hard at all".

Anyway, I can't say I really agree that Japanese grammar is very difficult (at least if we don't consider counters :P). More difficult than the grammar of European languages? Sure. But I find Japanese grammar to be a small obstacle compared to Japanese vocabulary. I understand pretty much all basic Japanese grammar, meaning that I fully understand the basic sentence structure and I'm well-acquainted with the most common particles and conjugations. There is still quite a lot of stuff that I don't know, and there's plenty more to learn about the things I do know, but I can be sure that anything else I learn will fall relatively neatly into the structure that I'm already familiar with. The grammar of the language isn't going to suddenly throw me a curve ball.

Now, being able to parse or produce the grammar on-the-fly, in real time, is a different question. But that's only a matter of (lots and lots of) practice.

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

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Sun 09.27.2009 6:22 pm

furrykef wrote: I can be sure that anything else I learn will fall relatively neatly into the structure that I'm already familiar with. The grammar of the language isn't going to suddenly throw me a curve ball.


Nice to see you're so confident of that -- what do they say, that pride goes before a fall?
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby kurisuto » Sun 09.27.2009 7:12 pm

Is Japanese grammar easy ? As pretty much everybody said, it highly depends on your native language. But there's a simple way to determine if it's easy for you : write a reasonably long text in Japanese and ask for corrections. No mistakes ? Then it's easy for you. Otherwise, well, you would have to define "easy". Do you mean "easy" as in "sure, it's easy, it's just that I make tons of grammatical mistakes, that's all", or as in "when I read a Japanese text, grammar is really easy" ? I tend to think many people who say Japanese grammar is easy belong to these categories (speaking from experience here ; it's just that I realised I was wrong :) ).

And don't forget that understanding has nothing to do with actually speaking the language. For instance, I understand Italian very well (because of my Romance languages background), but I can't speak one bit of it. Let's see... "Io non fallo italiano porque non lo ho veramente studatto"...

... with my most sincere apologies to all Italian and Italian speakers. :oops: But I think that proves my point.


[edit] Well, after having posted this message, I checked if I got some of it right, and it seems like "fallo" is not quite what I meant :lol: Just to be clear, it wasn't some weird anatomical reference ; I thought the word "speak" used the same root as the Portuguese one, i.e "fal-" (from "falar"), and of course, I doubled the consonnant because it "felt more Italian". See ? Don't mistake "understanding" for "speaking", it could lead you to incredibly awkward moments :wink:
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby furrykef » Sun 09.27.2009 8:20 pm

Yudan Taiteki wrote:
furrykef wrote: I can be sure that anything else I learn will fall relatively neatly into the structure that I'm already familiar with. The grammar of the language isn't going to suddenly throw me a curve ball.


Nice to see you're so confident of that -- what do they say, that pride goes before a fall?


OK, then, give me an example of a likely curve ball. :) (No fair using 文語 or some such.)
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Sun 09.27.2009 10:27 pm

I can't say without knowing more about what you know; I just think that given my experiences learning Japanese, it's unlikely that you have such a mastery over Japanese grammar as you seem to think. Wa and ga no problem for you? Mastered -tara vs. -ba vs. to? Got verbs of giving and receiving down? Able to understand and use passives naturally, and causative passives?

I agree with kurisuto:
But there's a simple way to determine if it's easy for you : write a reasonably long text in Japanese and ask for corrections. No mistakes ? Then it's easy for you.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby furrykef » Sun 09.27.2009 10:47 pm

I wouldn't call it "mastery" by any means. I only have a good grasp of the "big picture" of Japanese grammar; there's still a lot of detail to cover within that picture. I don't expect much of that detail to be unexpected, or difficult to grasp, but I do expect there to be a whole lot of it, and that absorbing it all will take quite some time.

As for "wa" and "ga", I have a pretty good grasp of it. Not a perfect grasp, but the essential difference between the two is not a mystery to me. The hard part isn't understanding the difference in meaning between the two words, but rather fully understanding the way that Japanese people think when they use them.

(The struggles I do still have with "wa" and "ga" remind me of the trouble I've had in Spanish with the simple past vs. imperfect tenses. It presented a similar problem: it's not the difference in meaning that was difficult, it's the different way of thinking. I think I've mostly nailed that now, though, simply through absorbing enough examples.)

I'll also readily admit that I occasionally still make stupid I-know-better-than-that grammar mistakes (like the other day, when you caught me saying that if "aru" weren't irregular its negative would be "arinai", rather than "aranai"). But getting those hammered out is a matter of practice.

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

Postby spin13 » Mon 09.28.2009 4:36 am

furrykef wrote:OK, then, give me an example of a likely curve ball. :) (No fair using 文語 or some such.)

Here are four different passages that you should have no problem with...

この世界における一人ひとりの人間存在は厳しく孤独であるけれど、その記憶の元型においては、私たちはひとつにつながっているのだという先生の一貫した世界観には、深く納得させられるものがあります。(...Because における and において are clearly and easily distinguished from で/に and extended relative clauses are a piece of cake)

インターネットの有料出会いサイトをご存知ですか。どうしようもないバカな女たちと会うためにみんな何十万という金を取られています。マキちゃんとぜひ会ってやってください。(...Because chaining verbs of giving and receiving is natural to native speakers of English)

彼の場合は、手掛かりのなさという点では、例外でなかった。行先の見当だけは、一応ついていたものの、その方面からそれらしい変死体が発見されたという報告はまるでなかったし、仕事の性質上、誘拐されるような秘密にタッチしていたとは、ちょっと考えられない。(...Because the difference between ものの and けれども/のに is simple, and the meaning of 上 here is obvious from the kanji)

因みに『古事記』によれば、日本列島は神の矛から落ちたしずくが固まって出来たと言われ、ここにも刀剣類をただの「道具」ではなく、「霊器」と見る日本人の「つるぎの信仰」を見ることが出来よう。(...Because the varying uses of による and によると and によれば are all intuitive)

And you can use all that grammar too, right?

EDIT: Thanks for catching the typo, NileCat.
Last edited by spin13 on Mon 09.28.2009 6:51 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby NileCat » Mon 09.28.2009 6:07 am

Haha...I like your choice, spin13.

a tiny typo: しすぐ → しずく :wink:

EDIT: My pleasure, spin13-san.
Last edited by NileCat on Mon 09.28.2009 8:46 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Mon 09.28.2009 8:36 am

furrykef wrote:I wouldn't call it "mastery" by any means. I only have a good grasp of the "big picture" of Japanese grammar; there's still a lot of detail to cover within that picture. I don't expect much of that detail to be unexpected, or difficult to grasp, but I do expect there to be a whole lot of it, and that absorbing it all will take quite some time.


Then I don't understand what you mean when you say Japanese grammar is not difficult.
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Re: If it weren't for the writing system...

Postby furrykef » Mon 09.28.2009 9:59 am

spin13 wrote:Here are four different passages that you should have no problem with...


I don't have nearly the vocabulary needed to understand those things! ^^; Trying to parse a sentence is rather pointless if I'd need to mouseover every other word with Rikaichan just to get a starting point. If a grammatical point is complicated, then it should be possible to demonstrate its complexity using simple words that any Japanese 101 student should know (not counting the words that are the focus of the grammatical point itself, of course).

Yudan Taiteki wrote:Then I don't understand what you mean when you say Japanese grammar is not difficult.


I take "difficult grammar" to mean "difficult to comprehend" -- that is, not sentences that are hard to understand, but grammatical principles that are hard to understand. I'm reminded of when I was taking Spanish in high school and I was virtually drowning in the grammar (yeah, of Spanish!) because things weren't adequately explained to me and I didn't know what to do about it. "Adjectives always come after nouns in Spanish, right? So why's this before the noun? And why are these object pronouns coming before the verb? What the hell does 'se' mean, anyway? WHAT IS ALL THIS??" And I dreaded learning the ever-mysterious "subjunctive", which I had no comprehension of -- not even what it's for or what it means -- even after I flipped the book open to that chapter and read about it. Luckily we never covered it in school (which, in the case of Spanish, means you can't say much of any real complexity at all -- not even "It's good that you're happy"). A few years later I picked up Spanish again and I found all that stuff humorously easy, including the scary ol' subjunctive. What I thought was a tiger turned out to be a kitten. :lol:

I've simply never had this sort of difficulty with Japanese, because once my barriers toward understanding Spanish grammar were broken, they were broken for all languages, since what I'd gained was an insight into how language itself worked. Of course, this is not any special, magical insight, and I'm sure many of you might have had it from the beginning, but once I could see that language is generally well-structured (even casual/slangy speech has a method to its madness), I stopped having problems. The rest is just study, practice, and memorization. Is that work? Sure -- tons of it. But I don't think it's hard.

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