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The one thing that my semi-immersion into Japanese culture has taught me is that they are, truly, foreign to me.

This is not a bad thing, but it’s solidifying my theory that in order to understand a language, one must first make an effort to understand the culture that the language belongs to.

So I have not really been studying Japanese all that much – in the sense that I haven’t been intentionally learning new vocabulary or kanji.  Instead, I’ve been watching Japanese variety shows, etc., and just letting the language flow over me.  And I’m starting to realize something:  at least in Japanese, and by necessity, translators take a lot of liberties with the translation.

The reason is that the Japanese language is very contextual and very efficient.  So much meaning can be conveyed using just one word.  You could say “daisuki” and that could mean a lot of things.  It could mean “I love you”, or it could mean “I love it”, or I’ve even heard it translated “I like it a lot”.  The efficiency exists because of a shared contextual experience that is already taken for granted.

English does have this in certain, limited circumstances (you can hear “kawaii” by itself in Japanese, just as you can hear “cute” by itself in English), but in most cases English speakers prefer to spell out their assumptions as clearly as possible.  Japanese speakers do not do this – they take the assumptions that are already present and add information onto it conceptually.  In fact, this is such a linguistic difference that English speakers find it very hard to distinguish between “wa” and “ga” – where “ga” is used when new information is added to a topic that is already known about, and “wa” is used to introduce a topic.  English prefers to just keep using the topic and then adding information to it in the same sentence.

It’s far more precise, but also far less dense, for the same reasons.

It is, in fact, a similar struggle for Japanese people to learn how to use “a” and “the”, because they do not have the concept of definite or indefinite articles in their language. It’s second nature to us – “a” means “there are a bunch (class) of things, and I am referring to one of them”, where “the” means “there are a bunch (class) of things, and I am referring to a specific one of them”.  It’s easy for us.  Not so easy for them.

I honestly don’t think Japanese is confusing.  I only think I consider it confusing because I insist on seeing it from an English mindset.

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