The Japanese Devil is in the Details

One of the most fascinating and frustrating things about Japanese is that it is a very precise language.  For example, the word for “husband” and the word for “prisoner” only varies by the length of one vowel.  It is a metered language, it does not have stresses like in English.  The hard part about Japanese is not the vocabulary, though that is hard.  It’s not the grammar, though that is hard.  The hard part is training yourself to pronounce the words correctly.

I have found, anecdotally, that Japanese people are very rigorous about their language, and they have to be because meter is so important.  So if you speak Japanese with a pronounced American accent, then they may not even understand you.  And it is possible to speak with an American accent.  You do so by not saying ‘r’s correctly, and by stressing syllables.  For example, “ha-NA-shi” instead of “ha-na-shi” (and even with the last one it’s all too easy to stress the “shi” instead.  That also leads to incorrect vowels, and considering we have eleven more vowels than they do, then that can lead to incomprehensibility, even if you did everything else right.

I’ve been having to train myself to speak Japanese as neutrally as possible.  I mostly fail, but it’s at least something I’m trying to notice.  There are inflections in the Japanese language, but they tend to affect the entire sentence structure, and not individual words.  They seem to use particles instead to indicate emphasis of meaning (“yo” vs. “ne”, for example.)

The opposite is true too, I think.  Japanese people seem to often speak a pidgin form of English that overlays our words onto their syllabic structure, and makes for something that’s nearly incomprehensible – and the Japanese don’t often seem to be able to figure out why.  It’s because they’re different languages.  You can’t apply the rules for English to Japanese, and similarly, you can’t apply the rules for Japanese to English.  Just a little bit of effort to understand that not every word has to end with a vowel might go a long way.

But it’s hard.  I’m sure that takes about as much effort as it does for me to not stress syllables.

I wonder, sometimes, if I’ll ever get this right.

My Thoughts on Japanese Culture

Ever since I began learning about Japan and its culture, I’ve been of decidedly mixed feelings about it.  On the one hand, they are particularly imaginative when it comes to existing means of artistic expression – they come up with things that we in the west would never even dream of, and the world is (most of the time) better off for it.  On the other hand, they have some significant challenges that they are trying to wind their way through, and failing.  I keep having the most unpleasant feeling that we’re watching the slow motion destruction of a great and ancient culture.

And a part of me isn’t incredibly sad about that, while a part of me is.

Their birthrate has hit a thirty year low, with either this year or last year (I can’t remember) only having 900,000 births.  That may seem like a lot, but for a country of 125 million people, it’s not really sustainable.  They are already having to allow more foreigners into their country just to keep essential services running, and I don’t see how that’s not going to become even more pressing an issue as their society ages.  At some point it’s going to hit a tipping point, and they’re going to have to face head on their cultural tendency towards isolationism and perceived cultural superiority.

And when that happens, it’s going to be a major shock to their culture, as the presence of more and more foreigners is going to, almost by definition, impact their culture in ways that no one really can foresee.

The part of me that isn’t incredibly sad about this thinks that there are some parts of their culture that may be better off treated as relics of the past, not to be repeated.  The part of me that is sad about it recognizes that once this happens, something of value will be lost forever.  For you cannot have cultural change without there being both good and bad effects, and usually the bad effects are centered around forgetting what made a people what they are in the first place.  We have been dealing with that in America for quite a few years now, and it’s not a pleasant thing for a country to experience.

It’s not my problem to solve, and I’m not going to try.  It’s not my place.  I’m not Japanese and sometimes a people have to solve their own problems.  I’m sure that they will be a mixture of innovative and conservative when coming up with these solutions, and I would expect nothing less from the Japanese.  I just hope that they can fix their cultural problems without losing too much of what makes them admired (mostly) around the world.

Steps Toward Fluency

One of the things I continually harp on this blog is the fact that you can’t rush Japanese.  It’s too big.  No matter how much you memorize, or how much you cram down your mind and then forget, you’re not going to get much closer to fluency with the language.  I think there are two reasons for that.

The first reason is that there are actually two different vocabularies in Japanese.  This isn’t something that’s played down per se, but I don’t think it’s emphasized.  There’s the native Japanese words, and there’s the jyukugo.  They are generally pronounced entirely differently, have different origins, and the kanji are read differently.  But they’re all treated the same – as part of the Japanese language, which makes it very confusing.  Rote memorizing jyukugo is almost impossible.

The other is that in order to become fluent with Japanese, you have to start thinking like a Japanese person.  This means leaving all of your preconceptions about what a language should be at the door, and just accepting it for what it is.  Everything’s backwards, and until you can actually internalize it, you’ll be forever struggling with it.

This is one of the reasons that I am finding wanikani so valuable.  It truly is spaced repetition.  So when a review pops up, after I’ve seen and answered it enough, the pronunciation and meaning just immediately pop into my head.  If it doesn’t, then it resets until I remember it.  Sometimes the mnemonics are helpful, sometimes not, but I’ve noticed that as I progress from master towards enlightened on certain words and kanji, that the recall becomes faster, and I can read the particular word just as fluently as I can an English word.  In context, it’s still difficult, but the words themselves become easier as the repetition continues.

But as I keep saying, it’s a very slow process.  Anyone who says “I’m going to Japan in two months and I need to learn enough Japanese to get around” is better off getting a translation app and studying common phrases, because that’s about all you’ll get.  It’s almost a lifetime commitment, because there’s no way you’re going to become fluent in it in less than two years.

But, I think, it can be done, and that’s also very important.  It’s not hopeless.  It’s just that patience is needed.

What I Hate About Most Online “Learn Japanese” Sites

I’ve been using Wanikani lately  I’ve gotten to level 5, and it’s actually a little frustrating.  You have to get the radicals/kanji/vocabulary right a specific number of times, spaced out over months, before they consider the item “burned”, and you don’t have to see it again.  And they dole out the lessons sparingly.  You can’t binge on them.  A cynic might make the argument that they’re just doing that to stretch out the amount of money you need to pay them to complete the program, but while that may be a consideration, I don’t think I agree with that.  They’re doing the right thing.  They have mnemonics, and sometimes I find those useful, but most of the time I don’t.  I think, though, that’s primarily because we haven’t yet gotten to kanji I don’t know on some level.

This is unique amongst online “Learn Japanese” sites.  I have used several in the past, and they promise to teach you Japanese quickly, and they make it possible for one to rocket through their courses as fast as you want to.  They sell “quick”.  Rosetta Stone, for example, promises you can learn conversational Japanese quickly, but the argument could (and has been) made that it will harm your efforts in the long run.  I’ve found probably ten to twenty sites who promise to teach you Japanese, and they don’t and really can’t.  It’s just too big.  I could see learning German in a year (I became conversational in it in nine months years ago, but I forgot most of it), and other languages that might have some commonalities with English.  But Japanese just has too much to learn, too much to memorize, too many kanji, too many yomikata, too many vocabulary words.  The grammar takes some getting used to but isn’t too bad, but it’s so different from English that it’s nearly impossible to find any commonalities whatsoever.

Japanese can’t be forced in.  It has to sink in.

So this is why I don’t like most online Japanese courses.  They don’t teach patience.  Because when learning Japanese, that’s about the best advice that you can be given, to be patient.  But they sell based on learning fast, and they’re selling snake oil.  Some learn Japanese quicker than others, but I don’t think anyone who is not from either China or Korea will ever learn it quickly.  It takes a lot of time to even figure out the basics, it has thousands of kanji, even more vocabulary words, and no similarities whatsoever with English.

I’m not trying to advertise for Wanikani.  There are some aspects I don’t like.  They teach recognition of kanji and vocabulary, but they don’t teach how to write the kanji.  That’s a rather important thing, and something you’ll have to study outside of them, perhaps using “kanji tree” or something similar.  But they’re the only site I’ve found, so far, that actually incorporates patience into their model.  There are some similar sites, such as Jalup, that offer a similar service, but they don’t dole out the lessons as carefully – you can get overwhelmed.  And that’s why I use them, and none of the others.  They may be able to deliver what they sell, but they don’t tell you the most important thing.  It’s going to be a long, long ride, and you’re going to have to be extremely committed.

My Evolving Thoughts on Kanji

My thoughts on kanji and what they are for have evolved over the past year or two.  When first starting Japanese, they seem almost redundant and needlessly difficult.  Why use kanji, you think, when there are around 110 perfectly good syllables to use in their place?

But that’s an English way of looking at the problem.  We don’t have a syllabary, though we have syllables.  About fifteen thousand possible ones, though I don’t know how many we actually use.  So we take a look at the twenty-six letters of our alphabet, the 110 or so syllables that the Japanese languages use, and try to learn them through a functional one to one comparison.

That doesn’t work and it will never work.

The reason is that kanji fulfill a purpose that is wholly (or mostly) absent in English.  They are a sort of alphabet of their own, but instead of specifying specific sounds or sets of sounds, they specify meanings, and the sounds that relate to them map to the syllabary, but that mapping is not one to one.  We have twenty-six sounds and characters and they are sufficient to contain our language, because there are quite a few different syllables that we can make from them.  That is not the case in Japanese, because the number of sounds they can use are so limited.  For example, I can think of about four kanji right off the top of my head that are pronounced “hou”, several that are pronounced “ryou”, quite a few that are pronounced “do” and “to”.  The sound that a kanji makes, while important, is not important in the same way that the sound of an English letter would be.

This is why studying kanji, I think, is so critically important to understanding Japanese.  You can get along without them for conversational purposes, but without understanding the role kanji play, you’ll never understand the important role that they play in making the Japanese language what it is.

Put another way, I don’t think the Japanese language has an alphabet of 110 characters.  I think it has an alphabet of over 2,400 characters.  It just serves a very different purpose than ours.


One thing I find fascinating is that a large fraction of the Japanese language is made up of loanwords, I’ve heard about ten percent of their language being of English origin.  But they take our words and adapt them to their syllabic structure, making them Japanese words.  Most English speakers wouldn’t even understand them.  There’s a hilarious music video called “Japanglish” that makes fun of that, and I still can’t hear “ma-ko-do-ru-no-DO” without laughing to myself.

English has very few loanwords from Japanese.  There are a few, “skosh”, from “sukoshi”, meaning “little,” was one that surprised me, but the list is actually very small.  We have not borrowed many words from Japanese – and the ones we have are more because we seem to think they’re cute than anything else.  I hear “nani” has become a popular word in some circles.

But the point of this post is this:  We mispronounce the Japanese words.  Many people pronounce “Kawaii” as they would “Hawaii”, when it’s more properly pronounced as “ka-wa-ii”.  “Karate” is pronounced by many with a long “e”, but it’s actually pronounced ka-ra-te”.  Unfortunately that seems to only be done by pretentious people.  “Karaoke” is not “carry-okie”, but “ka-ra-o-ke”.  We even mispronounce “Toyota”.  It’s “to-yo-ta”, not “toy-ota”.

But after some thought, I decided I don’t care.  If nearly all of the English words that the Japanese have borrowed from us are said in a way that we can’t understand, I think it’s perfectly fair that we get to make some of their words our own.

If they don’t like it, they can learn how to pronounce “McDonald’s”.  Then we’ll talk.

As for me, though, I’m probably going to pronounce them correctly.  I’m trying to train myself to pronounce words the same way a Japanese person would.  It’s actually more difficult than it sounds, because we tend to accent certain syllables, where there is no such thing in Japanese.  For example, in English, “content” means two different things that depend on which syllable is stressed.  But Japanese has no such thing, and stressing the syllables actually leads to mispronouncing because that makes us tend to use vowel sounds that Japanese people don’t actually have.

All this to say, if you borrow a word from a language and make it yours, fine.  But if you want the speakers of the other language to understand you, best to learn how to pronounce it properly.

Two Years In

I don’t remember the exact day that I decided to study Japanese, but I think I’m approaching the two year anniversary at some point in the next couple of months.  It’s been a lot of ups and a lot of downs, a lot of “I don’t know if I can do this” and a lot of “hey, this is starting to make a little sense now”.  To be frank, I’m not entirely sure where I am at the moment.  I think I could probably pass the JLPT N5 if I chose to take it, but I want to keep studying for right now.

If I had to go back to the beginning and tell myself what the most important thing about learning Japanese is, I’m not entirely sure what I’d say.  I’d say that certain parts of it are deceptively simple, but in Japanese, the devil is always in the details.  I’d say that trying to self-teach is a fool’s errand but that learning in a classroom setting may not be the best of ideas either.  I’d say that most people who claim to be able to teach Japanese don’t have the slightest idea how to teach it – even if they can speak it and promise up and down that they do.  I’d say there are zillions of online resources out there that claim to teach you Japanese and 99% of them absolutely suck.  It’s not that they’re bad, or wrong, or anything like that.  It’s just that they’re not good at teaching.  I’d say that you have to find all sorts of different resources and mesh everything together to even start to get a good grasp on how the language works.  And first and foremost, I’d say “do you really want to do this?”

Learning Japanese can be a “cool” thing.  It’s almost always an interesting topic of conversation.  It can also broaden one’s mind as to how language works, how culture shapes language and vice versa, and also how much of my own views of the world are constrained by language.  It is also a very difficult thing to which there is no easy solution, and the only way to really succeed is to find a way to learn that works for you and keep doing it until it sinks in.  Eventually it kinda does, but never immediately.

The logographs, or kanji, can actually be really pretty, and some can tell an interesting story on their own.  Once you understand the symbology, some kanji are striking in the stories they tell, such as 桜 or 休み.  But two years in, is it really worth it?

To be frank, I’m still not entirely sure.  It really hasn’t opened new worlds for me, and I’m starting to wonder if it ever will.  And isn’t that kind of the point?  But I still learn.