Why Learning Japanese Can Be Frustrating


I’ve always been fascinated by the study of foreign languages. This fascination probably sprang from a childhood love of codes and ciphers. The languages I was most fascinated with were those with beautiful and exotic writing systems. If I had encountered Devanagārī before Japanese, perhaps that would have become the primary object of my dedicated language studies.

I was 11 years old, trying to learn to write in Russian, when my buddy Laban showed me some Japanese characters he’d been learning—the Hiragana (ひらがな). These characters have a simple, graceful beauty to them; from that moment I was hooked.

My buddy and I learned the two sound-based, syllabic writing systems, Hiragana and Katakana (カタカナ), and had good fun doing so. We even incorporated them into the ciphers we’d use to write letters to each other.

The funny thing is, we both learned both writing systems, without actually knowing a lick of Japanese—so we had little to write in it, apart from Japanized English. It didn’t take us long to decide that we really wanted to start learning the language to go with the writing. We both tried starting from library books, but quickly switched to some weekly classes that were being taught on Saturdays at a Japanese Buddhist church. I later took several classes at CSU Sacramento, and beyond that, both of us have been struggling off and on to continue our study of the language over the last twenty years.

Now, obviously, during the twenty years that have passed, there has not been twenty years’ worth of work put in. Nevertheless, I definitely would have hoped to be further along at this point than I am. In particular, it frustrates me that I can’t pick up a book, newspaper or magazine and just start reading along, stopping briefly every so often to look up a word. An explanation for how this is possible is the focus of part two of this article.

I’ve recently entered into another spurt of Japanese study, and I am happily finding that I am making significantly more progress this time than I have in the past. Partly because I’m motivated by the growing realization that I’ve spent so much time on this language, but am still as yet unable to put it to reasonable use: I would like to put enough additional investment into it to avoid all my past effort having been little more than wasted time. And also partly because I’m beginning to understand what sorts of techniques have the best effects for me, and am learning to avoid the sorts of practices that have in the past caused me to burn out, and set aside studying for large spaces of time.

Grammar and Pronunciation

Thankfully, neither Japanese grammar nor its pronunciation are particularly difficult. Japanese pronunciation has sometimes been compared to Spanish (though there are of course some important differences), and the structure of the language is controlled by a set of rules which, though very different from English, are at least consistently followed, so that you are not required to memorize a plethora of exceptions (as you might find necessary if you were learning English as a second language). In fact, if you do not intend to learn anything beyond actually speaking and comprehending spoken Japanese, you might find it to be much easier to learn than some Western languages.

For one thing, it lacks the concept of “gendered nouns”, that many Western languages have (but not English), requiring English learners to memorize the apparently random words that must be prefaced with (e.g.) “la” and “las” instead of “el” and “los”. In fact, Japanese doesn’t even have a word for “the” or “a”.

Japanese also nearly lacks plural forms—that is, Japanese does have a couple different ways to express plurality, but they are generally only used when there is a reason to stress the fact that we’re talking about more than one. The Japanese word “hon” could mean any of “a book”, “the book”, “the books”, “some books”, or “books”.

Some Asian languages, such as Chinese and Thai, distinguish meaning via the use of variously pitched tones. A rising, falling, or stationary high or low pitch can seriously change the meanings of words. Fortunately, Japanese has no such thing—or almost none; pitch is very occasionally crucial for distinguishing one word from another, but it is rare for a textbook to explain these, and virtually unheard-of for a dictionary to include them.

Japanese’s Three Writing Systems

Japanese is written using three distinct writing systems. There are the two syllabaries I’ve already mentioned, and an additional form called “kanji”. The kanji are characters that come directly from Chinese (though there are a few characters that were invented in Japan), and in fact “kanji” means “Chinese characters”. Kanji are used primarily for two things: to write Japanese words that were taken from Chinese, and to represent the meaning behind many Japanese words. The “hiragana” syllabic system is used to fill in the gaps, serving the purpose of allowing Japanese grammar to flow around Chinese ideographs. The “katakana” syllabic system is mainly used to represent foreign words and non-word sounds, and also to provide emphasis.

As an example of how hiragana is used together with the kanji, take the Chinese character for “come”: 来. But when used as a verb, especially as the primary verb in a sentence, it won’t usually be used to express the verb “to come” by itself: it needs to be accompanied by some hiragana characters to indicate the tense of the verb—and even how you should pronounce the character 来. If you want to say, “I will come”, you might write “kimasu” 来ます; if you want to say, “I have come”, you might instead write “kimashita” 来ました. The character 来 provides the initial “ki” sound, and the rest must be written using hiragana characters. (Note: the pronoun “I” is ommitted in the Japanese examples, and isn’t necessary for these complete sentences, which could also have been translated as “she will come”, and “it came”, etc, depending on the surrounding context.)

The two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana (together known as the “kana”), each have 46 basic forms used in modern Japanese, and modified versions of these forms are used to represent another fifty sounds or so. In contrast, there are several thousands of kanji characters. Students in Japan are expected to know some two thousand kanji by the time they’ve finished high school.

A natural question might occur to you: why are kanji even necessary, given how daunting a task it is to learn them, and that there are two complete syllabic writing systems, either of which could be used by themselves to write any Japanese phrase without resorting to kanji? For instance, take the following sentence:

晩御飯を食べてから疲れていたので、映画を見に行かずに寝る事にしました。

ばんごはんをたべてからつかれていたので、えいがをみにいかずにねることにしました。

bangohan o tabete kara tsukarete ita no de, eiga o mi ni ikazu ni neru koto ni shimashita.

After eating dinner, I found I was tired, and so decided to go to bed instead of going to see a movie.

As you can see, the second line, which is written entirely in hiragana and is perfectly comprehensible to a Japanese reader (barring any mistakes I may have made in writing it), is a whopping five characters longer than the first line, which uses eleven kanji, most of which are quite a bit more complex than any hiragana. If I had written these using a pen (or a brush), the first line could possibly have taken nearly twice as long to write! So why bother with them at all?

Well, probably the main justification is that this is simply how the written language happened to evolve. Of course, that’s hardly consolation, and it’s far from the whole story. After World War II, the government made some fairly extensive changes to the written language, simplifying the use of kana, and restricting the number of kanji required to be a literate reader of the language. If they could do these things, they could probably have eliminated the kanji altogether; but they did not. As you’ll see shortly, there are good reasons not to use kana alone, but surely something else would have been more expedient… though in losing the kanji altogether it would inescapably have lost much of its beauty as well.

But the kanji aren’t useless, either. The Japanese language is filled with more than its fair share of homonyms; which can easily lead to confusion. Remember “kimasu” 来ます? But “kimasu” can mean “I will wear” as well as “I will come”. In the vast majority of cases, context will make it quite clear which is meant; but when reading, the judicial use of kanji will eliminate all doubt: the one meaning “will wear” is written 着ます.

An extreme (and famous) example:

李も桃も桃の内。

すもももももももものうち。

sumomo mo momo mo momo no uchi.

Both the plum and the peach are members of the prunus family. (Literally: Both plum and peach are within “peach”.)

The second line, written only with hiragana, is unreadable. As you can see, written Japanese does not use spaces to separate words (though these may be used in romanized Japanese, as in the third line). The word “momo” appears twice, the word “sumomo” once at the beginning, and between these are a couple of small words “mo”, which are called particles, and serve a grammatical purpose (the “both … and …”). Someone speaking this phrase out loud could easily distinguish the words and particles from each other with the use of inflection and light pauses; but as a string of hiragana characters all you see is a sea of も (“mo”).

Kanji comes to save the day! The top line uses kanji very effectively to distinguish one word from another. “SUMOMOmoMOMOmoMOMOnoUCHI”, where each string of capital letters is a single word written in kanji. It’s very easy to pick them apart now!

A Foreign Mode of Thought

Another obstacle to learn Japanese, is the fact that not only isn’t it very similar to English and other Western languages, but it isn’t really very similar to even the way we tend to think about things.

Take for instance the phrase, “I like sports”. In Japanese this might be expressed as “watashi wa supootsu ga suki desu” (the “oo” in “supootsu” is not pronounced like “boot”, but as a long o sound “oh”, which makes “supootsu” a tolerable approximation of the English word “sports”, especially since both u’s are actually silent/whispered). “Mary likes Jon” could be “Meari wa Jon ga suki desu”. In the first few lessons of a typical Japanese textbook, a student will usually learn that “A likes B” is given as “A wa B ga suki desu” in Japanese. Unfortunately, this is a simplification of the truth.

The truth is, a Japanese sentence tends to rely very heavily on its context. “A wa B ga suki desu” doesn’t quite mean that A likes B… in some cases, it can actually mean B likes A. I was recently chatting on IRC with someone, and she said (in English) that she likes “Pocky” (a popular Japanese sweet). My response in Japanese was “Pocky wa nihon no minna-san ga suki desu”. In this case, the meaning is “Everyone in Japan (nihon no minna-san) likes Pocky”; not “Pocky likes everyone in Japan”!

Well, if “A wa B ga suki desu” can mean either one of “A likes B” or “B likes A”, then how can you know when it means one and when the other? The answer is that it doesn’t really mean either one, but something else entirely that doesn’t map all that cleanly onto English modes of thought. How to translate it into something that makes sense to an English speaker depends heavily on what else had been said before it!

“A wa” means something like “as for A”, or “speaking of A”; it marks “A” as “the thing I’m going to say something about now”, and implies that the actual interesting part of the sentence is the rest of it (whatever follows the “wa”). The particle “ga” marks the word or phrase before it as being the grammatical subject of the sentence, and “suki” means something similar to “likeable” except that it doesn’t entirely make clear whether the subject is the sentence is the thing liked (the typical situation), or the thing that does the liking (the case in my Pocky sentence). So, “Watashi wa supootsu ga suki desu” really means something like, “Speaking of myself, sports (are) likeable”. The “watashi wa” bit says, “I’m speaking of myself, but ‘myself’ is not the interesting thing I’m saying: the interesting part of the sentence is that I like sports.”

Without surrounding context, “Minna-san wa Pocky ga suki desu” can mean what most people are taught to think it means: “Everyone likes Pocky”. However, its implication is that the thing we’re talking about isn’t Pocky, it’s everyone. It makes a great answer to a question such as “What kind of thing is loved by everyone?”, because in that case, the interesting part is “what kind of thing”, and not “everyone”, which is only the topic of conversation (the interesting thing is what you have to say about the conversation’s topic). But in most cases that you want to say “everyone loves Pocky”, you’re not talking aobut everyone, you’re talking about Pocky. The interesting part of the sentence is what you have to say about Pocky, so Pocky gets the “wa” after it, and the “ga” goes after “everyone”. “Pocky wa Minna-san ga suki desu.”

This is an extremely difficult concept for many Westerners to grasp about Japanese. Unfortunately, it’s also a very important concept: the Japanese language demands the use of “wa” and “ga”, and knowing when to use which, all the time. The concept is sufficiently complex that there are whole chapters, and even whole books, written on just the subject of how “wa” should (and shouldn’t) be used.

A somewhat similar example would be the Japanese phrase “mita hito” (見た人), which could mean either “the person who saw (it)”, or “the person who was seen/the person whom I (or someone else) saw”. In Japanese, to modify a noun by a phrase you simply drop the phrase right before the noun: “saw-person”. This makes it pretty clear what is being modified, but it doesn’t provide any clues as to whether the modified noun is the subject or the object of the modifying phrase. The astonishing thing, though, is that it generally doesn’t need to: since you never say either “the person who saw it” or “the person I saw” without having already been talking about somebody having seen something, in actual use you would never be without the context that explains which is meant. So there isn’t actually any need to distinguish between them: if the previous sentence was “I spied an old friend when I went to the store today”, then the meaning of “saw-person” in a following sentence, “The ‘saw-person’ was Tommy Jenkins” is obvious. Similarly, if the previous sentence had been “I think somebody saw you when you were chewing out Susan”, then “saw-person” in a following sentence would be in reference to whoever witnessed the scolding.

Of course, when context is insufficient or missing, then one can resolve ambiguity by rephrasing or clarifying. There’s nothing wrong with saying “sono koto o mita hito” (the person who saw that taking place) or “watashi no mita hito” (the person that I saw) when the need arises; it’s just that such phrases are fairly rare, precisely because they’re unnecessary when context provides enough information for us to know which was meant, without explicitly saying. Similarly, if by “Mary wa Jon ga suki desu” we mean that Jon likes Mary rather than the reverse, and the context doesn’t clarify this, we can explicitly say “Mary is liked by Jon”: “Mary wa Jon ni suki desu”.

Note: so far, the best explanation of wa versus ga that I’ve read, is in Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You by Jay Rubin; but I also feel that he makes some fairly extreme statements. In particular, I think his explanation could tend to scare someone off from using “wa”, and that despite his attempts to say otherwise, the reader is left with the general feeling that “wa” should only be used in special circumstances, which is far from the case. In the end, the best way to understand wa is to be exposed to a lot of Japanese sentences where it is used (and practice making your own), to find good textbooks that give useful explanations of how it affects emphasis and meaning, and to avoid grossly oversimplified descriptions such as it being the equivalent to English “the”, or expressing the real gramattical subject in intransitive verbs.

The second part to this set of articles continues here.

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6 Responses to Why Learning Japanese Can Be Frustrating

  1. Tim Chambers says:

    Micah,

    I was interested in reading your blog about learning Japanese. I am curious to know your method for learning Kanji. I have tried rote memory with flash cards and learned a couple dozen before giving up, out of sheer boredom with rote learning. Several years later I hit on a way to teach the Latin derivations to Japanese students by decoding Latin morphemes into Kanji. After rewriting 3,000 words for a course I do on the net, I realized I had learned about 400 Kanji in the two months it took me to do it. With your interest in things cryptological, you might like to check out my blog on the subject, especially the explanation page. When that project was finished, I turned to learning Kanji again and set up a website using word game software in place of e-flashcards. You have the url for the Kanji classes, the blog is at http://kanjiofenglish.com. Like you, I’m a mac man but my knowledge of Unix is confined to to the things I need to do on the Monitor.

  2. Micah says:

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the links, your site looks interesting.

    Yes, I do plan to discuss techniques for learning kanji; my “technique” is still a work in progress, however, as I’m still very much in the first few-hundred stages of learning kanji. But I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about what works and what doesn’t for me, and what I like about existing systems, and what I believe to be lacking in them. I hope to talk more about that in a follow-up article.

  3. best4future says:

    Not only learning Japanese can be hard, learning English as a second language can be frustrating too. I learned English as a second language, so I understand investing in becoming a bilingual can be time-consuming. I always try to find the most efficient way to learn a second language.

    Right now I am teaching my baby to learn Chinese, hoping she will become a bilingual in the future and not worry about spending lot time and money in learning a second language. 

  4. Micah says:

    I’ve often been grateful that I learned English as a native speaker. I think English as a spoken language would be very tough to learn. It doesn’t have gendered nouns or verbs, nor as many conjugations as some languages like maybe Russian and Greek, but the rules that it does have, it never sticks to. I think learning to read English would be almost as hard as learning to read Japanese: some of the same things I’m going to gripe about in part two have analogies in English (such as, when you see the word “read”, should it rhyme with “red” or “reed”? and what’s up with “pint” anyway, and “though” and “tough” and “cough” and “bough”?). And unlike Japanese, our spoken language may be almost as screwed-up as our writing system.

  5. Pingback: www.japanesereader.com » Why Learning Japanese Can Be Frustrating, Part Two

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