If there’s a country known for being different, it’s Japan.
This difference has not only created a culture full of diversity but also a language full of difference.
If learning Mandarin is like committing to a religion, learning Japanese is like applying to be a priest and run the monastery. It takes devotion, passion, and maybe a little naivety.
A Different Language
Japanese grammar could not be more different from English. It’s like someone set about creating a language with ‘being different’ as the main aim. It makes European languages seem like accents and dialects of the same language.
It uses Chinese characters as its writing system. This alone makes it a gruelling language to tackle. The Japanese, being the Japanese, decided to create 2 additional alphabets from Chinese characters: one for foreign words, and one to help make the spoken language fit Chinese characters.
Most characters have multiple ways of being read: one based on the reading in Chinese, and one or two more based on the original Japanese word. (Chinese, in comparison, has one reading per character!)
- No articles, definite or indefinite (the, these, those, a, an)
- The subject is often inferred in speech
- An explicit and extensive use of transitive and intransitive verbs
- A constant awareness of state
- A use of nouns and adjectives that blur the categories used in most other languages
- Verb forms that express social standing
- Verb forms, nouns and expressions that reflect masculinity or directness
- Auxiliary verbs which convey a host of subtle emotional meanings such as respect for others, willingness to try
- A built-in awareness of social groups
- Widespread use of endings to conjugate verbs, adjectives and nearly everything else
An Example For An English Speaker
So, compared to learning French, where you build up a list of word-to-word translations that mostly work, Japanese is horrendous.
Most English expressions directly translated (if that’s even possible, and it generally isn’t) aren’t even said in the same way.
As a simple example
The window is open
Directly (and incorrectly) translated would be
窓は開けです - mado wa ake desu (window the open is)
The Japanese says this as
窓は開けている - mado wa akete iru [window was opened and still is]
Times this by a thousand and you can understand how learning Japanese takes a lot of memorisation.
I decided I wanted to learn Japanese in my early 20s and considered going. I didn’t start planning until I was 30, so I started to learn Japanese.
Adult life got in the way and I instead bought a house.
6 years later, and a fair amount of Japanese under my belt and a decent grasp of some Japanese writing, I finally arranged to go.
I went in April 2016 and the holiday more than lived up to what I expected. I used my Japanese wherever I could, learned more characters by being surrounded by them and was told not to use certain forms because it made me sound like a girl.
I’m working to become more fluent in Japanese. It’s one of those things you spend your life doing.
I’m sure I’ll go back one day to try again, but for this goal, it’s completed.