Thursday, June 5, 2008

Spoken Japanese vs. Written Japanese, or, Checkers vs. Chess

Spoken Japanese is considered to be one of the easier languages, in the grand scheme of things. The sounds are pretty easy, there are no tones like in Vietnamese or Chinese, verb conjugation is straightforward, and the Japanese habit of omitting everything possible from a sentence makes it a little easier for a beginner to understand.

Instead of asking, "Are you well," a Japanese person would just ask "Well?" with the implicit understanding that they're talking about you. It's way easier to understand a sentence that's half as long.

Lastly, Japanese people speak pretty clearly for the most part. There's no mumbling through a mouthful of superglue like's more like a moderate-speed machine gun shooting out crisp words at you.

(If you ever get into the honorifics and knowing which special level of politeness to use for a certain person, spoken Japanese can become diabolically hard--my rambling is just in reference to basic Hiroki Average's speaking.)

But written Japanese is a whole other ball of natto. I've heard it said that written Japanese is the single most difficult written language in the world. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Japanese has three alphabets:

Hiragana, which looks like this: あいうえお

Katakana, which looks like this: アイウエオ

And kanji, which looks like this: 頭肩膝足の指

Hiragana is kind of the basic alphabet, the first thing they teach little kids here. Katakana is used primarily for foreign words, so Japanese people can identify them and discard them as loan words from inferior barbarian cultures. Kanji is used to express ideas...I'm not really sure how to say that correctly.

Basically, if Japanese is a cake, Kanji is the thick bread part, hiragana is the frosting, and there's sprinkles of katakana on the top.

So anyway, three alphabets would be fine, but there are literally over 10,000 kanji in existence. Just to get around daily life and not be illiterate you have to know 2,000 of these little bastards.

Now here comes the fun part. For a given kanji, there is a Japanese reading and a Chinese reading, and multiple readings within those sub-categories. God forbid you put 2 kanji together, because this creates a compound kanji, which completely changes the meaning. So sometimes you're looking at like 10 different pronunciations for a given character.

And of course, they are always printed really small and look very similar.
Let's take this little guy, for example: 読む --This means "yomu," or "to read." Please don't confuse it with 語 which means "language," or 話す, which means "to speak."

The colors are pretty fun too. This means red: 赤 and this means blue: 青 All this stuff is about what a 6-year-old in Japan is learning while us slackers were outside enjoying the fresh air, our ABCs firmly committed to memory. Japanese children are incapable of reading the newspaper until they're about 15--then they can read most of it, but not all.

My all-time favorite is probably the kanji for "dot," though. Like, a little circle. A dot. Easy, right. This is the kanji, right? " . " NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, that would be too simple, THIS is the kanji: 点 That means "dot."

So yeah, Japanese is a real flying scrote-kick in terms of learning to read and write, and probably helps explain the work ethic around here. They've all been busting their asses since age 6 just to read the color of their crayons.

For those of you who read this and studied Japanese back in the day, how far did you get with the reading and writing?


Tom said...

I learned katakana, hiragana and about 500 kanji. I knew a lot of road signs because we drove a lot and it was reinforced. It never seemed to me that the benefit of reading and writing Japanese was commensurate with the amount of work you had to put into it. Speaking, on the other hand, always came in handy.

Nate said...

Hm, I recently started thinking the exact opposite. Like, as you learn how to read, you're half learning how to speak too, in terms of sentence structure and what a normal phrase looks like. Just learning how to speak doesn't teach you any kanji, but learning kanji also teaches you how to speak (obviously your accent will be way better if you just focus on speaking). It seems more efficient to divide my studies with like half reading/writing, half speaking.

When you study as little as I do, every bit counts. How much do you study Spanish every day? How's your progress?

My dad recently introduced me to the idea of spaced repetition flash cards, which is absolutely a brilliant way to learn new vocab. I'm using a free program for macs called Anki...the idea is that you see flash cards you forget way more often than the ones you remember.

denwanai said...

Hi Nate

My husband and I moved to Mutsu in 1983. We had learned Hiragana and katagana, on our own using workbooks, before we left. That was a big plus, but my husband was much more confident speaking and I had quite a knack for kanji. So it worked out well. He drove - I navigated. He ordered meals - I figured out the menu. I am amazed if a foreigner can read a magazine or a newspaper article in japanese. The different kanji readings were soooo difficult. BTW, give Tom that flash card computer game to prove he knows 500 Kanji, my foot (!)

I've often wondered why there weren't more studies about Japanese and their brain function vs the western world. Surely learning all that written detail and understanding the complexities of Japanese at such a young age must increase the synapes in the old brain pan. For example - what is the rate of ADD or ADHD among the youth of Japan? Academia...where are you?

Nate said...

Yeah, I would love to see a study like that. It's got to do something. For instance, I've heard that there are so many Hungarian math geniuses because just learning the language as a baby is so fiendishly difficult it turns the children into ready-made calculating machines. The Rubix Cube was invented by a Hungarian. Coincidence?

Here's a little snippet from Wikipedia on difficult languages:

According to a survey by the British Foreign Office among its diplomatic staff, the most difficult language to learn for adult English speakers is Hungarian, followed by Japanese.[1][unreliable source?] This survey naturally included only languages that are used in diplomatic relations and does not rule out the possibility of other languages that are even more difficult to learn.

--So there you have it..

There's actually a lot of interesting stuff on Wikipedia on this topic...just search for "difficult languages," "japanese," or "hungarian."

Tom said...

Notice I said "learned" 500 kanji. No way I know them now. I also studied for a couple of years at college which would have helped me more had I been a better student...but in actuality, my best learning came when I moved back to the US and had to speak on the phone in Japanese to feed my family.

I am convinced that how fast you learn is determined by your confidence. Being outgoing and not afraid of making mistakes are key personality traits to learning a language followed closely by being single and picking up a girlfriend/boyfriend who only speaks the language you are learning.

After Japanese, I always thought an "easy" language like Spanish would be cake. However, my progress has been very slow. I can get around OK and have short conversations but so far my ability is way below expectation.

Now my main study is a few minutes in the morning with the local paper online. I read it in Spanish then use the translator to see what I missed.

And Jenny, Nate is in Ishinomaki working for T.K.

Anonymous said...


I have been intensively focusing on the language for a few months now. The kanji are definitely a bit of work.

If you have not seen them, I would recommend both the FireFox plugin Rikaichan and the standalone application Wakan.

Rikaichan is a lifesaver for getting through HTML content without a brute-force translation.

Wakan is great to help expand vocabulary, kanji recognition and track progress.

Google also has a nice little en->jp translation bookmark you can add to your browser which will automatically translate pages you browse as you navigate.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how to translate spoken japanese into english? lol. Okay so someone typed out a phrase to me in japanese but they used the english alphabet. I'm trying to find out what it means, but ever translator that I've found online says it's already in english. Idk it's annoying. Anyone speak Japanese? lol Thanks!

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