Welcome everybody, I am here to share with you another interesting article by Sean, given the interest on the first one I published last week. Always striving to learn Japanese, this time we will focus on the more specific topic of how the japanese language works, and what are the main difficulties you will find on your way.
Enjoy, and let me know what you think!
The cover picture is by lucasmalta, on morguefile.com
So You Think You Can Speak Japanese? Think Again.
Japanese or Nihongo, as it is more accurately known as, is certainly not the most common or popular language in the world. Based on the statistical data from the website, Ethologue, it has roughly around 128 million speakers. While it this number may sound like a lot, it pales in comparison to the likes of the Chinese and Spanish, having 1,284 million and 437 million, respectively.
Perhaps in spite of this fact or because of it, the need for individuals who are wellversed in the language has consistently been in high demand in recent years. Companies that offer Japanese translation services have continued to be an essential element in any industry, helped in no small part by the country hosting one of the most consistently developed economies in the world and how its culture has enamored a great many of us.
For those who may not be too familiar with the language, there are actually two different types and quite a few variations that are associated with them. The Standard Japanese or more specifically called the Tokyo type is the most commonly known. It is a form that has existed since the Meiji Restoration of the mid-to-late 1800s and normally used by those who belonged within the higher social classes.
Nowadays this standard has become more or less as the country’s primary language. It is not just taught in schools but used in almost everything else, from entertainment and media to political and government matters. But with a country as rich in culture as Japan is, it comes as no surprise that it’s a host to a multitude of different dialects. These differ in varying degrees to the common language, ranging from simple inflections to pitch and vocabulary as well as contextual situations.
The other popular type is Kansai, and as its name suggests, the dialect is rooted from the named region. Unlike its city counterpart, the people in this area tend to be remarkably more sociable and easy-going in nature. This is reflected in the more relaxed and informal way they tend to use the language.
Some people may be under the impression that Nihongo is easy to learn when matched with other languages. While it may be true for the most part, it’s certainly not undemanding. Learning a specific language from an educational institution can go a long way but being exposed to it in its native environment can be an entirely different, if not an enlightening experience.
For example, “Watashi” is generally the more formal way to refer to yourself in Japanese, and will no doubt be one of the first things you’ll learn from your teacher. But you’ll be surprised to find out that most Japanese males often use “Boku” and “Ore” since the aforementioned “Watashi” is generally associated with women. It isn’t necessarily incorrect to use the term if you’re a man but you may get more than a few chuckles from the locals in a casual setting when you do.
That being said, having some knowledge of the standard common language should help a great deal when within the city of Tokyo and its provincial counterpart, Osaka. Experience is oftentimes the best teacher however, and this statement holds true especially in this case. Here are just a few reasons why it is a far more effective approach to learn Nihongo from its native country of Japan.
Language is a big part of any culture. One could even argue that it is the culture. With that being said, one of the advantages of learning Nihongo from Japan is being exposed to it and being familiar with its people and culture on a regular basis. While there may be academic textbooks on the subject, they serve mostly as supplementary materials and not a replacement for the experience. You’ll be able to communicate with the locals much more frequently and learn certain characteristics and nuances on the language that you may not have been able to do so otherwise.
Practice is an absolutely essential element of learning, and knowledge acquired from experience can often be a much more effective means of understanding and eventually being able to use the language correctly. Being in its homeland allows you to be exposed to it much more frequently and get the necessary practice you’ll need outside of studying it in a school. What is the point if the usage of the language is limited after all?
Learning the Japanese language from a native or at the very least someone who has spent a great amount of time in the country can be much more beneficial and effective in a lot of ways. Their experience is key and they no doubt hold a host of knowledge that may not necessarily be limited to Nihongo, and this can be an invaluable asset. While books are certainly a good way to acquire information, exposure can be just as effective if not more so.
Becoming a Natural in the Japanese Language
We can’t all expect to be immediate experts in a foreign language. Learning Nihongo takes time and practice, not unlike many other things. But you need not worry if this all appears to be just a little intimidating or overwhelming. There are a few phrases and sentences that are generally understood by the majority of Japanese speakers.
- “Ohayougozaimasu, Konnichiwa, Konbanwa” means good morning, hello/good afternoon and good evening in Japanese. They are commonly used phrases by the majority of the locals.
- “Oyasuminasai” is used to bid someone good night in Nihongo. It is often just shortened to simply using the first word.
- “Hai” is quite possibly the most popular Japanese word and is often used as an affirmative response in most situations.
- “Nan, Doko, Dare” What, where and who, respectively. These words are often preceded by the subject and ended with “desuka?” One example would be, “Anatawa doko desuka”which translates as where are you since “anata” means “you.” The same structure can generally be used by the other interrogative words.
- “Jamata” means “see you later” in Japanese. It is used more commonly nowadays as a more casual way before parting as opposed to, “Sayonara.”
- “Suki” basically means “to like” something. Normally ends with the “desu” prefix.
- “ArigatouGozaimasu” is the formal and most accepted way of expressing gratitude or thanks. Not unlike both “ohayou” and “oyasumi,” this can be trimmed down to the first word as well. Sometimes, “domo” is used for this purpose as well.
Another thing to take note of in the Japanese language is their use of particles. It is an essential part of Nihongo, as it can often determine the meaning behind the sentence or phrase. Wa, for example, serves more or less as way to mark the topic or subject. No, on the other hand, is a possessive particle used to denote ownership for the said subject. This may appear to be a little complex but the more you use it, the easier it gets to apply it.
The Japanese culture is heavily rooted in respect, and this is mirrored in both Nihongo and in the manner that it is commonly spoken in. The way they structure their sentences, the choice of words and other complexities associated with the language can be attributed to their desire to be polite and show civility to one another. This is perhaps one of, if not, the most important considerations when learning and using the language. And in a way, it becomes much more than a means for communication.
And there you have it. Learning any language is tough, and despite its relative simplicity, the Japanese language has many elements elevate its complexity to a higher degree. It isn’t something that one can learn in days, weeks or even months. It could potentially take years before one is well versed enough in Nihongo. But the effectivity of the learning process is determined by not just the tools we have, but by our environment as well.
It goes without saying that learning a language from its country of origin will always be a far more effective means of yielding the desired results. Even in an age where modern technology has aided us in making everything more convenient and efficient, there’s really no substitute for experience. Exposure in the culture and its people can go a long way into developing your knowledge and skill into correctly using the language.
There’s nothing that cannot be achieved with the right mindset and the discipline to persevere. As long as you maintain your focus and desire to learn, you will be able to do so. But always remember to practice whenever you can. Another potentially effective way of learning would be watching Japanese TV shows. Simply hearing them talk can do volumes of good in retaining knowledge of the language similar to how the repetition of exercises and movements for athletes help keep the actions embedded in muscle memory.
Sean Hopwood, MBA is founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online translation and legal interpreting services provider, dedicated to the improvement of global communications.