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What's easy about learning Japanese

The last post looked at three items which I would list as the difficulties facing a would-be learner of Japanese. But they're by no means impossible obstacles. And take heart, o student: I can list many more than three things that I find make the language easy to learn! Kick back and dig in:

The easy stuff

Less grammar cruft

I think a lot of people expect the opposite here: a bizarrely convoluted grammar would nicely support presuppositions about an "exotic" language. But I'll happily hold up Japanese grammar as the learner's friend; it's missing so many of the little complexities that add a lot of headache for little benefit. Below are some of the things you don't have to worry about. Grammar haters, rejoice!

No plurals. Dog or dogs? Having plurals in a language is more complex than just adding an "s" to "dog", and isn't terribly useful either – all a topic to expound upon later. For now, be happy that in Japanese you won't have to worry about "dog" or "dogs"; it's all inu. The non-specificity sometimes helps what you want to say (think of any situation in English in which you have to clumsily say things like "a person or persons"). And when you do need to specify number, there are simple ways to do so. (Just have an all-purpose word "dog", and make that "one dog" or "two dog" or "many dog" as needed. What could be simpler?)*1

No noun genders. None of that "male/female/neutral noun" nonsense of European languages. (Let us praise the gods that English missed out on that.)

No "a" or "the". Ah, the indefinite and definite article. They're so basic to English, you wonder how a language can get along without them. Just fine, it turns out; lots of languages, including Japanese, happily do without. So going back to above mention of "dog": a simple inu has you covered for "dog", "the dog", "a dog", "dogs", and "the dogs". (A side note: How many versions of "the" are there in German, all separated by noun gender and number and what-have-you? A half dozen or more? It's zero in Japanese.) *2

Nice regular verbs. Eat, ate, eaten. Reach, reached, reached. Teach, taught, taught. Hit, hit, hit. Dive, dove... dived? Or was it dove again? Diven? No, I'm thinking of driven...

Yech. Conjugating verbs for tense in English is an endless procession of case-by-case test questions. Whereas in Japanese, nearly all verbs fall into one of only two easy-to-learn tense conjugation patterns. Even better, it's instantly obvious which pattern most verbs fall under; only a small number of verbs may leave you uncertain.

Alas, there are also irregular verbs that don't conjugate into one of those two patterns. But cheer up: those irregulars can be counted, I'll guess, on two hands. With fingers left over. And they're among the most-used verbs, so you'll master their special ways very quickly.

In short, Japanese verbs yield almost no tricky grammatical surprises. Beautiful!

No superfluous conjugation. Per the above, Japanese verbs have useful conjugations, like present and past tense. But they lack the meaningless complexity of conjugation for person, i.e., the way the English be conjugates to I am, you are, he is, etc. And naturally, without plurals or noun genders, there are no ugly conjugations for those complications either.

Just the useful stuff, and nothing else. I like that.

Simplest questions ever

Q: Did you eat?
A: I ate.

What the heck? That's about the simplest Q&A you could think of, but the sentences don't even share a word in common! On top of that, the answer is a basic subject-verb sentence, while the question wedges its subject in between two halves of a verb that mysteriously splits into two words. Ack, why must questions be so hard in English?

To make a question in Japanese, you just tack ka to the end of any statement – and that's all there is to it. I can't give any more explanation because there isn't any more. What could be easier?

Handy sentence-parsing markers

To make Japanese sentences, you'll make use of what are called particles: little markers like wa, ga, o, ni, de, e, etc. that denote the function of preceding words. Oddly, I've seen these described as one of the complex hurdles of the language. Far from it, in my estimation!

First, many of those fill the same function as English prepositions; they're your equivalents of "at", "by", "with", "to", etc. Sure, you'll find that it's not a one-to-one correspondence, and sometimes you'll have to use de to mean "at", and sometimes ni to mean "at", etc. But that's to be expected when comparing any two languages. No surprises or special difficulties so far.

What'll be new for most English speakers are the markers wa/ga for sentence topic/subject, and o for direct object. On the other hand, there are European languages that mark these in a similar way via noun cases; speakers of these shouldn't be too surprised by the concepts. And even English has an oddball equivalent of o: English pronouns, but only pronouns, change form when they're objects: I becomes me, they becomes them... she becomes her... while you remains you and it stays it...

Yikes, it's pretty messy when you look at it. This is another example of inconsistency that drives a learner of English nuts. In Japanese, all nouns and all pronouns just take o as objects. No exceptions.

At first, you may keep forgetting to use these markers at all. And the wa/ga distinction can be a tricky one. But don't think of the markers as complexities; they simplify things and are the learner's friends!

Think about it: Here's a language that clearly marks each part of the sentence for you. Not just the "who, when, why" stuff that prepositions take care of in English; you've also got clear markers that identify the topic or subject of the sentence, the direct object of the verb, and even the indirect object. It's like having a sentence laid open and dissected for you, all the parts tagged neatly and cleanly. (The only thing not tagged with a marker is the verb – and that's okay, because it's always in some familiar verb form, in its predictable place at the end of the sentence.)

Sentences with every part neatly tagged by function. What more could you ask for as an aid to understanding?

Flexible word order

Those handy markers offer an additional bonus. With each sentence part's function clearly marked by particles in Japanese (or by complex cases in some other languages), word order doesn't need to play a major role in marking function. Thus, you can mix up the order of things quite a bit in many sentences, and the markers will still make clear what's what.

For example, while a verb is almost always the last part of a sentence, you could place other parts after it for stylistic reasons. Yet the verb's predictable form, and the remaining words' markers, leave things clear.

True, there are limits on how things can be jumbled and still make sense (or at least still sound natural), but you have far more flexibility than in English, which relies on a rigid word order to mark sentence parts. Compared to English, word order is a lesser concern in many languages, including Japanese.

Logical consistency

This is far too big a topic to argue here, and is one I expect will foster disagreement, followed by a crossfire of anecdotal support. The point: it's my opinion that Japanese is relatively good at following nice, logical patterns. (Relatively is a key qualifier. No human language has much truck with logical structure.)

As an opening salvo in the duel of anecdotes, here's the kind of thing I'm talking about: In English, I'll meet you in October, on Monday, at 3:30. That's three different prepositions for the same purpose: specifying a time. Japanese would logically use one time-denoting particle (ni) for all three time components. *3

This sort of consistency is easy to overlook, but really makes the student's job easier!

Easy pronunciation

It's easy to make yourself understood in spoken Japanese. The language has a pretty limited palette of sounds, probably few of which pose any difficulty to your native tongue. For you English speakers, only the sound written as r may prove new and require work, perhaps rya, ryu, ryo particularly so. (Many people seem to think that tsu is problematic as well, though there's no reason at all for creating this mental block. If you can say hot soup, you can say tsu.)

Japanese has limited consonants, all without tongue-wrecking Slavic combinations of those. Only five simple, pure vowels; say "so long" to crazy English dipthongs. No Chinese-style tones. Heck, there isn't even overt syllable stress to worry about! Ah, the life!

That said, no one's claiming that it's easy to sound native in Japanese (or in any foreign language, for that matter). Native speech is chock full of rhythms, timings, and subtle stresses that you may pick up smoothly, or may never catch on to. To add a specific complication, Japanese does use high and low pitches for some syllables, kind of a (very) simplified counterpart to Chinese tones. Fortunately, unlike Chinese tones, these subtleties generally aren't make-or-break comprehension issues in Japanese.

While I'll admit I've seen some English speakers do a spectacular job of mangling Japanese pronunciation, they're a minority. You'll probably have little problem mastering passable – or better – pronunciation.

No silly gender obsession

Here I refer not to "grammatical" gender, but plan old biological gender. When you want to refer to a person in a formal manner, English requires – of all ridiculous things – that you specify the person's gender: Mr or Ms Wilson. (Even that Ms is a modern simplification; not long ago, you also had to reflect a woman's marital status in the salutation!)

But wait, it's not just a formal thing: you need to think "guy or gal?" every time you use he or she, him or her, his or her, and his or hers. That gets clumsy when you haven't met and only know an ambiguous name (Pat? Chris? And what do you make of a Pragyaparamita?). It gets really awkward when you do meet the person and still aren't sure...

If these gender-based terms were optional, that'd be fine. But they're not; English offers no neutral terms covering Mr or Mrs, he or she. (Oh, to have a nice neutral pronoun like the Chinese ta!) So we struggle with clunky phrases like "Dear Mr/Mrs Wilson," or "When greeting a customer, give him or her a brochure...". Or we use workarounds like the increasingly common (and awesomely ugly) kludge borrowing a plural pronoun: "When greeting a customer, give them a brochure...". (Ugh. That's a nice reminder of just how meaningless plurals are to begin with.)

Thankfully, such silliness isn't universal. Many languages, including Japanese, let you refer to people with no mention of gender. You can talk to, and talk about, your co-worker Terry for years, and never let slip that you haven't a clue as to which way his/her chromosomes go. (Well, maybe. There are equivalents for he and she in Japanese, kare and kanojo, with no handy neutral pronoun. But experienced learners will tell you that it's generally simple and common to reference people in Japanese without use of pronouns at all, making it easy to avoid that sticky wicket with Terry.)

(Hmm, this particular item is really more a matter of what's easy about using Japanese than it is about the ease of learning it. Maybe that's an upcoming separate article!)

Tons of English loanwords

As I mentioned in What's hard about learning Japanese, Korean speakers get a free pass where Japanese grammar is concerned, and Chinese readers get to take an extra trip around the gameboard when learning to read Japanese. English-savvy folk get a freebie too: a huge library of English words adopted into everyday Japanese. In fact, you'll find an almost ridiculous level of English "loanword" usage, even in instances when there are perfectly good Japanese words that would suffice.

The benefit: When you're stuck for the bon mot you need to complete your Japanese sentence, you can often fake it by retreating to an English term (and, sometimes, come across as trendily cultured in the process).

Of course, you'll need to first learn the "code" for rendering those words into Japanese syllables, and you'll need to catalog which English words get people nodding their heads and which just get them scratching the same. Also, be aware that humans don't often carry words across lingual borders without changes in meaning and usage; you'll have to revise your understanding of what some of those "English" words mean to your audience. Still, it's an initial freebie boost.

Incidentally, non-English languages shouldn't feel entirely left out; Japanese has borrowed words from here and there, in addition to the huge historical repertoire from Chinese. A number of medical, mountaineering, and camping terms, for example, have been taken from German. All you Alpine rescue paramedics, consider making Japan your next language-holiday destination!

More to come!

Readers: What else is easy about learning Japanese? Please tell me!



*1: I should add that there are ways to make some particularly useful plurals in Japanese, such as the handy -tachi that indicates a group (and thus turns "person" into "people", "child" into "children", etc.). But these tools are generally very flexible (that same -tachi turns "I" into "we"!) and easy to use, requiring no conjugations or other grammatical concerns. Other tools, such as the doubling of nouns that creates a literary-sounding plural (yama, "mountain" => yamayama, "mountains") again present no difficulties in use, and are rarely heard from. In short, Japanese is singularly free of plural hassles. (Go back)

*2: When there is a need to indicate distinctions among "dog", "the dog", "a dog", "dogs", and "the dogs", the tools are still there. You can simply state "one dog" or "five dog" or "many dog", or "that dog" to indicate a specific one, and so on. The grammatical particles ga and wa can also create an "a" vs "the" type of distinction, though this does create a bit of work for the learner. (Go back)

*3: More examples of logical inconsistency:

English infamously uses two words for many of its verbs. "Take up", "take down", "take in", "take out", "take on", "take off", and so on are each separate verbs with unique meanings (each distinct from mere "take"). Interestingly, English speakers like to drop stuff in between the parts, as in "You can take your coat off", but first take the garbage out." Or not, if you prefer: "You can take off your coat, but first take out the garbage" is also fine.

Hmm, two ways to do the same thing; that's nicely flexible! So where's the inconsistency? Try using a pronoun instead of a noun. "Look John up in Miami" is fine, as is "Look up John in Miami" – but while "Look him up in Miami" is fine, "Look up him in Miami" is not fine. Huh? Why are you required to drop an object pronoun, but not an object noun, in between the halves of a two-word verb? Just because. That's the sort of inconsistency that drives an English learner nuts!  

Here's another item – a bit of a tangent, perhaps, but I'll toss out it (er, toss it out, I mean):

English is weirdly illogical in responses to negative questions. On a day of splitting headaches, you naturally respond to "Are you going out?" with "No, I'm staying home." Fine. But you also respond to the opposite inquiry, "You're not going out?", with the same answer: "No, I'm staying home". In Japanese, as above, you respond to "Are you going out?" with "No, I'm staying home" – but you (sensibly!) respond to the opposite inquiry, "You're not going out?", with the opposite confirming word: "Yes [that's right], I'm staying home". It makes logical sense, and some Japanese speakers find it very hard to learn the odd English way! (Go back)



I learned Japanese for three

I learned Japanese for three years in high school, and we had wonderful flash cards to help us learn the Japanese alphabets. I can still remember most of the 80 characters I learned, even after 20 years of not using them. For example, a couple of lines were added to the character 'ma' to make it look like 'ma' was a telephone pole. And the association used was that I use the phone to call my mother. We quickly, easily and unforgettably learned hiragana and katakana. I was learning French at the same time but quit it because I found it more difficult and less interesting than Japanese. I'm so glad I was exposed to Japanese.  


Nice article, I'd dispute your points about the particles.  The particles are hard enough even for native speakers to wrap their heads around that there are actually TV shows out there aimed at native speakers that teach their proper usage.  And I can't count the number of times I've seen Japanese people stuck when writing a letter because they're not sure of which particle they should use, and are afraid of looking bad to the reader by choosing the wrong one.

Singular 'they'

The singular they is not modern; Shakespeare and Chaucer used it, and it is only subjectively ugly. Even if you do find it ugly, it is far nicer than 'he/she'.


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