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A dose of sensibility: Japanese not so difficult

I'll dip again into my bag of old newspaper clippings. This one is from the October 10, 1994 issue of The Japan Times, in the Nihongo and I column: "Language change inevitable", a discussion with Professor Kikuo Nomoto, former director of the National Language Research Institute.

The gist of the discussion is the changes taking place in Japanese, such as the way that totemo (very) once preceded only a negative (totemo dekinai) but is now commonly used in front of a positive (totemo omoshirokatta), or the way that taberenai, mirenai, etc. are becoming everyday subsitutes for the more "correct" taberarenai, mirarenai, etc.

But there's no grumpy-old-man stance here; the professor is wonderfully accepting of these changes as the way languages always have, and always will, continue to develop.

"Languages are almost always changing. It is irresistable, in spite of resistance from those who cannot accept ways of speaking and weiting they are not accustomed to."

Rather than railing against change, the sage Professor Nomoto even goes on to express regret that he won't be around to see how some of these changes play out in decades to come. 

As the article moves on to the professor's views of language uniqueness and difficulty, what's amazing is that the level-headed realism stays solid – a rarity in the field. For example, while I've seen bizarre claims that the "huge number" of imported loan-words in Japanese says something special about the modern Japanese language or mindset, Professor Nomoto cuts to the chase with facts. 

As for the flood of "katakana" for borrowed words, Nomoto says these borrowed words stand out just because their shapes are different from kanji and hiragana.

"The percentage of Latin-origin and Greek-origin words of all English words is about 55 percent, while foreign language-origin words account for only 12 percent of all Japanese words. So I think the 'katakana' words just stand out in Japanese language", he said.

Yes. I've said it before myself: there's nothing special about Japanese's level of loan-word usage. It's great to see an authority back that up with numbers. 

On the topic of foreigners learning Japanese, here's more clear-headed wisdom:

"...At the final stage of their learning, I am sure, language learners could realize there is no big differences in languages as far as they are spoken by us all human beings", he said. 

For non-Japanese learners, Japanese language is not difficult, the professor adds. "The writing systems are a little difficult", he says. "But that is not related to linguistics, is it?"

Japanese language is easy to learn: its grammar, pronunciation and syllabus structure are all very simple, he says. For example, Japanese grammar rules have few exceptions and have only two irregular verbs, "kuru" and "suru". 

Also, the number of consonant sounds are 13 to 15 in Japanese, but 22 in English. Japanese has five vowel sounds, while English has eight, according to Nomoto. 

Bravo; I couldn't have said it better myself. It feels odd to applaud a few comments that only reflect reality, but it seems I almost never read such a discussion of Japanese that doesn't include at least one goofy foray into Japanology. 

I don't know whether Professor Nomoto (who would be 86 now) is still teaching, but I thank him for the work he's done. 


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