Culture

Learn ABOUT the Japanese Language! Everyone Asks #4

There are a lot of articles here on Japanese Tactics that teach Japanese words and phrases. There are also a lot of posts that talk about the process of learning and how you can use them to learn Japanese faster than the common methods.

But instead of another lesson on one of those topics, I thought it would be interesting to take some time instead to learn about the Japanese language and some of the unique things that it contains, that other languages do not.

Some of these things you probably already know. But a few of them you just might not. Are you curious?

This post could probably go on for thousands and thousands of words depending on how deep you wanted to dive in, so I’ll keep it to just these top five that I think are really cool.

(1) Who Speaks Japanese?

Who Speaks Japanese

Of course the primary place that Japanese is spoken is within the country of Japan. There are about 127 million people living in the country with Japanese being their native tongue.

For the most part, Japan is a homogeneous society. That’s a fancy way of saying that basically everybody who lives in Japan was born and raised there.

There are of course people from other parts of the world there, and a good amount of Koreans and Chinese that assimilated into Japan, but for the most part Japan has always been the land of one people: the Japanese.

Despite this, Japanese is actually NOT the official national language of Japan!

Can you believe it?!

All things considered though, Japanese people are basically monolingual (only speak one language) similar to the way most Americans are, so there’s probably never been a real need for the government to officially state that “Japanese is the official language of Japan.”

I find that really interesting! I also learned recently that both English and Spanish are the official language of the State of California in the USA. Didn’t know that before either! Did you?

Getting back to the topic at hand, can you guess where the #2 place is in the world that uses the Japanese language?

It’s not America.

Not an Asian country either.

It’s actually Brazil! And it turns out that Japanese is the second most commonly spoken language there! Wow!

It turns out that Brazil is home to the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan itself. Brazil has about 1.5 million people there of Japanese decent. It started about 100 years ago with a large number of families immigrating there and has increased over time.

Very interesting! I wonder what they found over there that they liked so much. Hmm…

(2) What are the Characteristics of Japanese?

Japanese is not like English.

Despite the large amount of loan words Japanese has adopted from English, the two languages are actually very different from one another.

In fact, there’s actually a list created by The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) that groups the most common languages of the world into five different categories based off of how easy it is for a native English speaker to learn them. The short version of it is this:

The closer the target language is to English = The easier it is to learn.

Spanish is in group #1, which is the easiest category for English speakers to learn.

Japanese is literally on the other end of the chart, in group #5 which is the hardest.

So congratulations. You decided to play the game on Legendary difficulty!

Lol, but no really. Why is it so hard for native English people?

Well it’s definitely not the sounds of the language. Japanese actually has LESS sounds in it than English does.

Japanese only has 11 consonants and 5 vowels that are combined in various ways to create a total of 48 sounds.

It’s really the all terrifying grammar that stumps people (also Kanji which is in the next section). Japanese basically has a reverse word order when compared to how English does it.

Now what I’m about to say is not always true, but generally speaking if you just reverse a Japanese sentence and translate the words, you will get the equivalent sentence in English.

It’s a little scary how often this trick works, but of course it won’t work 100% of the time. That’s because Japanese is a language that is very context-reliant. This just means that if you mentioned a topic or subject earlier in the conversation, you can leave it out from then on!

That’s one of the reasons that computer programs like Google Translate have such a hard time when it comes to translating Japanese and making any kind of sense. There’s simply not enough information in a normal sentence because it was already stated two or three sentences ago! Don’t need to keep repeating it!

Ok, so you know that there are less sounds than English and that it’s like speaking backwards for most people (you read Japanese that way too, lol), but what else is there?

There’s formality. A lot of it!

  1. There’s the normal way you talk to your friends and family.
  2. There’s the polite way you talk to your peers and strangers.
  3. There’s a humble way you talk to people who are above you like teachers and your boss.
  4. And there’s a million and one ways to modify the nouns and verbs for each group!

It’s actually not all that bad once you get into it and start using Japanese consistently. You start to get a feel for the patterns.

But it is really confusing for beginners when they learn that there are quite a few different words that mean the exact same thing, they just convey different levels of formality.

It’s like, if I tell you that いかが (ikaga) is just the formal version of どう (dou) right when you learn it, then there’s no problem. But if you learn one, and then learn the other, and nobody tells you it’s just a formality change, then you can get confused!

Like, why have two words that mean the exact same thing? Ahh, but they don’t. Not really. You just didn’t know if until now.

As a general rule, the longer a word gets, the more formal it gets too. Just a little tip there 😉

On the flip side of things though, Japanese doesn’t have noun genders or conjugations based on who is doing the action (a common thing in Romance languages).

It also doesn’t deal with articles (a, the) or any plural forms of nouns (cat, cats, catzes).

So at the end of the day, you don’t have to say a whole lot to have a good conversation in Japanese. When you compare it to English, about half of everything you would normally have to say for the sentence to make sense is omitted, or doesn’t exist anyway!

Yes, you can convey the fact that Sally ate all of the rice just by saying 食べた !!!

(3) What’s the Writing System Like?

Well, what’s it not like… really?

Our alphabet, that’s what!

In English, our alphabet consists of 26 letters that have both an upper case and lower case version.

Japanese on the other hand has a total of three writing systems.

Hiragana is the first and most basic script. It has 46 basic “kana” (or symbols) and then another 61 modified kana that are just the basic ones again, but with some slight alterations.

Katakana is the second and can be compared to our upper case letters in the sense that they represent the exact same sounds as Hiragana, but they are simply used for different purposes.

Katakana also have those additional 61 modified kanas, and in addition there are a few extras. You see, Katakana is what’s used for all of those nice loan words that Japanese has adopted from other languages. But the Japanese people had to get creative when they would take in a new word that used sounds not naturally found in Japanese.

That being said, all load words basically sound like a “Japanized” version of the original word anyway. Sometimes to the point where you can’t even recognize what the original word that it’s based off of is. But oh well, it’s not the end of the world… yet.

Kanji is the third and final writing system (even though historically it was created first) in the Japanese trio. Kanji are literally “Chinese characters” that were imported and made to fit into the Japanese language since they didn’t actually have a written system of their own at the time.

As you might have guessed, trying to push a square object into a round hole doesn’t work too well, so Hiragana and Katakana were invented in order to make Kanji work 100% with the Japanese language.

What’s interesting is that there have been talks (every now and then) about the Japanese people abandoning these three writing systems and taking up an alphabetic system instead (that’s what Korea did – very successfully too I might add).

Why would you want to abandon the current writing systems you might ask? Well it might have to do with the fact that there are literally over 50,000 different Kanji.

Yeah, you read that right.

It’s a big scary number, but it actually doesn’t mean much since you only have to learn about 2,000 Kanji to be considered literate in the language – a fact that nearly 100% of Japanese people are (which is crazy awesome for a country).

But in my opinion, I think Japan should keep the Kanji and Kanas. I mean, they are so cool! Each Kanji representing a meaning in addition to having one or several sounds that it can use.

If you look at my name Nick, it doesn’t have any meaning. (That’s not entirely ture. It means “cool kid” but you get what I’m saying.)

I like to think of Bruce Willis’ line in Pulp Fiction when he says “I’m American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit.”

But Japanese people’s names DO have meaning which is super cool!

The Japanese girl’s name Yoko could mean either “ocean child” or “sun child” depending on if it’s spelled 洋子 or 陽子 respectively.

Now I realized that some languages (like Hebrew) still have deeper meanings behind the names, but the point I’m making is that the Japanese language is able to do so many things that English can’t simply because of their writing system using ideographs instead of it being purely based on sound.

Still, having made my own personal case for not replacing the current Japanese writing system with a simpler alphabet, I actually highly doubt that it would ever happen. I mean come on, too much work!

(4) How Long Does it Take to Learn Japanese?

Hmm, this is a very common question I hear from people.

Let me put it this way, remember that chart I talked about earlier that said that Japanese is one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn? They said that the minimum to be proficient, that’s right the minimum would be 88 weeks or 2,200 hours!!!

Now let me say a couple of things on this:

First of all, learning a language is a matter of hours spent training, not days, weeks, or years.

It’s really similar to learning how to play the piano: the TIME you put in matters. Not some arbitrary marker like a year.

Let’s do some math with study time for Japanese: if you put in one hour a day, every single day, you’re going to make progress:

1 year of this training = 365 hours

But if you put in six hours a day (crazy, right?) you get a totally different story:

1 year of crazy training = 2,190 hours

Hey! That’s what you need to do to be “proficient” right?

Here’s the thing: if you honestly put in 6-hour days of studying Japanese, every single day, then you’d be fluent within six months. I promise you! (any takers???)

Here’s the caveat though, “as long as you do it in a productive way.”

The thing is, WHAT you choose to study, is important. If you learn the top 2,000 words that are used in Japanese then you will understand something like 90% of what you hear. Guess what? 2,000 words is basically 6 words a day for one year. A cake-walk!

But it’s also important HOW you choose to study. You can’t just learn vocabulary, you also need to learn words within the context of phrases and common expressions since that is, umm… how people actually talk? Yeah. That’s right.

I talk about different ways that you can study Japanese that are, let’s just say, nothing you’ll find in a typical classroom. They have been proven to be some of the most effective ways of taking in new information (like languages) by people a lot smarter than myself, many of them polyglots (people who are fluent in five or more languages).

My list of techniques gets increased every month as I continue to build out this fairly new site (it’s less than a year old, give me some time, time!) over in the Tactics Category. Check it out if you’re interested.

Some of the ideas might be a bit controversial. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them over on those particular posts.

Here’s the bottom line: Most people tell you that it will take you 10 years to become fluent in Japanese. That’s crap. You can do it a lot quicker than you’d imagine… But there are a few conditions:

  1. You gotta learn the right things (don’t waste time learning stuff like kidneys in Japanese)
  2. You gotta learn the right way (here’s a hint: don’t learn differently than your end goal of using it)
  3. You gotta put in the hours (there’s nothing magical about the 1-year mark, 5-year mark, 10-year mark…)

Let’s be totally honest, I’m sure you could have come up with these same conclusions given time. I mean, it’s common sense, right?

But oh no my friends, common sense is THE LEAST common thing these days!!!

(5) How has Japanese Influenced the World?

You know what? We’ve talked a lot (ehem… I’ve talked a lot!) about the ways that other languages have influenced Japanese with things like loan words and such. But how has Japanese influence other languages? Or the rest of the world for that matter?

Well let’s take a look at some of the words that we use in English that come from there.

Of course we’ve got such classics as:

  • Sumo (sumo wrestlers)
  • Sudoku (best game)
  • Karate (hi-ya!)
  • Karaoke (nope!)
  • Toyota (don’t drive it)
  • Mazda (do drive it)
  • Sushi (yum!)

And many more that you would know if you heard it. Do YOU know of some Japanese words that we use in English regularly? Share them down in the comments section.

But what do I like the most from Japan? That right… ANIME! MANGA! And good ol’ Japanese Role Playing Games!!!

I’m sure you already know my story written on my “about me” page, but for me personally these things are my bread and butter.

Not just for Japanese. For life!

I’m involved in these things every week, if not every single day (sometimes I get busy… ). In both English and Japanese just depending on what it is. Let me give you some examples:

  • Current anime: Pandora in the Crimson Shell: Ghost Urn
  • Current manga: Blame
  • Current JRPG: Disgaea 5 (PS4)

Have you guys played/watched/read any of these? Let me know what you’re into right now by leaving a comment. I’m always looking for good recommendations!

Of course there are many other cool things from Japan – like BABYMETAL (best band) and all of those awesome martial arts, but I will have to leave them for another time.

What about you? Is there a particular Japanese band or artist that you like?

Have you been studying any martial arts from The Land of the Rising Sun? Things like karate, judo, aikido, or kendo?

Your Passport to Another Land

The truth is, there’s another world out there waiting for you. There’s an adventure that’s got your name written on it. But to be the chosen one, you don’t have to pick up a wooden sword from an old man. You have to learn Japanese.

While you can certainly enjoy things from Japan in the English translated versions (hey, I still do), there’s just a lot that gets lost when you go from one language to the other.

Remember that chart that says Japanese is hard? It’s true because Japanese ≠ English. You truly cannnot substitute one word for another and get the exact same meaning. Most of the nuances that give Japanese so much flavor just aren’t there after the conversion.

So, do you really want to learn Japanese? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to learn it?

Let me know! I want to hear from you guys on this!

4 Comments

  • Kim

    I’d love to see some techniques on ways to reduce the amount of time it takes to learn Japanese. Like, if the average time it takes a person according to normal conventions is five years, then what are the ways to reduce it to three years, or even one year?

    What are your thoughts on writing an article on that topic?

    • Nick Hoyt

      It’s actually kind of interesting that you mention it, because I’ve been thinking about writing on that topic recently. I’ll work on collecting my thoughts and then put them into a post that is (hopefully) useful for you and others!

  • Hollie Rose

    I loved reading your article. I always fascinated by other cultures. I had no idea that there are so many Japanese people in Brazil. So interesting. If Japanese isn’t the official language in Japan, then what is?
    I think any language which has a different alphabet is automatically harder.
    Japan is truly an interesting place!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Hollie, even though Japanese is not the “official” language of Japan, it’s what everybody uses. I think that since they’ve always used one primary language, there was never a need to make it official. Although there is a push for more citizens to learn English, especially with the 2020 Olympics being hosted there. 

      Whereas other areas like in Europe where almost everyone speaks multiples languages in each country, they probably have to decide on a governmental level what each of their official languages are going to be for each area.

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