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A brief introduction to the Japanese language

1. Why should we learn Japanese?
2. Is Japanese easy to learn?
3. More about Japanese writing system.
4. More about Japanese sound system.
5. What exam can I take to prove my Japanese proficiency?
6. Is Japanese related to any other languages?
7. Does Japanese have dialects?


1. Why should we learn Japanese?

Some people are after Japanese girls. Others are seeking well-paid job posts in big shot Japanese companies. I, however, think the main reason for learning Japanese is that Japan has a lot of good things but its people generally don’t speak English. This language barrier blocks a large percentage of those good things from entering the English speaking world. The Japanese are good novel writers, inventors, game makers and song writers. But very few of their works are translated into English, except for the most famous ones like Dragon Ball and Final Fantasy. We are missing out on this large resource of entertainment and useful information just because we don’t know their language. It’s really a waste of our short lives!

After mastering the Japanese language, you’ll feel like having a second life. A new world will be opened. And you’ll have access to a lot of information which is off-limits to non-Japanese speakers. And if you have a good product, you can sell it to the wealthiest market in the world. There are many possibilities. But the key point is that you need to speak their language.

Think of the Japanese language as a shovel. With that on your hand, you can dig deeper into one of the most valuable resources of information in the world.

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2. Okay. The most important question: Is Japanese easy to learn?

There isn’t a language so difficult that a five-year-old boy can’t speak. And there isn’t a language so easy that a fifty-year-old man can fully master. From the point of view of a successful learner of Japanese and English (I am Chinese), I think Japanese is not easy but neither is it as difficult as people say it is. The main reason why people think it is difficult is that Japanese writing system has Kanji and two sets of alphabet called Hiragana and Katakana. While I agree that Kanji is difficult to master, Hiragana and Katakana should not be a problem at all. I have made detailed Hiragana and Katakana lessons in this website, with pronunciation demonstrations and mnemonics specially designed for English speakers, which I hope would make your learning process less painful and more enjoyable.

Also, Hiragana and Katakana are the phonetic symbols of Japanese language. In other words, you don’t need to remember how to spell Japanese words, because their pronunciations are directly related to their spelling, which is one of the easy aspects of learning this language. And while Kanji is difficult to write, Japanese is a very forgiving language. Every Kanji / Kanji phrase can be written in Hiragana or Katakana. If you forget how to write a specific Kanji, then just write it in Hiragana or Katakana. Your main Kanji mission is to recognize as many of them as possible. Writing can be delayed. I have made some lessons to teach you the most common Kanji, also with full pronunciation demonstrations, stroke order illustrations and mnemonics. Don’t just listen to me or what other people say. Go take a look yourself and see if Kanji is really that difficult.

By the way, there is a great website called Hiragana Megane in which you are asked to input the URL of a Japanese webpage. Hiragana Megane will then send you to that page and show the Hiragana transcription of every Kanji there. You can learn the pronunciations of a lot of Kanji this way. And it’ll make it easier for you to look up their meanings in dictionaries.

Another reason why people think Japanese is difficult is that the Japanese speak very fast. Yes, they do speak very fast. But that’s because the pronunciation system of Japanese is much much much simpler than that of European languages. There are only five vowels in Japanese, namely, aiueo. And it has fewer consonants than English does. As a result, to compensate for the lack of sound elements, the Japanese language has longer words. And one syllable words are very rare in Japanese. (That said, if you ask the Japanese people, most of them would say that English speakers speak too fast.) On the other hand, because Japanese has a simple sound system, it is very easy to speak understandable Japanese. Most of the time people will understand you even if your accent is funny. Japanese is such a magical language.

As a conclusion, easy or difficult is just a matter of trade-off. While Kanji is difficult to learn, you can easily use Hiragana and Katakana to write Japanese without the need to spell words. And while your ears suffer because the Japanese speak too fast, your tongue enjoys it because of the relatively simple sound system. I forget to tell you that Japanese only has two irregular verbs and all verbs are gender-free.

If you are still scared, then listen up: there are a lot of English loanwords in Japanese, so many that people need to publish separate dictionaries just for those loanwords. So if you speak English, chances are you have already known more than 1000 Japanese words. Don’t believe me? I have written a free Ebook, listing out the most common 500 English loanwords in Japanese with, once again, full pronunciation demonstrations. Please download, click around and listen for yourself. I think you’ll definitely become more confident after using my Ebook. (Because the file size of this free ebook exceeds 10 Mb, if you want to download it, please contact me via the contact form at the bottom of the front page. I will then send the ebook directly to your email mailbox.)

(Update: I have uploaded the free Ebook to 4shared.com. You can download it there. )

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3. Tell me more about Japanese writing system.

Historically, Japanese language did NOT have any writing system. It was a sound only language. Kanji (Chinese characters) was then imported into Japan. The Japanese people learned Kanji and made Chinese sentences in Chinese grammar for a while. In other words, they wrote in Chinese. But because the two languages had very different grammatical systems, it was very inconvenient for the Japanese to record their thoughts this way. What would you think if you had to write “I read a book” as “I book read”?

The Japanese later began to twist the Chinese language by changing the word order and inserting some particles to make the sentences ‘more Japanese’. To read Chinese in the Japanese way may sound like a crazy idea, but this phenomenon still exists in modern Japan’s high school curriculum. The name of the subject is called Kanbun.

A lot of Kanji lost their original meanings when they were borrowed to "spell out" Japanese words and used as Japanese grammatical elements. Sometimes different Kanji were used to represent the same sound. And it wasn’t uncommon that one single Kanji could represent more than one sound. It was really a mess. So later people standardized the borrowed Kanji and simplified their strokes as their original meanings were useless. These standardized and simplified Kanji, after many years of evolution, finally became today’s Hiragana and Katakana. Yes. Hiragana and Katakana are actually deformed Kanji!!!

Hiragana

Hiragana is derived from a style of Chinese calligraphy called cursive form. Some of them look very similar to their origins such as い&以, も&毛, け&計 while others demand a little bit more imagination. All Japanese students are first taught how to write Hiragana at school as they are the basic component of the Japanese language. It is possible to write a Japanese article in Hiragana only. But the problem is that there is no space between two Japanese words as in English and Japanese has a lot of Chinese terms that share the same pronunciation. Hiragana-only articles are difficult to read even for native Japanese. For example, 投資(invest),闘志(fighting spirit), 凍死(frozen to death), 唐詩(poems written in Tang Dynasty) and 党史(history of a political party) can all be written as とうし(toushi) in Hiragana. As you can see, ‘toushi’ is really meaningless if taken out of context. And are you willing to sign a Hiragana-only legal document?

Katakana

Katakana is derived from radicals or components of Kanji. For example, イis taken from the radical of 伊.After WWII, they are only used to write non-Chinese loanwords (e.g. カメラ(kamera) for ‘camera’) and scientific names (e.g. イヌ instead of 犬 or いぬ(dog).) Novel writers create terms in Katakana to show that the characters know how to pronounce the terms but don’t know their meanings. And manga artists always write dialogues in Katakana to show that the speaker is a foreigner. Because of Katakana, there are a lot of funny writing techniques that are never seen in the English speaking world.

Kanji

Kanji is generally hated by Japanese learners and even native students. As a Chinese myself, I hated them a lot because Chinese is all Kanji and Kanji only. Writing Kanji is a fast way to kill your pencils and train your arm’s muscles. And Chinese children usually begin reading much later than their European peers. But the Japanese are not stupid. There must be some reasons why they choose to keep Kanji in their language despite the difficulty to learn and write.

So what are the reasons?

First, Kanji can convey complicated meaning while keeping the length of the phrase short, e.g. 上半期 VS ‘the first half of the year’. In English, we always need to extract the first letter of every word in a phrase to form acronyms in order to make the phrase short. But the resulting acronyms are usually difficult to understand. Kanji does not have this problem because each of them has a meaning. Actually, I find Kanji lovely when I’m working on Excel.

Modern Japanese writing system usually mixes Kanji with Hiragana and Katakana. Because Kanji is usually the keywords of an article, this kind of mixture writing system automatically highlights all keywords and makes it possible for readers to read faster. To show you how it works, read the following sentence:

"Katakana was imported from 中国 many many years ago."
Do you think that 中国 stands out from the rest of the sentence and get more of your attention? By the way, this Kanji phrase means “China”.

Also, Kanji is a convenient tool for creating new terms. For example, nobody know what pneumonia and osteoporosis are about without referring to a dictionary or being explained by someone else. But all Japanese can understand 肺炎 and 骨粗鬆症 by just reading the Kanji, which can be literally translated as “lung-inflammation” and “bone-rough-loose-disease”.

Romaji

This fancy name actually refers to Latin alphabet or simply English alphabet used to romanize Japanese. I find that quite a lot of Beginner's Japanese textbooks in the English speaking world teach Japanese in Romaji, which I think is a very BAD decision.

Why? The first reason is that the Japanese never write articles in Romaji only. Romaji is for transcribing people's names, places' names and writing words such as 'DVD', 'Eメール' (Email). In real life, you will never read Japanese writing like this one: "watashi ha nihonji desu." And you should never write Japanese this way either. So those textbooks are actually teaching something that doesn't exist in real life. And I don't see the value of being a fluent but illiterate Japanese speaker.

And the second reason is that learners tend to pronounce Japanese words the English way if the so-called Japanese is written in Romaji. Can you blame me for pronouncing Japanese R the English way when all I see is 'ra, ri, ru, re, ro'? So for learners who don't bother to use the bundled CD's, they will build up a very bad accent at the very beginning and it takes a lot of effort and time to unlearn it.

Last but not least, just as Hiragana-only articles are difficult to read, Romaji-only ones are by no means easier, if not more difficult. Even native Japanese CANNOT read Romaji-only Japanese articles because of the large amount of homonyms. You will get confused when you see that 'kansei' means 'cheer' in Chapter 1 but suddenly it means 'completion' in Chapter 11. Oh, no, it also means 'inertia' and 'control' in other chapters.

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4. Tell me more about Japanese sound system.

No disrespect. The Japanese are known for their bad English accent. It has nothing to do with their intelligence, (Remember, they are one of the cleverest race in the world), but is strongly related to the fact that the Japanese sound system is very different from that of English. A lot of sound elements that English speakers take for granted are missing in Japanese. Examples are 'Th', 'R', 'F', etc. And since Japanese only has 5 vowels, namely a, i, u, e and o, all other vowels in English actually does not exist at all in Japanese. So you can understand how difficult it is for a Japanese adult to learn English.

Japanese has voiced consonants. English speakers should have no problem with that. But their unvoiced consonants can be pronounced in two ways, aspirated or unaspirated. If you don't know what aspiration is, an easy explanation is that all English unvoiced consonants are by default aspirated, except for the one after the letter "S". For instance, the 'p' in sport and port are pronounced differently. Try it yourself. The 'p' after 's' is called unaspirated unvoiced consonant, which exists in English only after the letter 's', but is quite common in other European languages, e.g. French papa. Unaspirated unvoiced consonants are very common in Japanese, but it is seldom mentioned in textbooks. The result is that English speaking learners pronounce all as aspirated and give out a strange foreigner accent. To solve this problem, I suggest practising the pronunciation of English words that begin with a letter 'S' such as "start", "sky", "space" and then try to pronounce the sames word WITHOUT the 'S' sound.

Although Fuji Mountain is so famous, Japanese in fact does not have English 'F' sound. Their upper front teeth NEVER touch the lower lip. That's why they don't have 'V' sound either. So if you say the 'F' or 'V' sound when talking in Japanese, it's very likely that you have a bad accent.

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5. What exam can I take to prove my Japanese proficiency?

The most recognized exam is JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), which consists of 5 levels, from N5 (the basic) to N1 (the most advanced). By 'recognized', I mean most Japanese companies demand job applicants to have passed at least N2.

JLPT is criticized by many people, both teachers and students, because of its 100% multiple choices format. No spoken Japanese is tested. So in fact there are advanced learners who can pass the exam but can't speak fluently. But I think that since N1 and N2 demand very long hours of study (900 and 600 hours respectively and should be longer if you have no previous Kanji background), those who pass the test should have at least employable level of Japanese, meaning that it is much easier for corporates to train those people than training total amateurs.

Anyway, if people ask you to prove your Japanese proficiency, JLPT is the best proof.

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6. Is Japanese related to any other languages?

As mentioned above, Japanese Kanji is actually Chinese characters. Japanese people and Chinese people can communicate in Kanji quite effectively even if they have zero foreign language training. But the relationship between the two languages stops right here. Their grammars are totally different. Word orders are usually in total reverse. And while people can communicate by writing Kanji, the spoken langauges are mutually unintelligible. The difference between Chinese and Japanese is much bigger than that between Chinese and English.

Japanese is kind of like a lonely language that is not genetically related to any other languages. But it has borrowed a lot of loanwords from Chinese and European languages. So if you speak Chinese, English or both, you have already known thousands of Japanese words.

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7. Does Japanese have dialects?

To our surprise, Japanese has a lot of dialects. And there are two main groups. The first one is Tokyo dialect, which is called 標準語 (standard language) in Japan and is taught at school as 国語 (national language). The other one is Osaka dialect, generally called Kansaiben (Kansai dialect).

The difference between Tokyo and Osaka dialects is much bigger than that between British English and American English. But because of the advance of multimedia technologies, there is generally no problem for Japanese people from different regions to understand each other's dialects. Learners, however, may find non-Tokyo accents difficult to understand because not only is the intonation different, the grammar and the choice of words are also different between the two dialects. For example, だめ(not okay) in standard language is called あかん in Kansai dialect, which will not be found in any textbook whatsoever.

Personally, I think it is necessary to learn major dialects in advanced level so that you can understand what people say when they talk in local dialects. And you'll impress a lot of Japanese, including girls of course, if you can speak fluent Kansaiben.

Well. I know I have lied. This introduction is not brief. ^^ Thanks for reading.

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