Join 3,415 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


So you want to learn Japanese
July 10, 2007 11:41 AM   Subscribe

So you want to learn Japanese . . . (Also, a more serious look at the question from a 2005 AskMe)
posted by spock (49 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm not sure which feels more impossible to learn, Japanese or Arabic. I just never ever imagined I'd one day look longingly back on my college German classes, pining for how easy they were.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:51 AM on July 10, 2007


Heh, this article reminds me of the senitiments I had in college. All the people in japanese classes were Computer Science majors who had watched anime and wanted to take japanese.
posted by roguewraith at 11:59 AM on July 10, 2007


Bwa hahahaha!
posted by Debaser626 at 12:03 PM on July 10, 2007


Perhaps that should be via the 2005 AskMe?
posted by monju_bosatsu at 12:06 PM on July 10, 2007


Exquisitely bitter.
posted by that girl at 12:08 PM on July 10, 2007


Also, Toyko Damage Report
posted by anthill at 12:21 PM on July 10, 2007


Lynnster, having taken intro courses in both I feel qualified (not) to say Japanese is way harder to learn.
posted by cell divide at 12:27 PM on July 10, 2007


Fantastic, utterly utterly understandable. A linguistically gifted friend (by European standards not by UK standards) spent 6 years in Tokyo and felt he had come away with about 0.000005%. The fact that to us he was chattering away quite comfortably in various shops restaurants etc., was put into context when he described some business situations he had been in and which required the kind of libguistic complexity that would make a baroque Church look like a little kid's naif daub!

Great post
posted by Wilder at 12:29 PM on July 10, 2007


Sorry, that should read linguistic complexity (commits metaphorical meta hara kiri)
posted by Wilder at 12:30 PM on July 10, 2007


Well, the essay is funny, but one thing jumped out at me. The author claims to be a Japanese major. I wonder if that's still true, or if he's actually graduated in the six or seven years since I last read this?
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:35 PM on July 10, 2007


Ooh, I have to check the time while I drink this hot cup of...ooh BURN.
posted by mckenney at 1:00 PM on July 10, 2007


This guy claims to have studied and achieved fluency in japanese in 18 months and explains his method.

Strangely enough I read the FPP article yesterday linked by this 'So you really want to learn japanese' article.
posted by Memo at 1:07 PM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this was sent to me ages ago by a friend of mine who had been given the link by his Japanese teacher.

I tried learning Japanese on my own for a while. Hiragana and katakana? Piece of piss after a little practise. The pronounciation? Really easy for a Finnish person. Then kanji appears. Then you learn about different ways of talking to different people. Then the reality of the situation slowly penetrates your thick stull: Japanese is fucking hard and nigh-on impenetrable to the casual hobbyist. Friend of mine spent a year there and came back with nothing but worse English as everyone used him as a way to practise their English.

My love of the language started not from anime, but Kurosawa. Still intend on visiting and making a fool of myself with the little Japanese I think I know.
posted by slimepuppy at 1:10 PM on July 10, 2007


Computer Science majors who had watched anime and wanted to take japanese.

hey, I resemble that remark! I was doing the Japanese more to get a job at Namco eventually, but still

studied and achieved fluency in japanese in 18 months

18 months of daily study will in fact get you a very long way toward functional fluency. . .

with today's tools like popjisyo.com learning the Japanese you want to know is eminently doable.

Of the ~3000 common kanji, 1000 are easy & rather fun to remember, 1000 are more difficult to remember but the more you see them the easier it is, and 1000 are pretty useless really.

From experience, I can say that language acquisition is 95% mimicry of what you've heard & read before.

Trying to write & say what you've never studied before is generally an exercise in frustration. But if you study the stuff you want to write & say, you'll go far, quickly.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:17 PM on July 10, 2007


Man, that was good. I did a Japanese minor, and felt pretty confident in my abilities. Enough so that I bought a one way ticket to Tokyo to find myself a job teaching English. It took me all of five minutes to realize that my language skillz were almost good enough to find a bathroom, if accompanied by the proper wild gesticulating.

After living there for a few months teaching adults (who have the unnerving habit of complimenting effusively even the most poorly constructed utterances), I found a job with a school system that sent me to a different elementary school every day. Kids are definitely less forgiving, and after spending some time with them, I got a pretty good grip on exactly how much Japanese I do (or rather, do not) know.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:18 PM on July 10, 2007


Lynnster, having taken intro courses in both I feel qualified (not) to say Japanese is way harder to learn.

Yeah, I remember saying that when I was in my Intro class. I openly told people, "Honestly, it's not like it's that hard!"

That was 4 classes ago and I take back every damn glib word I said.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:48 PM on July 10, 2007


I would take that guy's rant a lot more seriously if his command of his native language were not so poor.
posted by noble_rot at 2:01 PM on July 10, 2007


I see you and raise you: "Why is Chinese So Damn Hard?"
posted by RavinDave at 2:21 PM on July 10, 2007 [3 favorites]


You cannot learn to speak Japanese on your own, in my experience. You absolutely need a native speaker to correct your pronunciation and cadence.

Japanese grammar really isn't that bad. I found it had much easier rules than English (almost always subject-object-verb), and far fewer exceptions to those rules. If you study a book on sentence patterns and when to use which particles, you can quickly get a handle on basic statements.

But when you start to speak, and you need to start adding in the honorifics and carefully attempting to get the tense right, that's where it all fell apart for me. It was just too hard to hear the slight inflections (up-down vs down-up, etc) of Japanese speech and translate it in my head quickly enough to sound reasonably competent when having a conversation. I could always read Japanese reasonably well, and speak it sort of ok, but even after 3 years of college level Japanese (1 of those years I was the only student in the class) I couldn't hold a conversation with a native speaker the way I was able to after 2 years of high school Spanish.

While I'm on the topic, the one thing I couldn't stand and pissed me off to no end was the Japanese "counting" system. One ending for counting numbers, one ending for counting ordinal numbers, one ending for counting flat objects, one ending for counting small, thin cylindrical objects, a set of numbers that you use in legal documents in place of counting numbers, etc etc etc. It's insane!
posted by SweetJesus at 2:24 PM on July 10, 2007


I still think everyone should learn Japanese the way I did: by taking fifteen years of Mandarin, Classical Chinese and Chinese Historical Phonology first.

Mostly joking.
posted by jiawen at 2:27 PM on July 10, 2007


Also, computer science major but I hate anime with an unrelenting passion.
posted by SweetJesus at 2:27 PM on July 10, 2007


SweetJesus Chinese has special numbers for legal documents and such as well. They are more ornate; more strokes. The idea is that it's too easy to alter them in their regular form. Is that the idea in Japanese too?
posted by RavinDave at 2:31 PM on July 10, 2007


Same thing as writing out "Thirteen dollars and forty-seven/00" on checks, pretty much.

And we have measure words in English, too. "Please hand me three milk"? Nope, gotta be cups, gallons or glasses. In fact, English is distinguished by the bizarre measure words we use for groups of animals. A murder of crows, a gaggle of geese. But yes, Japanese and Chinese use measure words far more than English does.
posted by jiawen at 2:36 PM on July 10, 2007


I live in Crow Central and I have never heard of a "murder of crows". Learn something new ever' day!
posted by spock at 2:51 PM on July 10, 2007


Is that the idea in Japanese too?

壱、弐、参 . . .

I kinda like the counters. We have the same thing in English when counting "uncountable" nouns like bread. We don't say "one bread", we say One loaf of bread, two loaves . . .

It is true that speaking competence only comes from speaking practice. Japanese -> English learners experience the same issues from their educational system's unbalanced approach.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 3:06 PM on July 10, 2007


What makes Japanese fun is the extreme regularity of the grammar and inflections, lack of plural issues, definite/indefinite articles, and general logicalness of the prepositions (and how they're attached to nouns). Learning new prepositions, inflections, and especially noun genders made Spanish (& German) much more difficult for me than Japanese.

Japanese is super-stripped down language. But the OP is correct about its subtleties. I was in a conf call with Japan last week, and hearing how our translator was talking to Japan reminded me that my skillz are pretty much J -> E only at this point.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 3:15 PM on July 10, 2007


And we have measure words in English, too. "Please hand me three milk"? Nope, gotta be cups, gallons or glasses. In fact, English is distinguished by the bizarre measure words we use for groups of animals. A murder of crows, a gaggle of geese. But yes, Japanese and Chinese use measure words far more than English does.

You know, I never really thought about it that way, but I guess you're right.

Still drove me insane.
posted by SweetJesus at 3:31 PM on July 10, 2007


Reminds me of how computer memory is uncountable . . . we say "3 sticks of memory" not "3 memories".

One day a co-worker announced (in English) he was going to Akihabara to "buy some memories" and if anybody needed anything.

「まぁ、ロッポンギのへ行った方がいいかも」was the obvious response . . .
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 4:15 PM on July 10, 2007


六本木より歌舞伎町の方が安いじゃない?

<これは日本語が書ける自慢です!そんなに難しくないよ>
posted by dydecker at 4:30 PM on July 10, 2007


私は私がディルはアドライトスの中とおもいます。
(crap, what's the te-form of naka? does naka even have a te-form?)
posted by Citizen Premier at 5:50 PM on July 10, 2007


Just thank the fates that you're an English-speaker trying to learn Japanese, and not the other way around.
posted by PsychoKick at 7:27 PM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


One of the biggest challenges of speaking Japanese is still getting people to listen to what you are saying rather than just looking at your foreign face in bewilderment.

*sigh*
posted by gomichild at 7:53 PM on July 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Good luck learning any language as an intellectual exercise. If you need or want it as a tool, it will come.

Japanese is getting way too hard a reputation in this thread. There are many languages where you can't cherry pick words and phrases from one sentence and use them again in another context. Despite honorific difficulties, this can generally be done in Japanese. And the counting thing isn't so bad. You use the same ones over and over (people, animals, round objects, flat objects, etc.).

What makes Japanese fun is the extreme regularity of the grammar and inflections, lack of plural issues, definite/indefinite articles, and general logicalness of the prepositions (and how they're attached to nouns).

Definitely. Plus, kanji is fun. Wish I'd picked up on it as a kid. It all looks like super-crypto hieroglyphics to an eight year old. I could have been learning that instead of the crap I was spending time on, and had just as much fun.
posted by dreamsign at 8:35 PM on July 10, 2007


Also, is MeFi just OBSESSED with Japan or is it the West as a whole?
posted by dreamsign at 8:37 PM on July 10, 2007


Wheee I'm taking my JLPT 4 kyuu in December! I can barely translate the japanese that's in the comments. Hooray for meeee! *cries*
posted by spec80 at 9:19 PM on July 10, 2007


Sorry, that should read linguistic complexity

Actually, I quite like 'libguistic' too.

And we have measure words in English, too. "Please hand me three milk"? Nope, gotta be cups, gallons or glasses.

Yeah, this is the way I open up the doors to the mess that is countable and uncountable nouns in English for my Korean students. Korean, like Chinese and Japanese, has a wide variety of counting words for nouns, and there is some (just enough to be confusing) similarity there with things like '3 loaves of bread' versus 'some bread' or '3 slices of bread' and '3 breads' (ie, say, rye, wholegrain and sourdough) and the differences between '2 slices of pizza' and '2 pizzas', for example.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:46 PM on July 10, 2007


jiawen, seeing as how that cocktail of courses seems so familiar, where did you take your classes?
posted by endermunkee at 12:20 AM on July 11, 2007


I can barely translate the japanese that's in the comments

actually you did just highlight one of the more BS things about Japanese, the difference between kyuu and kyu (etc). IME, that is probably the single-most PITA issue about Japanese, since even our compu-tools insist on this correctness to work for us. Not to mention the JLPT-makers really get off on pounding on us with this.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:10 AM on July 11, 2007


for those not in the know, Chinese loan-roots that came via the kanji are homophone-heavy, and to make matters worse dipthonged vs. one-syllable roots ('so-u' vs. 'so', 'ku-u' vs. 'ku' etc) sound almost the same to the untrained ear but are almost (?) never the same in meaning.

Non-dipthonged roots are markedly rarer than their full-on cousins, which is how one basically has to map meaning to the correct pronunciation (mentally marking the shorter readings as oddballs).

posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:21 AM on July 11, 2007


I took one class in Chinese in college. My very kindly professor came to me at the end of the term and said basically "I can tell you've worked very hard in this class, and I've given you a grade that reflects that. But I don't think you'll every gain any level of competence in this language and you'd be better off in Spanish or French". Thermodynamics was a cakewalk in comparison to Chinese.
posted by kjs3 at 8:43 AM on July 11, 2007


Personally speaking, Chinese was easier than Latin (yeech!). Chinese is tough because, yeah, you have to memorize a lot of characters (and the tonal language thing), but at least you don't have to decline nouns and conjugate verbs ....
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:57 AM on July 11, 2007


As someone who took the above mentioned single Chinese class after 4-5 years of Latin, I'd say you're on crack. :-)
posted by kjs3 at 2:26 PM on July 11, 2007


Also, is MeFi just OBSESSED with Japan or is it the West as a whole?

That would be the West as a whole, with the exception, of course, of Joe Sixpack types unconcerned with anything beyond their SUVs and such. But fascination with Japan and things Japanese has been a feature of "the West" for a few centuries now. Where you been?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:54 PM on July 11, 2007


"Junko-sensei, what does that mean? It looks like 'woman', but with a sort-of-hat above it."
"It means 'safety'."

I think that's the point I decided it was going to be beyond me. Nama biiru daijoki onegaishimasu is the one phrase that's completely necessary.
posted by liquidindian at 5:04 PM on July 11, 2007


fascination with Japan and things Japanese has been a feature of "the West" for a few centuries now. Where you been?

MeFi wasn't this fascinated with Japan even a couple of years ago. There used to be a MeFite -- I forget who (nightchrome?) who used to object every time there would be an fpp based on fascination with some Japanese oddity or bit of culture, and he would rail against it saying "where are all the ______ game shows, customs, superstitions? We all have them!" That served to make me fairly conscious of how often Japan wound up on MeFi. It was often, but not several times a week like it seems to be now.
posted by dreamsign at 11:22 PM on July 11, 2007


A friend of mine told me that since I already know Chinese and English, Japanese wouldn't be that hard. I may give it a shot someday, since it's so close and there's no need of an entry visa, trips are really doable.
posted by Poagao at 1:47 AM on July 12, 2007


jiawen, seeing as how that cocktail of courses seems so familiar, where did you take your classes?

Sorry, lost track of this thread. I did the Mandarin through high school, undergrad and grad school. The Classical and historical phonology were only in grad school (as was the Japanese). I went to U of Iowa for grad school. Does that help?

"Junko-sensei, what does that mean? It looks like 'woman', but with a sort-of-hat above it."
"It means 'safety'."


That one's actually pictographic. It's a woman under a roof; if you have a woman at home, you're safe. Sexist, but clear.
posted by jiawen at 5:49 AM on July 12, 2007


It absolutely does--see, I went to the U of I for undergrad. And did the classical and historical phonology with Coblin. You too, I'm assuming? :)
posted by endermunkee at 12:11 AM on July 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yep. :) Coblin is nigh unto a god. One of my two favorite teachers ever. He kinda spoiled me for other Classical/Literary teachers later on -- no one else has ever known what was going on as well as he did.
posted by jiawen at 12:03 PM on July 13, 2007


« Older "I’m going to draw a chart for her with lines and ...  |  Known as scholar's rocks or go... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments