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The most difficult language

January 15, 2014

Of all the languages I have learnt or try to learn, I would have to say that Japanese is the hardest.  And it is not because it has 3 writing systems (Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji), And it’s not just because there is a polite form, but after having mastered Chinese, English and spoken Cantonese and Fujian, this is a language that I still struggle with.

It is true that Japanese (or Nihongo) has 3 different writing systems.  But I mastered them all in less than a week.  In the 90s, friends who finished Japanese 101 invited me to join them in taking Japanese 102 and I did agree.  Whilst taking my class, I have to catch up on my own what I missed in 101.  In a week or two, I could write whatever the teacher can write on the board.  Unlike most of the whites (and blacks and Latinos), I do not need a lot of practice on the kanas.  I already learnt Chinese in that island nation for more than 12 years and remember the kanas was a breeze.

I do not need to get used to using the polite form (or honorific form) or the root form of a verb.  It comes quite natural to me.  For instance, why would I say “I-Ko” to my teacher, I will naturally use “I-KI-MASU”.  But somehow, it’s the grammatical structure that kills me.  Maybe I was unfortunate enough not to be “immersed” in a Japanese speaking environment, but I always thought if pretty-intenseApple-Milk-1988“, “Kerokerorin, キャロリン” and Abby-san in RanAbVideo,  can learn their Japanese without going to Japan at all.  I tried their methods, or should I say, I attempt “mimicking-native-the-Japanese-on-the-video” and remember some sentences. Mimicking does get me to say full sentences very quickly, but that is not very useful, except maybe I need to read a script for a making a movie.  (Actually, there is one thing I did not do which they all did– enrol myself for Japanese lesson for more than a semester).

It is similar to reciting a mantra.  I learnt my Bahasa Indonesian and Cantonese almost entirely by ear.  But non of these languages have grammar.  The way in Nihongo: subject, object and verbs are put together does not make a lot of sense in English.  They tend to make better sense when directly transliterated to Chinese.  But still, the frequent dropping of Pronoun like “You”, “I”, “He” and “She”, is difficult to understand.  But for Japanese, that is very natural.

Example 1:

Take the form: —ba yokatta (-ばよかった ),

Tanaka-san to soodan sureba yokatta.

translated word for word is: “Tanaka-Mr and consultation if can, was very good”.  But translated into Chinese literally is

田中先生    和     商量    如果     太好了

In the English transliteration, if you speak Singlish, then maybe it makes some sense.  In the Chinese it does not reflect that fact that yokatta is in the past tense (of ii  — ).  If we know that, then we could quickly guess the meaning of the sentence.

Example 2:

Take this form: — na kereba narimasen  (-なければ なりません。 ), as in

gohan wo tabe nakereba narimasen ( ご飯を 食べなければ なりません。)

translated word for word is: “rice wo eat NOT if  become NOT” translated into Chinese : 饭 吃 不  如果  那就不行.

It will take a lot of intelligence to translate from the English, but a breeze to guess what it means from the Chinese.

Example 3:  go ()  or go?

There is go () as in Eigo (英語) and there is go(ご) as in ringo (りんご or リンゴ).  so depending on the context, go can have different meaning.  To make things worse, (unlike Chinese) Japanese has no tone, so they sound exactly the same.  But if a Chinese see Eigo translated to 英語 and ringo translated to 苹果, they would ahve no problem remembering or understanding.  And if you notice, the kanji is exactly the same as the Chinese characters.

Example 4:  men ()  or men(綿)?

This one is kind of like the previous example but I chose it because English speaker would wonder why the plural of “man” is being used for both “noodles” and “cotton”.  The hiragana – めん, is not too bad for the people with Latin based language to read but remembering (not to forget writing) will be a separate effort, these speakers have to take.  For a Chinese people, they’ll pick it up, both sound and kanji character, (and not to forget, the meaning too) just like that!

Example 5:

Take this form:  Ano ________ wa , ________ mi tai ni, ______(verb)_________

ano A Me Ri KA jin wa, NiHONJIN mitai ni, nihongo o hanashimasu (あのアメリカじんは、日本人みたいに日本語を話します)

translated word for word becomes: ” That American, Japanese look like, Japanese speak.” (see Abi Video)

Even so, to learn it from English has a lot of advantage, because many grammar when written in RO MA-JI, is easy to conjugate.  But from the view of hiragana, it’s hard to interpret why よむ  form becomes よめれば。。。and いく becomes いければ.  But in RO-MA-JI, it’s simply just drop the “u” and replace by “ereba”.

And many times, I have to switch between learning Nihongo from English and learning Nihongo from Chinese.  But I have to say, despite its difficulty, I still like to spend time learning it (if I find the time).  Maybe all these are not needed.  Maybe all I need to do is to ask myself my purpose of learning this language (which I have no use for) and get myself immersed in an environment for this language (like my Indonesian and Cantonese), and I would find my answer and found a quick path to mastering it.  You know something, come to think of it, there are very few “white” or “blacks” or Americans speaking Cantonese on youtube.  Sharon Balcombe doesn’t count because she considered herself Chinese and speak Cantonese since she was born and lived in HK all her life.  And her mission in life is to be a missionary and that is why she polished her Mandarin and English to spread the word of God.  So maybe Cantonese is harder than Japanese?

Oh did I mention that 麺 and 麵 may look exactly the same to you, the computer will know they are different.  The first one is typed with a computer  “Japanese input keyboard” and the second one is typed with a “Pinyin input keyboard”.  So if you don’t believe, cut and paste on google-translate (or bing-transalate) and the “Detect-language” will tell you.  Or if you want to read HTML code (CTRL-U), they are both completely different things.


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One Comment
  1. Mistake in example 3, the kanji for apple (ringo) is not 苹果 (that’s Chinese) , but 林檎.

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