Speaking Japanese is easy!

Posted on September 04, 2006 | Posted by evankirby

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We at GenkiJACS think Japanese is an easy language to learn to speak. (Reading and writing are a different matter, though!) Here are the reasons why. (I’ts long! I’d bring coffee, if you have some.)

1. Simple sounds
2. Standard rhythm
3. Few tones
4. Phonetic alphabet
5. Standard word roots
6. Little pronunciation difference between dialects
7. Many homophones
8. No plurals, and countable/uncountable nouns
9. No articles
10. Only two irregular verbs!
11. One-word sentences
12. Japanese people are happy to help!

Details for each topic are after the jump...

1. Simple sounds
Japanese has only 46 distinct syllables, some of which can be combined to make new sounds (e.g. な+ゃ=にゃ). This is far far fewer than English, which is estimated to have over 300 different sounds. This makes it much easier for native English speakers to learn Japanese pronunciation than for native Japanese speakers to learn English pronunciation. For most people learning Japanese, the only sounds that give any problems at all are the “ラ行”, the syllables starting with “r”. This is because the Japanese “r” sound is somewhat different from the English “r”. It’s almost halfway between the English “r” and “d”.


2. Standard rhythm
Every syllable in Japanese is pronounced with the same length; that is, each syllable takes the same amount of time to say, so there’s no need to remember complex patterns of long and short syllables, like in English. It takes a little getting used to, because native English speakers are used to making syllables longer to stress them, but it’s an easier habit to unlearn than it is to learn!

3. Few tones
Japanese often sounds like quite a monotonous language, especially to native English speakers, as the tone doesn’t change to a large degree at all. Conversely, when Japanese people make fun of the sound of English, they often exaggerate the rising and falling tones because it sounds over-the-top to Japanese ears. While sounding like a native speaker of Japanese does take some memorization of tone patterns, it is nowhere near as difficult as the complex tone patterns in English, since in Japanese, tone doesn’t usually carry meaning that is separate from the words themselves. For example, the sarcastic tone used in English to show that you actually mean the opposite of what you are saying doesn’t translate well to Japanese at all. Beginners in particular should be very careful about trying to use sarcasm, as people will often take what you say at face value.

4. Phonetic alphabet
All words in Japanese (with only one or two exceptions) are written exactly as they are pronounced. So, it is possible to look up any new word you hear in a dictionary very easily. This makes learning new words from speech much easier than in English. For example, if you said the English word “ceiling” to a Japanese person who had never heard the word before, he or she would probably look in the dictionary for “seeling”. However, if a Japanese person said “てんじょう” to you, you would have no problem looking this up.

5. Standard word roots
Because most complex words in Japanese are formed from the 音読み (onyomi, or Chinese reading) of two or more kanji put together, it is often possible to guess the meaning of a new word by guessing the constituent parts. For example, the word “瞬発力” (shunpatsuryoku) might be new to you, but if you know the common words “瞬間” (shunkan, or instant), “出発” (shuppatsu, or start), and “体力” (tairyoku, or strength), you can guess what this compound might mean (“instant start strength”, or: acceleration!). Of course, this is possible in English too, but it can be a lot more difficult when English words come from Greek, Latin, Germanic and other roots.

6. Little pronunciation difference between dialects
Because English is a worldwide language, it is spoken very differently by people in different countries/areas, and even within one country, regional differences can make it hard to understand sometimes. However, in Japan there are very few pronunciation differences between regions - as the alphabet is phonetic (see #4 above), the sounds are pronounced almost exactly the same across the country.
However, it should be noted that instead of pronunciation changes, most regional dialects are made up of word and grammar changes. For example, in standard Japanese “I don’t” is しない (shinai), whereas in the Fukuoka dialect 博多弁 (Hakata-ben), people say just せん (sen).

7. Many homophones
As Japanese has a limited number of sounds, many words have the same pronunciation. For example, depending on the context かき (kaki) can mean oyster, fence, pomegranate, writing, the information below, etc. Generally, of course, it’s quite easy to tell from the context which meaning is correct. The advantage to the learner of Japanese is that you only have to learn one Japanese word to represent 5 or more English words! Students often find it quite useful to visualize all of the things that a single word can mean in one picture, to remember them. So, to remember the many meanings of かき, you could visualize somebody writing something above a picture of an oyster and a pomegranate balanced on a fence. And now you’ve learned 5 new words!

8. No plurals, and countable/uncountable nouns
While at first not having plurals can make it harder to understand what someone is telling you - 兄弟がいる (kyoudai ga iru): do I have one brother, or more? - it makes it easier for you yourself to talk, as you don’t have to worry about remembering the plural forms of words - there are no plural forms! And trust us, the difference between countable and uncountable nouns in English is extremely hard to grasp when it’s not part of your native tongue. We can say “one cake, two cakes”, so why not “one bread, two breads”?? In Japanese, all nouns are basically countable (although the counting system isn’t the simplest!).

9. No articles
For Japanese people learning English, when to use “the”, “a” or nothing at all is a dilemma that comes up several times in every sentence. The rules for using articles are both complex and vague, and it’s a lifelong battle to master them. In Japanese, however, there is no such thing. Normally, nouns stand by themselves, and you can tell from the context whether the person is talking about the same one or not. For example:
A: 家に行ったら、犬がいた!
B: 犬はだめなの?
A: そう、だめ。でもあれは可愛くてしょうがなかったから、結局帰るまで犬と遊んでいた。
A: When I arrived, there was a dog there!
B: You don’t like dogs?
A: No, can’t stand them. But that dog was so cute I couldn’t help myself, and I ended up playing with it until I went home!
In this example, 犬 (inu, dog) appears 3 times, once as “a dog”, once “dogs”, and once “the dog”/”it”.

10. Only two irregular verbs!
For every rule in English, there are a ton of exceptions, and especially so when it comes to verb conjugation. In Japanese, there are only 2 verb groups, and verbs conjugate differently depending on which group they’re in. However, once you’ve memorized the patterns of these 2 groups, you’re basically finished, as there are only two verbs that don’t fit these groups, する (suru, to do) and 来る (kuru, to come), and these two verbs are so common you probably had them memorized before you even noticed!

11. One-word sentences
Being able to omit words that aren’t 100% necessary makes a lot of sentences really really easy to say in Japanese. For example, take this English conversation:
“Did you go?”
“Yeah, I went.”
There are no two words in common between these two sentences, and each sentence has 3 words. In Japanese, however, this becomes:
「行った?」(itta, or “went?”)
「うん、行った。」(un, itta, or “yeah, went”)
It’s so much simpler and more compact in Japanese!

12. Japanese people are happy to help!
You’ll find Japanese people more than willing to help you practice your speaking skills with them. Most people in Japan don’t get much of an opportunity to talk to foreigners, so they are often very interested in other cultures, and may have many questions for you.

We hope all the above gives you a little more confidence to either start learning the language, or to renew your studies. If you need any advice, feel free to send us an email!
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