One of my favourite blogs about Japan on the net is Japanese Rule of 7. And one of my favourite posts on this blog is where Seeroiさん discusses the difficulties of all languages, but Japanese in particular.

Kanji terrify people. I discussed them first on this blog because I both love and fear them, but also because I wanted to get them out of the way. They are a lot of work to master, but they are comparatively easy compared to listening to other humans speaking Japanese, and you responding to them in a grammatical fashion. (Or at least 45% grammatical, which is my goal these days.)

No, as is rightly pointed out in the linked article above, listening to other people speaking in a foreign language is the hardest, followed by you speaking to other people in that language, followed by a tie for reading and writing.

Japanese is particularly difficult because it has a lot of words that sound the same, except there might be a pitch accent in there that you can catch that will give you a clue. Also, context. Lots and lots of context. I think the reason the topic marker は is so necessary for the start of a conversation is to give everyone’s brain a chance to catch up.

Homonyms

かく

Well, kaku. Everyone knows kaku, right? To write! (ha, ha, what wit!)

書く

Except…

Godan verb with ku ending, Transitive verb
1. to write; to compose; to pen
2. to draw; to paint

Noun, Noun – used as a suffix
1. status; position; rank
Noun
2. method; way; style
3. rule; regulation; law
4. grammatical case (linguistics terminology)
5. figure (syllogism)

Noun, Noun – used as a suffix
1. angle
2. square (or cube)
3. bishop Shogi term, Abbreviation
4. third degree (of the Japanese & Chinese pentatonic scale)
5. Chinese “horn” constellation (one of the 28 mansions)Astronomy, etc. term
6. jiao (monetary unit of China; one-tenth of a yuan)

Godan verb with ku ending, Transitive verb
1. to scratch
2. to perspire
3. to shovel; to paddle

(from www.jisho.org)

And there’s more. Much, much more. So what happens in conversation?

Context, context, context. Failing that, I have heard (but have never seen) that Japanese people sometimes draw kanji in the air. And then, there are pitch accents.

Pitch Accents

“Japanese is not like Chinese,” the infomercials will tell you. “There are no complex tones. Just speak everything with a simple pronunciation.”

Infomercials are lying bloodsuckers. Or, at least, they tell you everything they need to sell you the product or service. Then they skulk off into the night with a big linen bag filled with money and a giant crocheted $ sign on it.

No tones. But pitch? Oh, yes.

There are two basic patterns in standard Japanese, the “Tokyo dialect”.[1] The first is a flat pattern called heibanshiki (平板式) where a low mora is followed by high ones, LHHHH. For example,

  • muzukashii (difficult): LHHHH
  • arau (to wash): LHH

The second one is the rising and falling pattern, kifukushiki (起伏式). This has several types:

(From www.sljfaq.org/afaq/pitch-accent.html.)

I’m not studying this right now. I do know I have to study it soon. It seems like a pretty difficult thing to study, maybe by breaking it down into words you use often, it would be more manageable. And by words you use often, I mean here words that you use a lot in your native tongue. I’m a theatre geek, so I should be studying pitch accent for words like 役者、芸人、劇、and so on.

Fear of Failure

Anyway, it certainly does raise the bar in terms of understanding, but I don’t think it’s a huge problem for studying Japanese until maybe intermediate studying, once you really want to start putting vocabulary and grammar into a cohesive sentence. One that doesn’t make you sound like a Japanese toddler, which is what my sentences sound like now.

It certainly shouldn’t stop you from trying to speak Japanese with other people. They took English lessons in school, and hopefully remember how awkward it was when they tried to speak English for the first time with a native English speaker. If not, just find another, friendlier Japanese person to talk to.

Failure is a good, well, a common excuse, and certainly one I’ve leaned heavily on, but ultimately, it is just a misplaced fear. Your mind learns when you do things constantly, and speaking a language constantly will help you learn it.

一緒に頑張りましょう!

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