English vs. Japanese Language

I decided to take ESL (short summer class) at adult school for first time in my life.

Japanese is grammatically simpler than English, however much intricate and rich language.

We think that Japanese people are probably the slowest learners of a foreign language in the world. Am I one of them?

I have been living in the US for almost 40 years and still have a great deal of trouble when come to speak/write English fluently.

One of the biggest reasons is my hearing impairment. Even if I could hear the sound of voice I could not understand the sentences (I am able to carry conversation on one-on-one in quiet background), so most of the time I avoided interaction with people. May be I was too shy and introverted, this made me speaking a chore.

Another reason is I never attended ESL class or any English class for that matter.

Yes, I do speak/write some degree of English. I had to, because in business environment, oral/written communication skills are most important. The necessity was best teacher for me.

I told my friends that I am going to take ESL class. Everybody said that my English is good enough. However, I know I have a lot of trouble with articles, tenses, modals, and prepositions etc. I think my friends are far too polite and kind.

I have free time since the retirement. I figured that if someone is motivated, has average level of intelligence, and lives in an English-speaking country, there is no reason they couldn’t learn English quickly. I am not sure about my level of drive, motivation, and determination though, because I get frustrated or bored quickly.

I’m a result oriented person. I was able to deliver final products in timely fashion whether I was writing main-frame application programs or web pages. There is no such final English product, its continuous learning process (“sigh” how boring!).

ESL class at adult center will start on 6/22/2010, two hours/three evening per week for duration of one month. It is very short summer session. I am hoping to improve my English proficiency. I must hang in there.

Old school in Japan, most of the learning English was memorization of word lists, grammar, and such and goal was to pass entrance exams for university. I know Exam cramming is not a good way to learn a language. I need to learn solid basic rules and structures; however I don’t really care about grammars. I just like to speak/write like native-speakers do – its means they know the grammar intuitively, so they don’t need to think about articles, gerund, infinitives, tenses and phrases and so on.

Structure

Many other languages particularly indo-European, use the SVO structure where as Japanese use SOV (with the verb at the end of the sentence.) It also has an unmarked phrase order of Time Manner Place (the reverse of English order).

Other elements in the sentence may be in various orders for emphasis, or possibly omitted. This is because the Japanese sentence elements are marked with particles that identify their grammatical functions.

Sound

Japanese has very few sounds, so it requires some effort for the average Japanese to master the sounds of English. We have no F, X, V, TH sounds.

– I think this is may be just my opinion –

Japanese people (or just me?) never learned special ways to use lips, tongue, and teeth to make sounds of above I mentioned. When we write Japanese in Roman letters, use F for Mt.Fuji. That is totally mystery to me because I never pronounce Fuji, I say Huji.

Also I have problem with “L” and “R” for “ra”, “ri”, ”ru”, ”re”, “ro”. Japanese make no differentiation between the R and L sound. If I speak clearly then more like “L” than “R” and if I get lazy sometimes more like “R” sound.

The following are how to pronounce in English. (Oh boy! It is hard for me)

  • V, F sound – loosely bite the lower lip with the two top front teeth and gently blow.
  • R sound – The sides of the tongue are flat and between the teeth while the back of the tongue humps upwards.
  • L sound – the tongue tip is placed on the ridge behind the top front teeth. Use voice and as the tongue drops, add a vowel sound.

Anyway, there are 5 vowels and only use one sound for a vowel (elongated vowels in phonetics are simply regarded as elongated) unlike the English which the vowels can either have a long sound or a short sound. Also, since the language is syllabic, it is difficult for us for pronounce isolated consonants, which lead us to put an “extra vowel” to compensate.  For example: My son’s name is Robert. His Japanese relatives call him Roberto.

The syllabic structure and the phonotactics are very simple, in Japanese, consonant clusters like /st/ are not allowed.

Noun

Japanese nouns have no grammatical number, gender or article aspect.

Note: Gender differences in spoken Japanese: The Japanese language is unusual among major languages in the high degree to which the speech of women seen collectively differs from that of men. It is gender roles, not grammatical gender.

The grammatical function of nouns is indicated by postpositions. These include possession (no), subject (ga), direct object (o), indirect object (ni) and others. The topic is also marked by a postposed particle (wa). These particles play an extremely important function in Japanese.

Plural

I have a problem with “plural” because Japanese don’t have one. Instead, we have “counter” for all different sort of things.

Let’s say “three cats”. I think English plural system is irrational. If you are already saying “three,” why do you need the “s” to indicate plural – the presence of “three” already makes it plural! The “s” is thus redundant.

Pronoun

Japanese has a lot of pronouns for use in different occasions, and different pronouns for men and women, younger or older, etc. These pronouns are not used all the time, but often elided when the reference has been established and is obvious from context. Japanese is therefore called a pro-drop language.

For example, instead of saying “Watashi wa byoki desu” (“I am sick”), one would simply say “Byoki desu” (“Am sick”). A single verb can often constitute a complete sentence.

Japanese has no relative pronouns (that, which, who)

Contextual Subjects

In English, every complete sentence must have a subject, which is a noun or a pronoun, and a predicate, which at least has a verb in it. This is also true in Japanese, but in many cases in Japanese the subject or the object of a sentence need not be stated, if it is obvious from context.

For example: “Did you see avatar?”  I can reply with “Saw.”  It’s perfectly understood by both speakers.

Derivative forms

There are many derivative forms of words that may turn one part of speech into another.

Nouns can be made into verbs, adjectives into nouns, gerunds, and other forms, and so on. Verbs, in addition to other derived forms, have one (the -tai form) which is an adjective meaning “want(ing) to do X”; e.g., tabetai desu means “I want to eat”.

Particles

In Japanese, prepositions are actually postpositions because they come after the noun that they’re attached to. But just to make things interesting, these structures are actually called particles, and tend to work as postpositions, conjunctions (and, or, nor, etc), possessives, and just about anything else that isn’t a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb.

wa (わ) Topic marker

ga (が) subject marker

wo (を) Object marker

ni  (に) Indirect Object Marker

e (え) Direction marker

no  Possession marker

de  Action marker

to/ya   Connection

mo   Includer

ka   Question marker

yo   Emphasizer

na  Quasi-adjective marker

kara/made

yori

hodo

dake

shika

gurai

bakari

demo

sae

tomo

ne   Terribly overused – The Sentence-Ending Particles.

“ne” is spoken at the end of an utterance to invite agreement from the listener. It is also used within the body of an utterance as a verbal pause word, in the sense of “You follow me so far, don’t you?”

Politeness

The Japanese language is intricate, subtle, can be made vague and very formal and informal depending on the conversation and who is being spoken to at the time.

Unlike most European languages, Japanese has many ways to express different levels of politeness, including a different conjugation for verbs, special verbs and pronouns, verbs indicating relative status, use of different nouns, etc.,

“English is intended strictly for communication. Japanese is primarily interested in feeling out the other person’s mood.”

Conjugate Me!

Verbs are conjugated to show tenses, of which there are two: past and present (also called non-past tense, since the same form is used for the present and the future).

The present tense in Japanese serves the function of the simple present and the future tense, while the past tense (or perfect tense) in Japanese serves the function of the simple past tense. The distinction is between actions which are completed (perfect) or are not yet completed (imperfect).

The present perfect, present continuous, present perfect continuous, future perfect, future continuous, and future perfect continuous are usually expressed as a gerund (-te form) plus the auxiliary form imasu/iru.

Similarly, the past perfect, past continuous, and past perfect continuous are usually expressed with the gerund plus the past tense of imasu/iru.

For some verbs, that represent an ongoing process, the -te iru form regularly indicates a continuous (or progressive) tense.

For others, that represent a change of state, the -te iru form regularly indicates a perfect tense. For example, kite imasu regularly means “I have come”, and not “I am coming”, but tabete imasu regularly means “I am eating”, and not “I have eaten”.Plain (abrupt)

Form Tense Conjugation
plain present affirmative taberu (eat, will eat)
negative tabenai (will not eat)
past affirmative tabeta(ate, have eaten, had eaten, did eat)
negative tabenakatta (did not eat, have not eaten, had not eaten)
Polite present affirmative tabemasu
negative tabemasen
past affirmative tabemashita
negative tabemasendeshita
– te affirmative tabete –used for a variety of forms, including progressive forms (am eating, was eating), polite commands (tabete kudasai), asking permission (tabete mo ii desu ka?), and many others.
negative tabenakute
Imperative tabero(don’t use this; see the Politeness chapter)
Conditional, plain affirmative tabereba or tabetara (if I eat, if I will eat, etc) — the -ra form is preferable in cases where “when” is more appropriate than “if”
Conditional form, plain, negative: tabenakereba or tabenakattara (if I do not eat, if I did not eat, etc)
Conditional, polite affirmative tabemashitara
negative tabemasendeshitara
Presumptive, plain affirmative taberu darou (will probably eat)
negative tabenai darou(will probably not eat)
Presumptive, polite affirmative taberu deshou
negative tabenai deshou
Volitional, plain tabeyou (let us eat)
Volitional, polite tabemashou
Potential, plain affirmative taberareru or tabereru(able to eat)
negative taberarenai(not able to eat)
Potential, polite affirmative taberaremasu
negative taberaremasen
Passive, plain affirmative taberareru(is eaten) — note same as potential form
negative taberarenai(was not eaten)
Passive, polite affirmative taberaremasu
negative taberaremasen
Causative, plain affirmative tabesaseru(is made to eat, was made to eat)
negative tabesasenai(is not made to eat, was not made to eat)
Causative, polite affirmative tabesasemasu
negative tabesasemasen
Causative-passive, plain affirmative tabesaserareru(was made to eat and was adversely affected by it)
negative tabesaserarenai(was not made to eat and was adversely affected by it)
Causative-passive, polite affirmative tabesaseraremasu
negative tabesaseraremasen
Exalted otabe ni naru or otabe nasaru or meshiagaru
Humble itadaku

Conclusion

Many Japanese think their language is so unique that foreigners cannot grip its essence, its beauty or its subtlety.

I think because Japan is a very homogenous country that has not been occupied by other countries except for a brief period after World War II. Its culture was not threatened by other cultures. So the Japanese language has been isolated thousands years. That’s why Japanese are so certain about its uniqueness, its nature, its structure, its function.

Same thing can be said for culture. They are deeply attached to their ancient, subtle culture. They believe that only native-born Japanese can understand or maintain it.

There is Japanese phrase “Shimaguni Konjo (“island nation mentality and we have our insular and unique ways of doing things. We cannot escape our geography . . . and our history.”)

The “Island Country Complex” is not good thing. I have many American Facebook friends who practice ancient Japanese arts and have understanding of its beauty and philosophy. I take my hat off to those people because they are cultural ambassadors.

At least Japan slowly leaves behind its insular mentality and start implementing “kokusaika” (internationalization or globalization). So government decided to reform teaching of English in Japanese schools in year 2012. I am sure they can maintain Japan’s cultural independence and the need to promote English as an indispensable tool for international market competitiveness.

In terms of comparative cultural characteristics at the world level, Japan as highest in the world in “Rational-Secular Values”, and average-high in “Self-Expression Values”. I agree about Rational-Secular Values. However, I think “Self-Expression Values” may be lower than stated above. I want express my opinion and my voice to be heard. That means I need to have a good command of English, period!

Appendix

Rōmaji (Hepburn System) with katakana and hiragana

Reading in vertical columns running from top to bottom and from right to left, the first column (in green) is hiragana, the second (in yellow) is katakana and the third is rōmaji, and so on.

Basic syllables


Additional syllables

Credit: http://japanese.about.com/

This text in standard Japanese


Translation

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

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8 thoughts on “English vs. Japanese Language

  1. Hi Hisako-さん

    I must be a bit slow, but this statement

    “English is intended strictly for communication. Japanese is primarily interested in feeling out the other person’s mood”

    was going around in my head for a few days. Most enlightening!

    At last I’m catching up. Masao Kunihiro!

    thanks
    Alex

  2. Hisako,
    I had found Japan fascinating since my first visit in the late 90’s. It took a combination of circumstances to make me bold enough to come, and stay. A bereavement was the kick that was required.

    http://www33.ocn.ne.jp/~actakada/WhoisMK.htm I believe that I am attributing that quote (in your blog post) correctly!

    I am surrounded by Japanese people, but proximity does not always promote understanding.

    But you have done all the hard work, in making it possible for me to read your shared thoughts

    🙂

    Alex

  3. hi, hisako, i wonder whether having similarities between English and Jpanese in grammar, i think if find out this similarities , we can learn better? you can help me answer this question

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