"Is Japanese Difficult?"
Lack of Exposure is not the same as Perplexity
Japanese is a beautiful language entwined ceaselessly with a proud, powerful, and organized culture that teeters between brilliance, freshness, isolation, despair, and true gratitude. Much like the human condition, the Japanese language has many facets and many expressions simply cannot easily be translated into other languages like English without some interpretive acrobatics by the translator. Lexical Gaps exist in many languages, but this Untranslatability is not because our human experiences are somehow fundamentally different, it is because the rich media and culture surrounding and associating with our languages are quite distinct. Language itself is permeated with an unending wave, an ebb and flow, of culture and counter-culture. To be exposed to the various media of Japanese culture: books, movies, poems, paintings, elaborate gardens, temple campuses, hotsprings, thematic festivals, hole-in-the-wall restaurants -- is to be exposed to a celebration of history and cultivation of elegance. Learning Japanese is not difficult because it is untranslatable, learning Japanese is notorious because one drop of Japanese has a whole ocean of culture.
Time to Learn and Essential Techniques
In order to master Japanese as an English speaker, what's a reasonable timeline? What's an ambitious timeline? What's an outrageous timeline?
Reasonable Timeline: 7-10 years
Ambitious Timeline: 5 years
Outrageous Timeline: 3-4 years
3 Writing Systems
Japanese consists of 3 different writing systems.
- Hiragana: phonetic glyphs
- Katakana: angular phonetic glyphs
- Kanji: imported mainland-Asia ideograms
To have the rain of Japanese culture and understanding gush forth from the clouds we do not need to resort to rote memorization or countless hours spent pouring over glyphs to no sane end. In fact, rote techniques without creativity or stimulation of the imagination are simply not as effective as more creative methods of memory and recall that lead to short-term mnemonic associations and long-term solid bridges.
But that's not because Japanese is insane, it's because it's a rare kind of language. Surprisingly, Japanese, Korean, and Turkish (the supposed "Altaic Language Family") all have similar grammatical construction.
All Humans make Sounds
When we consider that human beings must express themselves, and that there are only so many ways we can sequence nouns and create sounds with our throats and mouths (granted there are very many ways), we can start to see that an exhaustive account of all sounds and sequences in language possible can help illustrate the necessity in convergence of languages. Whether separated by mountains, chasm, or ocean, different tribes can continue to change their linguistic use to become more like another language on a completely different side of the globe. It's not necessarily that they share the same root in the external world, but that they share a common root on the inside: the human need to express and communicate.
Curriculum Sequence: Do a Frequency Analysis
If you want to learn anything effectively, a large domain of information like chemistry, a new language, or even all the songs by a certain band, what's the best way to start?
Consider Frequency Analysis.
Let's say we want to teach our friend how to play every Beatles' song on the piano and guitar. We could start by teaching random chords or by trying real songs right away. But a better technique is to do a frequency analysis on the dataset and see which chords are most common, and see which chord transitions are most common.
Now we can learn all the most common chords and lyrics first, and then when we start learning whole songs we are putting little legos of understanding together, rather than trying to cook our rice one grain at a time.
Create a Solid Foundation
Japanese has a different grammar and writing situation than English or any other language for that matter.
To learn the writing systems, we can learn the glyphs in a general fashion: the 2 phonetic scripts (Hiragana and Katakana) and start looking at kanji (ideograms).
However, when we look at a Japanese frequency dictionary, we'll find certain entries are super common, and these are the Particles: Special words of Japanese grammar that create the role of each noun in the sentence. In English we use Prepositions like "To the Store" and in Japanese we use Particles like お店に (The Storeに = The Store Ni)
Learn Grammar, then Labels
Japanese curriculums tend to focus on nouns, but the hardest part for beginners to grasp is the grammar.
It's easy to learn all the labels. Of all the high-level Japanese students tested in a research paper, their strongest section was names and labels (nouns). The most surprisng fact of the aforementioned research paper was that the strongest challenge group was basic grammar constructions for intermediate students.
Clearly, there is a gap in the pedagogy that is not being addressed, and few programs can take someone from Intermediate to Advanced.
From Intermediate to Advanced
What causes one to become great and not just good?
Constant discipline, constant effort, joyful effort, happy anticipation of how good it will be to be a pro in the end, and patience.
You don't need to be a genius to learn a new language, you just need to have it broken down and drilled in such a way, a fun way with game-like testing, so that it's not a chore to train your brain to think in Japanese.
Without an amazing program to take you to Advanced, it takes a lot of discipline because going to Japan can still offer a lot of access to English. Truly, to grow in Japanese once you reach a certain level one needs immersion in the culture and language, and one also needs discipline to refuse the easy way out by resorting to their mother tongue.
Learning to sing the song of Japanese is a challenge it itself, but even more important is the ability to communicate with people you meet.
In English we are anticipating language constructions all the time, leading to fun, quick, witty, and sometimes humorous results with our language. By training yourself to anticipate Japanese constructions, you'll have similar results in your new (mouth and) tongue.
Consider the English sentence "She works at a big ___." We are already anticipating a place. Likewise, when we hear 「＿＿＿で働いてる。」 We can train ourselves to anticipate "Ah, this De particle refers to place. Place で ... Place で" and cement our understanding that this represents a setting or location.
Creating Linguistic Equality
To retain a language long-term we have to blend it in with our normal linguistic repertoire. Taking sips at the waterfountain while counting in the target language, for example, is an easy way to blend it into everyday life.
When we look at an apple or a house we will be able to say りんご or いえ with just as much certainty as if we had said it in English, and we can practice seeing "an Apple as a Ring as an Apple as a Ringo" in our downtime to really take the lessons to a deeper level.