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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

FYI

JAPANESE

How hard is it really to learn Japanese?


Staff writer

As a language so distinct from most others, Japanese has an air of mystery about it.

Though no longer considered a linguistic isolate, Japanese forms a family with only the Ryukyuan languages and its origin remains uncertain. For English speakers at least, it is considered one of the most difficult languages to master.

Following are basic questions and answers about some characteristics of the language:

How many people are using or learning the Japanese language in Japan?

Japanese is effectively the sole language of the country, and almost all of the 128 million natives speak it.

Although there are a number of dialects and accents around Japan, the essentially monolingual status that prevails here is quite rare, experts say. Several principal languages are widely spoken within the borders of most countries.

According to Nagoya University linguistics professor Ken Machida, there are between 6,000 and 7,000 living languages in the world today, which, if evenly distributed, would break down to about 30 per country.

In addition to native Japanese, 135,514 nonnatives were studying Japanese at 2,047 institutions in Japan in November 2005, according to the Cultural Affairs Agency.

Of those, 77.1 percent were from Asia, followed by 4.6 percent from North America, 3.7 percent from South America and 3.6 percent from Europe.

What is the situation overseas?

Outside of Japan, 2.98 million people in 133 countries are studying the language at 13,639 institutions, according to a 2006 survey by the Japan Foundation. This number, up 26.4 percent from the previous survey in 2003, does not include people teaching themselves or taking private lessons.

South Korea accounts for most Japanese-language learners, with 910,957, or 30.6 percent of the total overseas. In effect, one in every 52 South Koreans is studying Japanese in the classroom.

After South Korea, China comes in second at 23 percent of the total, followed by Australia at 12.3 percent, Indonesia at 9.2 percent, Taiwan at 6.4 percent and the United States at 4.0 percent.

Is the Japanese language truly difficult to master?

Contrary to popular belief, linguists agree that spoken Japanese is relatively easy to master compared with other languages, partly because it has only five vowels and 13 consonants. On the other hand, English has 12 vowels and 24 consonants.

According to professor Machida, Japanese verbs follow regular rules of conjugation with few exceptions, unlike English, Russian and Greek.

"Overall, it can be concluded that Japanese is a language relatively easy to master once (learners) acquire rules because there aren't that many exceptions," Machida wrote in his book "Gengo Sekai Chizu" ("World Map of Languages"), published in May.

It is Japanese in its written form that presents the most difficulties.

Experts agree the Japanese writing system is one of the most complex in the world because it combines five different systems — kanji, hiragana, katakana, Arabic numerals and even the Roman alphabet.

"I don't think any other country in the world uses a letter system of such complexity," wrote Haruhiko Kindaichi, one of the most well-known Japanese linguists, in his book "Nihongo no Tokushitsu" ("Characteristics of the Japanese Language"), published in 1991.

When was kanji introduced from China, and how were hiragana and katakana created?

No native Japanese writing system is known before the introduction of written Chinese in the fourth century.

The hiragana syllabary is traceable to the ninth century, when Chinese characters began to be used for their pronunciations, while katana developed from parts of kanji around the same time.

Most kanji have two different pronunciations, depending on whether they refer to words of Japanese ("kun yomi") or Chinese ("on yomi") origin.

How many Japanese words must be learned to become functional in the language?

According to a survey by the National Institute for Japanese Language, contemporary Japanese magazines use about 30,000 words, but 90 percent of sentences are constructed from a pool of just 10,000.

The figure is much larger than English and Spanish, each of which requires knowledge of about 3,000 words, while French requires only about 2,000 words, according to Kotobano Chishiki Hyakka (the Encyclopedia of Words), published in 1995.

The encyclopedia also explains that Japanese has a relatively large vocabulary because it has adopted so many foreign words to create neologisms.

What's the origin of the Japanese language?

There are several hypotheses.

Although Korean grammar is similar, its vocabulary is largely distinct from Japanese.

And while Polynesian languages can sound superficially similar to Japanese, and some believe Polynesians settled on the archipelago long ago, the theory of a linguistic connection has been discredited.

Others have postulated a connection with Tibetan, modern-day Myanmar or even Tamil.

Only the Ryukyuan languages have a demonstrable connection to Japanese. Together they form the Japonic language family.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk


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