Special mention and thank you to Mandla, Ciara, Freddie, Tich, Jacky and Carla for allowing me to interview them. Your thoughts and ideas were a great contribution.
To understand why the Japanese language is so difficult for English speakers, it’s helpful to look at the history and relatedness of the languages. The last time, if ever, the Japanese and English family trees met was probably when they were still both little seeds, in other words, an awfully long time before either language existed in any form we know today.
The languages developing so independently is a large reason why it’s so hard to learn Japanese for a native English speaker; Lack of commonality. No doubt, Japanese is a tough language, which is a whole topic on its own, but this is not helped by the lack of common ground between the two languages. Compare Afrikaans and Dutch, as good as mother and daughter on the language family tree. The level of common ground between vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, syntax, etc. is so immense that it’s a simple hop, skip and jump to learning an additional language. However, it takes an awful lot of hopping, skipping and jumping to get from the English branch, onto the Japanese branch, in fact, they are not even on the same family tree.
Let’s have a look at this. When we imagine Dutch and Afrikaans as trees, this might be what it would look like:
Afrikaans is nestled right in there with Dutch, a veritable baby Dutch taking after her mother. Now let us look at English and Japanese:
With English and Japanese the languages are barely touching, and this touch is not because of a common past, but because of a shared present, that we see in the loan word between the two languages, like Sushi and テレビ. This is all great though, but it doesn’t help learning the languages.
3 things that make it easier.
Number 1: Forget everything you know
A mistake we often make is to find a basis in your existing knowledge to link to the new information coming in. With Japanese, there is none. This is not a conscious decision but something our brain does automatically. It wants to build a house and therefore it wants to put one brick on top of another. It takes conscious effort to make your brain build a new, freestanding foundation upon which to build your Japanese house. You cannot build a Japanese house on an English foundation.
The Japanese language is one long lesson in letting it go. So many things will come up that just won’t seem to make sense, but in Japanese it does and you just don’t have your Japanese brain yet. The best you can do is to accept it as is. This is a lot easier when you realise that later, it will make sense. Think of it as a puzzle. Let’s say the alphabets are all green puzzle pieces but then you start incorporating grammar and suddenly your puzzle pieces are pink or grey, and they just don’t seem to fit into your green pieces anymore. That’s okay. Take those pink and grey pieces and embrace them because later, they are going to fit perfectly into the puzzle, once you have the accompanying pieces, the vocabulary, syntax and other delicious bits.
Number 2: Go 100% Japanese from the beginning
This feels a bit like a broken record, but leaving all the English behind is important. It is incredibly hard, and progress will feel slow, but focusing on understanding the Japanese in Japanese, and not in English will speed up your Japanese fluency. Let me try to put this in an example. When you read ‘私は学生です’, to think in your mind ‘私は学生です’ and not ‘I am a student’. Train your brain to function in Japanese as early as possible, and not to put the Japanese through an English filter. I do this by trying to see pictures in my mind as I read Japanese. In other words, in my mind 私は学生です is not ‘I am a student’, but me, pointing at myself, and then, Poof! I’m dressed as a student with a schoolbag and a uniform. It takes practice, and this might not even work for you, but I encourage you to find a way to function in Japanese as early as possible.
It is usually only around the intermediate phase of learning a new language that the brain starts to actually process information in the target language. Somewhere between the beginner and intermediate phase you will start to process in the target language when you consciously think about it, even though it might not be hard. To focus the brain on functioning, however basically, in the target language before it feels ready to do it, is a real workout. And we all know what happens to muscles when we work them out. We always have to reach beyond our current knowledge, our currency comfort zone. This is how we speed up our learning, our progress and our fluency.
Number 3: Immersion
If there is one thing I’ve learned from speaking to language learners of all varieties, something that works for everyone is immersion. This may take different forms for different people, or all forms for some people, but immersing, surrounding, flooding yourself with a language is a great way to start that Japanese foundation and switch on that Japanese brain. Input = Output. The more Japanese input you have, the more Japanese output you can produce. If you spend 30 minutes a day 3 times a week in Japanese, be that studying, playing or watching Anime, you won’t be able to produce too much Japanese anytime soon. However, if you wake up in the morning to a Japanese Alarm jingle, listen to a Japanese podcast first thing in the morning, listen to Japanese music driving to work, watch a Japanese movie or documentary in the evening and play a Japanese language game on your phone on the toi… ahem. You get what I’m saying.
Always have some Japanese around you; stick some Japanese labels on your food, have a Japanese story (There are easy ones too) printed on your bedside, have a Japanese learning app like Anki on your phone for when you are stuck in line, switch your phone to Japanese, next level. In South Africa, it isn’t possible to surround ourselves with Japanese like it is in Japan, or countries with significant Japanese communities. It is up to us to create our own Japanese language community and environment, however rickety it might be.
We are all in the same language learning boat called Nihongo, tied to other language learning boats of various names. Learning a language is difficult, frustrating, rewarding… but all made better by community. After all, languages are meant for communication. So let’s remember, we are not alone. If you are learning Japanese too, I look forward to seeing you at the Japanese Language Club.