The other day, a Japanese man I know set about explaining why Japanese was so hard. It was one of those conversations that begin with a fellow who can’t speak a lick of English taking pride in telling you how difficult it is to learn Japanese. It started the usual way. ‘Nihongo muzukashii?’
I gave the anticipated answer and explained that, yes, I did find Japanese hard. To say otherwise would look arrogant, especially if, as would be likely, I cocked up my next sentence. In any event it would be a lie. The man I was talking to allowed himself a bit of a smug grin and told me that Japanese was indeed very difficult, maybe the most difficult language in the world. It has, you see, three reading systems whereas English only has one. Counting them out slowly on his fingers, he enunciated, ‘Katakana, hiragana, kanji!’ He held three fingers up for emphasis. I thought about raising one in celebration of my language but decided against it.
‘That is why Japanese is difficult,’ he said.
Well, no. It’s not. It doesn’t make things easier, but the reason I find Japanese difficult is not the number of writing systems. It is because I was born and raised in the UK by English-speaking parents. Japanese is difficult for me for the same reasons that English is difficult for many Japanese – the languages are just very, very different. I have no doubt that learning French or German is generally easier than learning Japanese for an anglophone but that doesn’t make Japanese an inherently more difficult or superior language. Different languages are difficult for different people. I bet I’d find Chinese a bastard to learn because I am tone deaf.
Kanji, it is true, ups the difficulty stakes in learning Japanese but the fact that it is one of three writing systems is barely relevant. Katakana and Hiragana are fairly simple syllabaries and, once mastered, there can be no doubt about how to read a word written in those scripts. Kanji is a whole other ball game with multiple readings for thousands upon thousands of characters. The fact that you can not usually read by yourself until after a great deal of study contributes to the slow pace of learning Japanese. But still, to suggest English is far easier because it has one alphabet is misguided and simplistic. It may have one alphabet of only 26 letters, but give a thought to tough and though and bough and cough and you quickly realize fewer letters is not an automatic indicator of reading ease.
I told my companion that I thought learning kanji was tough. ‘It takes a lot of time and effort,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘even we Japanese can’t read some kanji. ‘But,’ he added, ‘kanji is very useful because we can look at a kanji and sometimes know the meaning just by looking at it!’
‘But you can do that in English, too,’ I said. I would usually have just nodded and agreed but I was in a bit of a contrary mood.
‘No,’ he said, thinking I had misunderstood. Then he explained the same thing again.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You can do that in English.’
I don’t think he believed me. But anybody who has seen and understood, say, the word ‘multifunctional’ could hazard a pretty good guess at what ‘multilingual’, ‘multipurpose’, ‘multilateral’ and a multitide of other words employing ‘multi-’ mean, even if they had never seen those words before. It is not unique to kanji.
We moved on, and the man brought up another reason for why Japanese is so difficult. ‘In Japanese,’ he said, ‘we have words that sound the same but have different meanings!’ He beamed with joy at the revelation of a language having homophones. He told me with barely concealed elation how ame can mean rain (雨) or, hold on to your hats readers, candy (飴)! And hashi can mean chopsticks (箸), bridge (橋) or edge (端)! Well fancy that! Except that our ‘rain’ is a homophone too, as are myriad other English words. And here’s the thing that confuses me: I have heard this homophone boast quite a few times over the years and they always, always reel out the same old examples of ame and hashi. Why? They are almost never going to cause confusion. Only if the very chubbiest of fellows was talking would you pause to wonder, ‘Hang on, is he staying in today because of the rain, or the candy?’ No, homophones may cause problems, but those ones don’t and it is a truly bizarre thing that there are people that seem to think they are somehow unique to Japanese. They are not. And neither is it because of their existence that anglophones might find Japanese difficult.
Anyway the chap seemed a bit disappointed that I wasn’t particularly impressed by his ame and hashi, but I cheered him up a bit by assuring him that I think Japanese is difficult. I do. It is a constant struggle and the better I get, the more I realize how far I still have to go. My battle for proficiency, however, is hard for almost none of the reasons my lunch companion thought.
The waiter arrived and the conversation changed to food. It was a pleasant chat, but somewhat spoiled by my companion’s curious need to express how exceptionally skillful I am at using bridges.