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Big in Japan: So, you want to learn Japanese...
(You get the idea!)
For the rest of us however, the only way of wrapping of our minds around the linguistic enigma that is Japanese is to spend years and years slaving away over complex characters, grueling grammar patterns and formal phrases that seem to defy all manners of sensible logic.
But seriously, it really isn't that bad, and even if you never fully master Japanese, at least you can look cool ordering sushi in front of all of your envious friends!
On that note, this week's Big in Japan is devoted to unraveling the mysteries of ??? (nihongo, Japanese).
While we're certainly not promising that you'll be able to learn Japanese in just a few clicks of the mouse, at least you'll get a good sense of how it is that you can draw meaning from all of those crazy scribbles.
So, without further adieu, let's start with the basics (^O^)>?????
Here is the good news:
Unlike Mandarin or Cantonese, which have distinct tones that are often incomprehensible to Westerners, Japanese is more or less monotone, and actually has the same phonemes as Italian and Spanish. As a result, Japanese is extremely easy to pronounce, has a relatively small sound inventory, and generally has much shorter sentences than English.
Japanese vocabulary has also been heavily influenced by loan words from other languages. For over a period of 1,500 years, Japanese borrowed extensively from Chinese, though since the 19th century, English has been supplying long lists of new words. In fact, novice speakers of Japanese are pleasantly surprised to learn that they already know a fair bit of the language.
Here is the bad news:
Japanese is distinguished by a complex system of honorifics that reflects the hierarchical nature of Japanese society. This means that specific verb forms and vocabulary indicate the relative status of the speaker and the listener. Needless to say, this inherent complexity is ripe with potential pitfalls for non-native speakers, especally since you can offend your listener and call into question their social status just by mixing up a single word.
And of course, no mention of Japanese would be complete without paying tribute to its masochistic system of writing, which is comprised of no less than three different sets of scripts - four if you include the Latin alphabet, rōmaji (ローマ字). The fact that most Japanese people can't fully comprehend a newspaper until high school is proof enough that written Japanese is, quite frankly, a bitch to learn.
The Japanese language is written with a combination of three different types of scripts: traditional Chinese characters or kanji (漢字 / かんじ),and two syllabic scripts known as hiragana (平仮名 / ひらがな) and katakana (片仮名 / カタカナ). So, if you thought learning your ABCs was difficult, consider for a moment that both hiragana and katakana have around 50 unique characters each, and there are quite literally thousands and thousands of kanji to memorize.
Still want to learn how to speak 日本語? Sure you do!
Tune in on Wednesday for tips on how to crash course Japanese...
** All images are courtesy of the WikiCommons Media Project **