One time my friend´s two schoolgirly Japanese cousins came to New York to visit. Uniforms and all. When I spoke to them in Japanese they practically fainted. Then ensued a bunch of handshaking and bowing because I had made an effort to learn the language and because I am a teacher (this scores you a ton of points in Japanese culture) at a language school. I still send them garbled emails in Japanese talking about the weather in NYC and get back responses about Tokyo that I can only half understand. Awesome! Though there have been lots of great moments like these, I´m far from fluency in the language of the Rising Sun.
Japanese is a language with an extremely high difficulty curve for native English speakers. Don’t believe me? Check out this infographic, showing Japanese is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to master. I can have a small conversation, but probably would get thrown overboard if I tried to work on a Japanese fishing ship. (Still toying with the idea.)
When I jumped into Japanese I didn´t expect it to be so difficult. I speak and learned Spanish, French and German pretty easily. I spent a long time on Spanish and thereafter was able to use the same logic to learn both French and German in about 6 months. Japanese is another beast. I did an intensive semester, and then took classes (taught in German) when I lived in Berlin. I used a similar strategy to learn French, taking classes in Buenos Aires when I lived there, and the approach worked wonders, but, while my German got really good, my Japanese didn´t exactly take to the air.
Still, along with the difficulty level have come great rewards, like the reaction of the schoolgirls, other Japanese I meet, or being able to read things all over the place written not only in Japanese but also in Chinese (Really fun in New York). Japanese uses 3+ writing systems in a mixed way. It consists of two syllabaries and imported Chinese characters with a smattering of romanizations, english, and arabic numerals to sweeten the cocktail. Written Japanese is extremely aesthetic. (Hence all the tattoos.) Learning to write it is like learning to draw. The writing system has definitely been the hardest thing for me to swallow. After that, the pronunciation is somewhere in the ballpark of Spanish, and the grammar is so damn out there, it just makes sense on its own. The extreme differences between Japanese and English make it a lot of fun. There is almost no pluralization, and no conjugation. Subjects are pretty much optional. To politely say the very essential phrase “I eat fish” you would say “(I+subject marker), fish+object marker, eat. (私 は)魚を食べます. Woah!
Language is culture, and there is nowhere I have seen this more than while learning Japanese. Maybe I´ll see you in a mid-level class at Fluent City. Until then, sayoonara! さようなら!
Professor Jordan plays and sings his English, French and Spanish-language music around NY and will show you some of his favorite tounge-twisting singers who will help you learn their language. Don’t worry though, he (probably) won’t ask you to sing. He also teaches at Fluent City.