Friday, April 16, 2010

Do you have to, do you have to let it lingua?

There's not much going on here for me to blog about, so let's talk Japanese. I had my usual weekly Japanese class last night, and I came away feeling a bit dispirited. It's just not getting any easier.

At times like this, I bitterly reminisce about the only other non-programming language I've studied in any depth: German. For a native English speaker, learning German is almost comically easy compared to learning Japanese. Half the words are the same! Compare:

I drank water.
Ich trank wasser.
Watashi wa mizu o nonda.
Or, indeed: 私は水を飲んだ。

Japanese does have a few nice features that, if I was designing a language, I would incorporate. So, before whining about how difficult it is, I'll point out the good bits:
  • No plurals. All nouns in Japanese basically work like English mass nouns (e.g. "water", "butter"), so I don't have to worry about forming plurals. The language doesn't really distinguish between "a tree" and "trees". The downside of this is that when you want to specify that there are three trees, you have to use a counter word ("three glasses of water", "three knobs of butter"). There is a bewildering range of counters used depending on what you are counting: long thin things are hon (or bon, or pon), flat things are mai, small animals are hiki (or piki).
  • No articles. From teaching English I realise that deciding whether to stick "the", "a", nothing at all, or something else like "these" before a noun is very tricky. None of that nonsense here.
  • No gender. One of the biggest pains in the ass with German was remebering that dogs are masculine, cats are feminine, and girls are (oddly) neuter. English has much less of that, but gender still creeps into personal pronouns. Japanese uses pronouns very sparingly, so there really is virtually no gender in the language. (However, the language does change depending on the gender of the speaker, as I explained before.)
  • Logical sentence structure. Sure, it's very different from English: it's subject-object-verb for a start ("MmmMM, you the Force must use."), and every clause it tagged with a particle at the end to indicate what part of the sentence it is. But it makes sense. It's the kind of thing a programmer would come up with. Compare this to the mess of English, where positive sentences have the verb second ("I drank water."), but negative sentences and questions inject a silly auxilliary verb ("I did not drink water.", "Did I drink water?").
  • Easy phonology. Japanese doesn't contain any sounds that are alien to an English speaker. Sure, the halfway l/r consonant is a bit tricky to pull off like a native, but you can just say 'r' and you will be understood. Or indeed 'l' - they literally can't tell the difference. And the consonant+'y' combo causes some people to come unstuck. Tokyo has two syllables (to-kyo), not three (to-ki-o), regardless of what Gwen Stefani tells you.

So thats the good news. Now the bad. For me, learning Japanese has been charactised by smashing headlong into a series of brick walls: linguistic features that seem so gratuitously, perversely confusing that my first response is just to get angry at them. Imagine you're trying to assemble an Ikea coffee table, then someone comes along and cheerfully plucks the screwdriver from your hand. As you struggle to make do with a butterknife or something, he comes back and tells you that you must stand on one leg. A few minutes later he informs you that he's just dumped a load of screws that are slightly the wrong size into you bag of parts, and demands that you now sing Bad Romance in a loop until you finish the table. That's what learning Japanese is like.

Here, in roughly chronological order, are the things that have made me want to tell Japanese to just frak off:

  • The writing systems. Yeah, I've covered this before. Suffice to say, the main problem with a non-phonetic writing system is that it means reading/writing and speaking/listening are separate skills. There are lots of words I can say but not write, and there are also written words whose meaning I can guess at, but which I have no hope of saying aloud.
  • Tense-marked adjectives. Verbs having a past tense is fine. But adjectives?! Give me a break. In Japanese, you don't say "The sushi was delicious"; you say something like "The sushi is delicious-ed". As if this wasn't bad enough, about a third of adjectives don't follow this pattern but behave more like they would in English, so you have to remember which ones are which.
  • Politeness. Depending on just how polite you want to be, "I drank water" could be watashi wa o-mizu o nomimashita, or boku, mizu o nonda. These aren't even extreme examples; they are, respectively, how you would talk to your boss and your friend. If you want to address an emperor or something, it would be completely different again.
  • Insane verb morphology. Let's take our favourite irregular English verb - "drink" - as an example. This can morph into "drank", "drunk", "drinks" or "drinking" depending on grammatical context. Now compare with Japanese, where it could be nomu, nomanai, nonda, nondanakatta, nomimasu, nomimasen, nomimashita, nomimasendeshita, nonde, nomimashou, nomeru, nomou... And that's just what I've learned so far; I'm sure a whole bunch more will come out of the woodwork before my textbook is over.
  • Transitive and intransitive verbs being different. This is the one that upset me last night. In English, you can say "I open the door" (the door is the object) or "the door opens" (the door is the subject). In Japanese, the verb would be akeru in the former case, and aku in the latter. These are similar enough that you could mistake them for conjugations of the same verb, but no, they are in fact different. There are a whole bunch of these transitive-intransitive pairs, and as far as I can discern, no pattern to convert one into the other.

Comparing my experiences with German and Japanese, I wondered if anyone had compiled a ranking of how hard languages are, coming from English. It turns out they have, and wouldn't you know it, Japanese is considered the most difficult language in the world. Linguist Richard Brecht said, "I would like to learn Japanese but I don't have enough time in my lifetime. That's very depressing." I'm kind of glad I didn't know this when I started. At this stage, I actually find it kind of encouraging. My glacial progress not due to me being an idiot, but to the fact that I'm undertaking the most hardcore linguistic challenge the world has to offer.

I think I should be commended for not using the phrase 'cunning linguist' at any point in this post. Dammit!

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