Thursday, January 8, 2009


UPDATE 1: What am I doing today? Actually reading the AJATT Chinese Corner (from the very beginning), pages I've merely browsed through when I've found a post in the past. He set up a Hanzi Mnemonics section a year ago, a fact I was blissfully ignorant of. Hopefully he will also add simplified characters so "my" readers :-) can enter characters there. Will focus on simplified characters, but add as many traditional ones that time and space allows.

UPDATE 2: Got a reply from the editor of this book

Read Real Japanese Fiction: Short Stories by Contemporary Writers 1 free CD included

(see further down in the post for details!)

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First posted at


I assume you can comment there as well as here, whatever you prefer.

The Julia Nunes post has received a temporary Top of the World place at ...

The 2nd Kanji Hanzi Hub...

and no matter how great I think Julia Nunes is - and I do! - the real purpose of this is to test Blogger vs. Wordpress. If you want to be kind, please look at both pages/blogs. think about look and feel, ease of access, feature, functionality etc. and let me know what YOU prefer. Experienced bloggers familiar with both systems are of course particularly welcome to add feedback here or via email.

Now down to business, duplicating the post on

Hi there,

(Disclaimer: The **IS** a LONG post. No need to state what is obvious. Don't like, move on to shorter posts.)

Couldn't find a place to discuss linguistics specifically so this might be just as good as any other section.....

I would really like to get some WELL-FOUNDED thoughts on this matter, i.e. not mere speculations or opinions. I am not sure if there are any professional linguists around here, but people ACTUALLY having studied more languages than Japanese for more than two weeks are welcome :evil:

Considering the general recommendation from US Foreign Department Language Studies - at least something like that - Japanese, Mandarin and Arabic get the rating Very Hard To Learn, right? I have PLAYED around with Japanese for soon ten years and have studied Mandarin since last (this) summer.

I have never attempted to study Arabic, but I have a Teach Yourself book and can "read" Arabic, since I know the writing and can translate that into acceptable sounds. Of course I don't understand anything of what I say, but nevertheless.... It's a rather tricky grammar, compared with, say, Farsi ("Persian") which is a VERY EASY LANGUAGE, something I know since I have learned a bit a long time ago. Arabic is kind of difficult to pronounce, but not at all as difficult as Mandarin.

Mandarin is A VERY DIFFICULT language the first months or so, when you have to learn 1) pinyin (a monster compared with romaji/kana) and 2) the rather subtle and varied sounds and 3) the tones. This takes some SERIOUS work. But from there it's a fast ride towards literacy, **IF** you happen to know Kanji really well, as I do. If not, then you of course have to add the problem of learning Hanzi, which is roughly the same as learning Kanji, apart from the fact that MORE characters (3000+) are needed than in Japanese if you to be considered reasonably literate. (I am also very old fashioned since I also count HAND WRITING as a requirement to gain the status of FULLY LITERATE :-) )

When I stopped merely having Japanese as a hobby and recreational activity, and actually tried to STUDY Japanese in a serious and structured way, I had a rather humbling experience: I failed! And I failed miserably!What I did was to basically go for a modified AJATT method, i.e. adding sentences to a SRS program and repeating them until I new them well AND could go from English to Japanese without any effort. No problemo to learn the sentences in Japanese and be able to read them and understand them. BUT... And a MIGHTY BIG BUT: the other way around just didn't work! Soon I found that I had to spend 60-70% - probably more like 80-90 - of my time to repeat and repeat. Not much room to add new sentences.

OK, I thought, I am getting too old and dumb for this kind of Real Language Studies. [Nasty Word] Japanese!!! Then I needed something new to put my teeth into and picked Mandarin as the best candidate as another failure. And voila: I was neither dumb not too old to learn A VERY DIFFICULT LANGUAGE. I am rather shocked by the ease of Mandarin and the speed I manage to keep up. There might be some black hole waiting ahead, but I can't possible imagine what that could be. Mandarin grammar is so easy that many claim that "Mandarin has no grammar at all". It sure does, as proven by the one and only Mandarin grammar book I own (Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar), but as things look right now this single title will be enough for a couple of years.

Japanese seems to a particularly easy target for MERE OPINIONS; even among EXPERTS. Compare these two quotes from

1) Read Real Japanese Fiction,


2) Read Real Japanese Essays,

both beautiful books I strongly recommend (like almost every title from Kodansha)!

1) Michael Emmerich:
The phrase "best-kept secret" gets on on my nerves [...] You have heard rumors, no doubt, that Japanese is an extremely difficult language for English speakers to master. Impossible, even! Well, rest assured, fellow students - these rumors are false. One of the best-kept secrets around, really and truly, is that Japanese is not actually that hard. [...] That's the rub, really - It's not that the language is hard, per se, you just have to take your time getting into it, and that's true of any language.
(My emphasis on the last sentence!!]

2) Janet Ashby:
[...] Yet Japanese remains a deeply frustrating language to study. So much so that I remember finding it positively encouraging when my Japanese professor remarked one day that it took seven years to learn the language - I had despaired pf ever being able to pick up up a Japanese magazine or newspaper and read it more or less easily.

The problem is not only the kanji barrier, high though that can be for Western learners of Japanese, but also the differences in the spoken and written language and the unfamiliar vocabulary, set expressions, sentence patterns, and even the way of thinking. And despite all the changes in the learning environment over the years, there still aren't many intermediate reading materials available, especially ones that can be used for independent study.
I quoted at length from Ashby since she summarized what would have taken me much more words very eloquently. I would like to add one point, though: There aren't very many text books for the beginner either. Genki, Japanese for Everyone (which I own) and the likes are excellent for maybe one year, but then they leave you in the dust. Mandarin have already passed Japanese by a wide margin with text book SERIES like A New Practical Chinese Reader offering material for a full three years of UNIVERSITY STUDIES. OK, it will, when the final volume 6 is published. There are quite a few alternatives, even if I don't think anything i FULLY as comprehensive as this one.

Back to Emmerich/Ashby ... Why the contrasting statements? Don't know. I think Emmerich is possibly playing with words. "Difficult" and "taking ages" are obviously not synonyms. Every bit and piece of Japanese is of course NOT DIFFICULT. The problem is that the NUMBER of pieces to keep track of, vastly exceeds any possible and impossible language I can think of. Just for fun, I will send a copy of this post to his Princeton email address, including a link to see if he will respond :-)

Enough for now. I'm all ears :-)


  1. Got a reply from Michael Emmerich, author/editor of Read Real Japanese Fiction (se above):

    Dear 漢字 ・・ 汉字,

    [ .... ]

    And just for fun, here's a response:

    Languages make sense. If parts of them don't make sense, don't work, are more work than they're worth, the people who use them change them. Japanese has a lot of moving pieces, it's true, and in the beginning it's hard to keep track of them all. It goes on being hard for a long time. Nonetheless, the pieces move together, and they move smoothly, easily. The difficulty is to learn to see how easily everything fits together. To learn to see what looks, at first, like confusion and disorder as a wonderful, overflowing richness. And that takes time. It takes work, too, of course, but I don't think the work we put into learning Japanese is essentially any more difficult than the work it takes to learn other languages, even those like French that are much, much closer to English. The reason French seems easier to English speakers, at first glance, is that we have already done a lot of the work it takes to learn to understand and produce French. We did this work when we learned Eng
    lish. When English speakers start studying Japanese, we start almost from scratch. And that takes time.

    The reason I wanted to insist, in my preface to Read Real Japanese, that Japanese is not as exceptionally difficult as people tend to think, is that I really believe, and know from experience, that if we students of Japanese give ourselves time, we can get where we are trying to go. At some point, after a long time, all the moving pieces begin to fall into place in our minds.

    When we say that Japanese is a difficult language, do we mean something different from what we might mean if we said that it is slow going studying it? Isn't a large part of the problem the scarcity of study materials that are more fun than work, or, if that's too much to ask, as much fun as work? Would Japanese still be so difficult if we had many, many more books like Read Real Japanese? Will studying Japanese cease to seem difficult when it becomes fun?

    Those, I hope, are two questions we may eventually learn the answers to . . .

    Thanks and good luck with everything!

    Best wishes,
    Michael Emmerich

  2. Thanks a lot, Michael!

    Very kind of you to reply. And with such speed. What I am basically trying to do is to offer some "consumer info" to make it easier for people to pick a language - Japanese or Mandarin here - based on more solid facts, than I personally had when I more randomly picked Japanese instead of Mandarin, just because I had started to learn Chinese Character, just for pleasure.

    I was not very young when I started learning and writing Kanji in 1999-2000 - and less so now when I REALLY want to LEARN - and there is no way I can invest the amount of time/patience it would take to become fluent in Japanese, SPEAKING without having to stop thinking about what part of speech to use. I simply find it utterly amazing that I am more confident with spoken Mandarin after a mere half year or less.

    You were perfectly hones in your intro, emphasizing TIME several times :-) In my own settings here and now, TIME is VERY DIFFICULT, since I don't have enough time FULLY learn the extremely stimulating language called Japanese. Nevertheless I am doing something I had not thought about a couple of weeks ago: I spend a bit of time every day, practicing Japanese at to keep up with what I've learned so far and perhaps become a bit better at spoken Japanese.

    I really agree that the kind of books you and Janet have compiled are excellent and much needed for the student of Japanese. I also own those books Giles Murray has had Kodansha to publish:
    Breaking into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text and Exploring Japanese Literature: Read Mishima, Tanizaki, and Kawabata in the Original. They are slightly easier to handle than Read Real... since all the information is on every fold, but OTH Murray uses some rather "free" translations to English which makes it a lot harder to REALLY see what thing in Japanese means WHAT thing in English, and vice verse. The language there is also ahead of my level, but I can still READ a lot and understand it, as long as I have the mini-dictionaries available. Again, the other way ....

    Keep on publishing more stuff!

    Kanji Hanzi

  3. Hello,

    Great post. I believe Japanese is indeed the hardest!

    I've lived in Japan for 2 years but failed to speak fluently. Now, I'm in China, I'm having an easier time with Mandarin. I wrote a blog post about the difficulties I had learning Japanese over Chinese. TheShanghaiExpat. Please feel free to visit and let me know if you are interested with link exchange.



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