Japanese has a reputation for being difficult for English speakers to learn, but being able to speak it opens an extraordinary culture, writes Matt Burney. In the second of our series on the ten most important languages for the UK's future, he explains how to learn an unfamiliar language as an adult.
It's still possible to become fluent in another language as an adult
Mastering Japanese made me realise that I am much more of a linguist than my teachers in the '80s would tell my parents in school reports. I never really excelled in French at school, and was deemed not talented enough at languages to be given the chance to learn German.
After my first degree, I travelled to Japan as part of the Japan Teaching and Exchange programme run by the Japanese government, which involved teaching English in the Japanese state school system. I planned to earn a bit of money, with a view to returning to the UK after a year to take up a masters degree at the Royal College of Music.
I was sent to a rural part of Japan where I lived in a house made of wood and paper in the middle of rice fields. It was a case of sink-or-swim. Speaking Japanese wasn't a prerequisite for being accepted onto the scheme, but given that I was sent to work in a rural part of Japan during a time that pre-dated the internet and mobile phones, I had a lot of time on my hands to learn the language. I would learn around ten characters a day and spend a couple of hours on the language each evening so that, by the end of my first year, I’d actually become quite proficient.
I never went back to music college. Instead, I stayed in Japan for almost eight years, got an advanced diploma in Japanese language and passed the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test’s highest level. I was self-taught in the first couple of years -- but I didn’t earn any money from the language until I became fluent enough to apply for jobs that were specifically looking for Japanese speakers. I had no idea that one day I would become fluent enough to work in a completely Japanese-speaking environment.
Speaking Japanese shows you the world through a different lens
My attitude towards learning Japanese was pretty disciplined, as I needed to learn it in order to survive in a place where literally no-one spoke English. After getting on the wrong bus once and ending up in a completely different village (before we had mobile phones) I realised that I simply couldn't wing it.
I also knew that if I learned the language to a good enough standard, opportunities would come my way -- which they did. More than anything, though, my desire to learn about people, about their stories and background really motivated me. Language gave my relationships a third dimension, whereas before I could properly converse, everything seemed a little two-dimensional. Learning the language enriched my life through the relationships I built.
I think it’s important to see language as a way to build new friendships and see the world through a different lens. That element of learning the language was missing from my secondary school experience, so I think it’s important for teachers to encourage learners to see language as a way of widening horizons, as opposed to simply passing exams.
The best way to learn a language is to communicate in it
For me, learning French at school was an academic exercise. It was a means to an end: passing an exam. I really didn't see it as a way of communicating, or as a door to new ways of seeing the world. It was all about the conjugation of verbs and getting things right in the exam, as opposed to something that could help me learn about different cultures and teach me see things in a new way. It just didn't seem to be a living thing, but something that existed only in books.
I think my attitude towards learning could have been improved by a stronger focus in the classroom on communication. When I studied French, only about five per cent of marks in the final exam focused on communication. The rest was on literary translation. So it’s understandable that so much attention was given to writing, as opposed to speaking. Our teachers were really only trying to get us through the syllabus -- which goes to show, I suppose, that well-balanced assessment plays an important part in motivating learners and teachers alike.
Japanese doesn't have to be intimidating
Right from the start, I refused to see Japanese as difficult. I just saw it as different.
Learning the script wasn't difficult, it was just time-consuming. I realised that my approach to learning the language was just as important as the hours I spent learning it. I pretended to understand conversations in low-risk situations, which exposed me to more of the language and helped my listening skills. Then, almost suddenly, I didn't need to pretend anymore, and I actually understood what everyone was saying to me.
Some Japanese concepts can't be translated into English
By my sixth or seventh year in Japan, I was actually dreaming in Japanese.
As time went on, I found myself thinking in Japanese a lot, too. I remember feeling frustrated at times by the fact that it was very difficult to convey certain concepts in English when there was a perfectly simple way of conveying them in Japanese.
For example, the concept of ‘wabi sabi’ in Japanese is based on the idea that imperfection and transience create a sense of beauty or melancholy. The word is often used in autumn when the seasons are changing. It’s a beautiful word that reflects things of understated beauty so well -- but not a word that can be easily explained to people who don’t feel the Japanese culture in their DNA.
Japanese has simple words for ideas that require whole phrases in English
Professional interpreters would tell you that no concept is untranslatable, and that you will mostly only struggle when you try to look for single-word equivalents in the other language; especially if you try to look for a word that's the identical part of speech (a noun for a noun; an adjective for an adjective, etc.).
But the English phrases ‘That brings back good memories!’ and ‘I hadn't thought of that in years!’ are expressed in Japanese with a single word, which happens to be an adjective: 懐かしい (natsukashii). It’s an incredibly succinct way of expressing all of the things that you associate about ‘the good old days’ in a single word. But it's quite difficult to explain fully in English.
Some Japanese words have undergone a mutation in meaning, on account of their borrowing from other languages. スキンシップ (sukinshippu), for example, means physical contact – and is a mutation of ‘kinship’ and ‘skin’, i.e., ‘skinship’. But it has a slightly different connotation in Japanese than in English. It evokes a platonic bonding through physical contact between friends. I know this sounds 怪しい (ayashii), but it’s not; it’s entirely innocent. In fact, talking of ‘ayashii’, that’s another adjective often used in Japanese, but difficult to translate into English. It alludes to something being a bit ‘dodgy’ or slightly suspect.
There are fascinating links between Japanese and Mandarin Chinese
Chinese characters were the most widely used form of written language in Japan around the fifth century. They were used largely by migrant populations from modern China and Korea, who were living in Japan. So it was inevitable that Chinese would go on to have a considerable influence on the Japanese language which, up until that time, had largely been an oral language.
When Chinese characters were introduced, and a subsequent literary push amongst the noble classes took root in the sixth and seventh centuries, the original Japanese language was heavily influenced by the imported Chinese characters. In many cases, this influence extended to pronunciation.
For example, the word for ‘safe’（安全）in Japanese is pronounced ‘anzen’. In Mandarin, it is ‘anquan’. When I first started to learn Mandarin, my teachers would tell me that I spoke as though I were Japanese. I think that’s because I would see Mandarin characters and think of them as Japanese. Now, when I speak Japanese, quite a few Mandarin words make their way into my sentences.
Unlike Chinese, Japanese pronunciation can vary depending on context
Owing to the influence of Mandarin Chinese on the Japanese language, there are still similarities in pronunciation between the two -- but there are also fundamental differences. In Mandarin, there is generally just one way to pronounce a character, but in Japanese some characters -- or ‘kanji’ 漢字 -- can be pronounced in numerous ways depending on the context. For example, the character 今日is usually read kyō, meaning ‘today’, but in formal writing is instead read konnichi, meaning ‘nowadays’.
Similarly, the word for tree - 木 - can be pronounced ‘ki’, ‘moku’ or ‘boku’. ‘Ki’ is the ‘kunyomi -- 訓読み’, the pronunciation used before Chinese characters were introduced into the Japanese language. ‘Moku’ and ‘Boku’ are the ‘onyomi -- 音読み’, readings of characters that were influenced by Chinese pronunciation.
While some character combinations have the same meaning in Japanese as they do in Chinese (such as the word for ‘safe’, which I mentioned above), the meaning of certain character combinations have changed over time. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the character combination: 手 ‘hand’ 紙 ‘paper’. In Japanese, the meaning of these two characters in combination is ‘letter’, whereas in Chinese it means ‘toilet paper’.
Speaking fluent Japanese helps you navigate Japanese society
Mastering the language gave me an advantage in becoming as much of an ‘insider’ in social groups as it is possible to be in Japan. The Japanese language makes clear distinctions between social statuses and separates who is an insider or an outsider. Consequently, the most difficult thing about the language is not its grammar, nor its pronunciation -- which is pretty simple given that there are so few sounds and they follow an almost Italianate consonant-vowel pattern -- but the various way to use pronouns and conjugate verbs in relation to the speaker’s audience.
There are numerous ways of saying ‘I’, for example, depending on a particular social situation. The most common and neutral form of ‘I’ in both the written and spoken language is 私 ‘watashi’ but there are many more forms of ‘I’. A male, for example, might refer to himself as 僕 ‘boku’ which is more familiar, or 俺 ‘ore’ which is very familiar, or even rude, depending on the context.
There are also different forms of the same way of saying things which, when applied in a certain context, can create a distance between the speaker and her audience. So, to say ‘kimi ha, doko kara kita?’ 君は、どこから来た？is a very informal way of saying ‘where are you from?’ whereas ‘dochira no go shusshin desu ka’ どちらのご出身ですか is a much politer way of saying the same thing and indicates a certain formality and distance from the interlocutor. If you were to use the latter phrase with a friend, or someone from within your inner circle, they would likely think it strange that you were distancing yourself from the group by way of the more formal language you were using. That said, you would use that form as a matter of course to someone you deemed to be senior to yourself or someone who clearly belonged to a group outside your inner circle.
Japanese can change your life
Learning Japanese and Mandarin has literally changed my life. It's opened up doors to a new way of seeing the world and helped me forge a successful career. It has instilled in me a level of confidence in my own ability that I don’t think I would have otherwise had. And it’s certainly developed my communication skills in English.
For anyone thinking of learning a second language, don’t see it as an academic exercise. First and foremost, see learning a language as a way of opening up doors to new people and new ways of thinking. Don’t see the new language as difficult -- it’s just different. And don’t ask too many questions about why the new language is so different. It just is. Accept it in the first instance and you will begin to understand why it is different as you progress.
Matt Burney is British Council Consul (Cultural and Education), British Consulate-General in Shanghai and Area Director East China. He has worked all over the world for the British Council in China, London, Prague, Dublin and Japan. Download the full Languages for the Future report.