How difficult is to learn Japanese
The foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State ranks the languages that the U.S. Diplomats encounter in five categories, according to the difficulty for a native English speaker of learning the language. There are only 5 languages in the ‘super-hard’ category-five rank:
and of these, Japanese is ranked as the most difficult one [ELL]. This is not surprising since the most difficult part of learning either Chinese – Cantonese or Mandarin – is the writing system (Chinese grammar is easy), while the most difficult part of learning Korean is its grammar (Korean writing is easy); in contrast, Chinese writing is only one of four writing systems used for writing Japanese, and the Japanese and Korean grammar are similar, i.e., Japanese writing is at least as difficult as Chinese writing (actually is much more difficult), and Japanese grammar is about as difficult as Korean grammar. These are also the reasons Japanese is relatively easy for Chinese and Korean students: both have familiarity with at least one aspect of Japanese that makes life so difficult for western students.
In addition of a difficult writing system and grammar, Japanese has many layers of politeness. Generally speaking, there is a polite form and a casual form, but in reality there are many forms that transition from very formal – or even humble – to very rude, with both formal and casual somewhere in the middle of the scale. Sometimes this politeness level appears as a variation of the word, e.g., ‘is’ can be ‘degozai-masu’ (humble), ‘desu’ (formal), or ‘da’ (casual), or it might even be omitted (very casual); some other times, though, the politeness level leads to completely different words that we might use at different times depending on who we are talking to.
In essence, if we have the time and inclination, and are ready for a challenge, learning Japanese is right up our alley. The consensus is that Japanese has a steep learning curve, i.e., it takes a lot of time to get to a level when we can say or understand a random phrase; a lot of people quit Japanese because of the steepness of this curve: we feel that we are not progressing, and the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know and how much we still have to go. Learning Japanese is a marathon, not a sprint; we should expect progress in a matter of a few years instead of the few months in which we would see progress if we were learning a language closer to English, like Spanish, Swedish, or French.
Overview of Pimsleur Japanese
Enter Pimsleur. Pimsleur Japanese is an audio course great for listening while commuting; the length of its lessons – 30 mins – is just right, and we get to listen to native speakers talking at natural speed. The course uses the formal Japanese type, respectful in any encounter, and the dialogs are about situations that adults would find while traveling in Japan as tourists, or as new arrivals. The Japanese spoken is the ‘standard’ Japanese, i.e., that of the Tokyo region, which is the one that we would hear in a news broadcast. Pimsleur could easily be a part of an AJATT (All Japanase All The Time) program, for when we are commuting, until we eventually outgrow it and start listening to Japanese radio shows.
The course format is great for beginners, and it is a good practice for the listening sections of the JLPT, i.e., the official Japanese proficiency test. Pimsleur is not aligned with the JLPT, though. Material that is considered for beginners, i.e., JLPT 5, is spread among all the Pimsleur levels. For example, the Pimsleur level 2 level introduces with things like the names of the days and the seasons, and counting to a 1,000, while level 3 introduces last/this/next month and above/below/in front/behind/etc., all of which is JLPT 5 material.
Useful as Pimsleur is, it needs supplementing in all the areas that make Japanese difficult:
- it only uses formal speech
- it does not deal with writing
- Japanese grammar is difficult to distill from the limited set of phrases in the course
Formal vs. casual talking
Pimsleur focuses on fairly formal language, the Japanese that we would hear at the office, or we would use when talking to co-workers. This is also useful when we speak politely to strangers that we might find in the street. But… do we have any plans to travel to Japan anytime soon, or to work there? We might be interested in Japanese because we like the Japanese culture, music, and series and movies, anything from ‘Kagemusha’ to ‘Totoro’ to ‘Your name’.
The issue with Pimsleur is that in music, animes, dramas, and movies, the spoken Japanese tends to the casual type, not the formal one. Hence, Pimsleur helps us carrying out a business conversation, but it doesn’t help much understanding the lyrics of a song, or the dialog in most movies. Worse, the appeal of many movies and series is that they deal with conflict (e.g., under-world cultures) and change (e.g., young-adult culture), neither of which is concerned with formality; on the contrary, both reject formality as a way to either rebel against the establishment (e.g., criminals) or as an assertion of self-identity (e.g., teenagers). Characters in movies and animes will most often speak something between a casual Japanese and a rude one. For example, in ‘Your name’, the characters refer to each other using the casual ‘ore’ and ‘kimi’ instead of the formal ‘watashi’ and ‘anata’ used in Pimsleur; likewise, many main-stream animes use street-talk so, for example, the ‘you’ form that the characters of ‘Bleach’ use varies from ‘anata’ (formal) to ‘kisama’ and ‘temee’ (rude). If we want to understand these productions, there is no option but to supplement Pimsleur.
We set up a few pages with clips from the anime ‘Your lie in April’ (shi-gatsu no kimi no uso):
These clips already have the grammar and/or words taught in Pimsleur level 1, so in theory we should be able to understand them if we are done with Pimsleur 1. However, like most animes, more often than not the dialogs are in the casual form. The clips are translated into both the casual and formal forms, so we can compare them and get a sense of how much Pimsleur helps us understanding casual speech.
Each lesson of Pimsleur starts with a short 30-45 secs dialog spoken at a natural speed. Then the lesson will span 30 mins of listening to short sentences, and repeating them, with sporadic explanations of the literal translation of something. These pattern is actually quite useful. Also, patterns learned in a lesson might be repeated again a number of lessons later, reinforcing their memorization.
It is often difficult to understand the dialogs at the beginning of each lesson; often the sentences of the dialog are repeated and dissected during the lesson itself, though. However, sometimes it is difficult to understand what they were saying even after going over the lesson many times; we keep rewinding and playing the same portions of the dialogs over and over, e.g., “did he say ‘wa’ or ‘ga’?”, “was it ‘sumoshitai’ or ‘sugoshitai’?”. It’s not a matter of disagreeing with the listening-only Pimsleur method, but having a transcript would be really nice, and apparently many other people think so too. Without the dialog, we might finish a lesson with a sense of ‘not quite getting it’, even if we put a lot of effort in it, when a simple look at the transcript of the dialog would have made things clear.
It was writing down these transcripts that became the motivation to publish something based on this Japanese course; the transcripts of these short dialogs would be useful to other people using Pimsleur; also, the transcripts would motivate people to buy the course because their absence is one of the most cited complaints about the course. Unfortunately, people that have written transcripts for other Pimsleur courses have received notices of copyright infringement (e.g., thydzik.com) and, regardless of whether the dialogs actually add value to the course, in the end it’s Pimsleur right to do whatever they want with the material they created. Hence, folks that listen to Pimsleur are destined to make the best they can from their ears alone, unless they supplement the course.
It’s difficult to introduce writing in a Japanese audio course. Japanese writing permeates the culture and it has its own appeal, though. The writing system is probably the main factor that makes Japanese very difficult; it is a mix of foreign and original writing systems. The written language is a mess, but it is a mess that is respected and highly valued; its learning reflects a love for tradition, beauty, and hard work. And well… that is worth learning too! Maybe we won’t ever be able to read classic Japanese, but it would be great to read a manga, or signs on the street, or a newspaper, and Pimsleur is just not the way to even get our feet wet with writing.
Basic Japanese writing, with kanas, is not more difficult than learning the alphabet. Granted, learning the alphabet is not necessarily trivial since it took us several months to learn it when we were kids, at a time when our brains were like sponges, able to acquire new knowledge fairly fast. Still, hiragana is about as simple as the roman alphabet; katakana, although equally simple, tends to be more difficult to learn because Japanese has less words in katakana than hiragana, so there is less opportunity to practice it.
Kanjis, Chinese derived, are another story but… baby steps. Ideally, as beginners, we would look for material that is written simultaneously with some of these:
- the translation in English
- the romaji version – the sounds if they were to be written in English
- the kana version – Japanese writing using only hiragana and katakana
- the kanji version – the normal Japanese writing, i.e., kanjis and kanas
If we are total beginners, we can use the English translation and the romaji versions, and ignore the kana and kanji versions:
With a relative small effort, we can memorize the kanas – the hiragana and katakana syllabaries – and be able to actually write in Japanese:
This is a half-baked solution because any Japanese would understand what we are writing, but no Japanese would write using only kanas, unless s/he is writing a children’s book; we can write anything in Japanese using kanas, but we would still be far from being able to read Japanese.
Finally, we can learn how to represent words using kanjis – a life-long effort but… every journey starts with one step:
Unfortunately, there is little reading material geared to total beginners that would help us with the writing system. Material like NHK for kids or Hiragana times is for beginners in the sense that they use mostly kanas and easy kanjis, but of course, this does not help unless we already have a hefty vocabulary, in which case we are not total beginners. These resources tend to be geared to beginner native Japanese readers, i.e., Japanese children, who already have the hefty vocabulary, so all they need the book for is to learn how to write down what they already know.
A series of books that provides a better gentle introduction to reading for non-Japanese beginners would be the Japanese Graded Readers books, with the big downside that the product has no competition so it is very expensive; the prices of these books are seldom low, regardless of whether you buy them new or used, or even from E-bay.
The final problem with the Pimsleur Japanese course is the issue of learning a language by studying its grammar, like adults do, vs. learning it by ear, like Japanese children do. Pimsleur uses the later approach, and probably it is the right method, but only if we are children totally immersed in the language, in which case we do not need Pimsleur; otherwise, expecting to learn a language by ear using a few lessons is unrealistic. Most foreigners not living in Japan that want to learn Japanese have a non-Japanese life, non-Japanese spouses and children, and co-workers, and clients, and friends: immersion is non-existent and the motivation is usually a fascination with the Japanese culture, which is a powerful motivation but also one that is not needed for survival. So what can we do? Pimsleur just doesn’t cut it. It is really great that Pimsleur spoon-feed us tiny sentences that we can memorize and repeat, but to make up for our lack of immersion, we need a way to make sense of those spoon-fed bits, to generalize them, and that is grammar.
Grammar is the distillation of the rules of a language. For most of us, a combination of learning a language using both grammar and listening is probably a better approach that focusing on either of them. Fortunately, there is a lot of great Japanese grammar material. A couple of examples are the Genki series and the ‘A guide to Japanese Grammar’ by Tae Kim, that is available in its totality as a book and at the website.
Listening to Pimsleur at the same time that we use a Japanese grammar is effective because each method reinforces the other: Pimsleur gives realistic examples of what the grammar textbooks are teaching, while the grammar textbooks explain the apparent inconsistencies that we distill from the audio lessons. An example would be the apparent inconsistency of the conjugations of adjectives, which makes sense as soon as we ‘read’ that there are two types of adjectives that are conjugated in different ways. It is certainly possible to ‘deduce’ this – Japanese children learn to speak Japanese correctly before they can read it – but to be able to do this from audio alone requires many exposures to examples and an adult around correcting the child when s/he makes a mistake, i.e., a large carrot and a stick; Pimsleur does not provide neither the large number of samples nor the on-the-spot correction, i.e., a small carrot and no stick.
In the end
Pimsleur is great if it fits our level and lifestyle: the material is definitely useful if we are beginners, and if we can listen to it while we drive, at a leisurely pace, or in the subway, or bus. The quality of the recordings is great, and they put a lot of effort in making all the levels of the series mutually consistent with each other, i.e., each level is a smooth continuation of the previous level. The quality of the recordings is also consistent among all the levels.
In spite of this, Pimsleur has has deficiencies: it would be great to learn some casual style that we could use right away to understand movies, or to be able to read and write some Japanese, or to understand the rules of the language. However, even if we are interested only in formal Japanese, and we are not interested in writing it, Pimsleur just can’t make up for the fact that Japanese grammar is very different from English grammar, and thus ‘distilling’ patterns from its small set of audio samples might work well for languages similar to English, like Spanish, but doesn’t work well with Japanese; because of this grammar issue, Pimsleur would work best alongside a standard grammar course or text. Likewise, Pimsleur would definitely enhance a standard Japanese course.
Still, if our lifestyle is such that we only have time to study while commuting, by all means get started with Pimsleur alone. If the cost of Pimsleur is an issue, we can always start with a copy from the library, which usually carries Level 1, and often levels 2 and 3; usually libraries do not carry levels 4 and 5, though.