Spotlight on Japan: About the Language
Japanese may seem complicated simply because it doesn’t use the standard Latin alphabet that many European languages use. That alone is often enough to get most people to just think of it as being similar to Korean or Chinese. Especially when you don’t know enough to really tell them apart. In reality though, for English speakers Japanese is less of a challenge than many of the other major Asian languages. We’ve laid out a few things to know about the Japanese language if you’re interested in working out some basics.
The modern Japanese writing system consists of quite a few different scripts:
Hiragana is the basic Japanese phonetic script and is the basis for the Japanese language. Each character represents a sound – normally similar to a pair of English letters, almost always ending in a vowel.
Example: に = ni, ほ = ho, ん = n, ご = go. Therefore : にほんご = Nihongo = Japanese.
Katakana works in the same way, with all the same sounds as hiragana, but it’s a different set of symbols mainly used for foreign-language words.
Example: ロ = ro, ン = n, ド = do, ン = n. Therefore: ロンドン = rondon = London
Kanji originates from the Chinese writing system, before Japanese had its own written forms. The key difference is that Kanji characters represent a concept, word or noun. They’re not just sounds like the other scripts, and there are literally thousands of them.
Example: 英語 eigo = English language)
Romanji is the phonetic equivalent for Japanese words using the standard Latin alphabet. This is used very rarely in Japan.
Example: Arigatou = Thank you)
Spoken Japanese makes use of a mandatory honorific system, where endings are attached to someone’s name to show respect. Honorifics, or keigo (敬語), are separated into 3 different levels: polite language, respectful language, and humble language. Polite language is used when speaking to someone who you aren’t familiar with or who is of ‘higher rank’. Respectful language is used when talking to superiors or customers at work, and never used to refer to yourself – that’s what humble language is for. You use it to talk about yourself and it effectively ‘lowers’ your position, humbling yourself. Don’t worry if this is difficult for you to wrap your head around – honorifics are complicated even for Japanese natives!
Japanese uses a huge number of loans words from other languages, including English, Chinese and Portuguese. For example, words like ガラス (garasu: Glass) and パソコン (pasokon: personal computer) are borrowed from English. There are also many words that the Japanese use that sound English, but aren’t –words like サラリーマン (sarari-man: office worker) and ガソリンスタンド (gasorin sutando: petrol station). These are called wasei-eigo, or ‘Japanese-made English’.
A few key phrases you might want to learn, in the interest of very basic politeness:
Konnichiwa = Hello
Sayounara = Goodbye
Itadakimasu = a polite expression to say before eating. Roughly means thank you for the meal.
Kanpai = Cheers! (when knocking glasses together before drinking)
Arigatou = Thank you
Don’t feel overwhelmed! There’s a lot to take in. What’s great is that once you begin to learn Japanese and understand its intricacies, it gets easier pretty fast and once you’ve got it, and speaking Japanese makes it much easier to then learn other Asian languages, especially Chinese and Korean.