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April 07, 2005



I find Japanese to be one of the easiest languages I have ever picked up. I like to delude myself every now and then, then my command of what little portions I have acquired surpasses my command of Yoruba or English!
I am rather suprised by the fellow who said he believed that French was easier to master! Quelle Horreur! French is about the most difficult language I have ever laid my eyes upon (Greek, Arabic and ancient Hebrew included). I just dont understand why I dont get French! Somehow, it just doesnt stick with me. I should put it down to the fact that all the French teachers I have ever had in my life were mean and horrible people.

Seriously though, I cant say that my Japanese friends believe that Japanese is a difficult language. What they seem to think is that speaking and actually comprehending Japanese are two different things. So I get situations where I use a word, quite correctly, but my pals insist that I couldnt not possibly understand what it truly truly meant - this being something reserved for the "Japanese mind".

Speaking Japanese, is of course, the easiest. Like you mentioned, writing it is where I get suckered--but I find writing Yoruba to be even more of a hassle! Damn those tonal marks!

But there is something interesting here. An Anthropologist friend of mine did some work some time ago in Eastern Nigeria. He told me that he was astounded at the similarities between Igbo and Japanese--which I found to be quite a coincidence, since I have long believed that anyone who had mastered Yoruba would have no problem at all with spoken Japanese.

I was musing to a friend just the other day how remarkably similar "Otanjobi" sounded to "Ojo Ibi"--if pronounced just right; both meaning birthday in Japanese and Yoruba respectively. There are many more of these spoken similarities that I have observed.

For instance "Kaire" - Go home and "Ka R'ele" - Let us go home/Let us be on our way home OR "Nani" - What? and "Ki'ni?" - What?

Very interesting stuff.

P.S: I have heard that a lot of Africans and Nigerians in particular who live in Tokyo pick up Japanese every quickly (spoken) without any sort of formal education. The few that I have met do have a working knowledge of the language.


This is a favorite conceit around the world. The Thais are convinced that Thai is exceptionally hard to master. On the other hand Chinese are rarely very impresesed that a foreigner can speak Chinese; they give the impression that they are just relieived that he has come to his senses finally. The Irish assume Irish is impossible for a foreigner, and it is intricate. Then again truly exotic languages like Navajo or any of the Salish languages will take you for the ride of your life, but it never occurs to these people to brag about theier languages.

Examples: In Salish langugaes lexical roots are never strictly verbal or nominal. You affix verbal and nominal morphemes and voila. This gives some truly strange sentences: The he went coyoted (coyote is the verb)
=The one who went was the coyote
=The coyote was the one who went -- as we would really say in idiomatic English. Or we would use our nown unique-to-Western-Europe formation, the cleft sentence - It was the coyote who went.

Another example: In Navajo ther eis a feature by which rather than using case marking s to show which noun phrases have what roles in the snetence, nouns have inherent statuses - animate things are presumed to be natural :"subjects" and so on, and you use markers on nouns to show when they are acting out of their normal roles. This means it is quite obvious when you are blaming and action on something inanimate, when you are making something animate into an passive object, and so on.

The presence or absence of IE cognates is no guarantee of ease in learning a language. Sanskrit is certainly no cakewalk for an English-speakern, as is Old Irish, for that matter. European languages share a lot of recent coinages that date frorm the Reformation onwards, and it is this shared cultural vocabulary that makes it relatively easy to go from French to say, even German. Chinese influenced languages share a similar vocabulary. It can be quite hard to identify IE cognates after all these millenia.

Chuckles, it's not unusual for totally unrelated languages to share enough features, if only superficially, to make it easy to go from one to the other. For instance, most languages that are verb-final tend also to share almost identical sentence structures in other aspects and this extends even to word derivation rules. There has been a lot of work in the last half century.


The difficulty of any langauage must be completely relative. Koreans have no trouble picking up Japanese with ease, and vice versa.


Korean and Japanese have been a puzzle for a long time - both appear to be isolates, both have nearly identical structure, both have almost no common native lexical items, I am told. I stumbled across a site once that showed cognates between Old Japanese and the Koguryo language, which ended up not being the ancestor of Korean, so there would account for the differences. Difficult subject to find anything non-hysterical written; obviously a radioactive topic.

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