I have often been told by Japanese people that theirs is the most difficult language in the world. Virtually all the Japanese people who have said this to me, I might add, have spoken no other language than their own.
The most conspicuous instance of this came my way in the mid-1980s when, one rainy night, I took a cab home from the station at Seijo Gakuenmae in Tokyo. No sooner had I closed my umbrella and entered the cab than the driver peered at me in the rearview mirror and said, in Japanese: “You’re not a Japanese are you.”
“No, I’m not,” I replied.
“Oh. Japanese is the most difficult language to speak in the world, you know. Isn’t it?”
Well, for the 15-minute ride home I strove to persuade my driver that this, in fact, did not seem to be the case. I pointed out the fiendish difficulties of the languages that I had studied in my life, Russian and, particularly, Polish being much more complicated in grammar and pronunciation, at least for a native speaker of English, than Japanese. I finished my discourse as we rounded the corner by my house.
“I mean, Polish, for instance, has elaborate case endings for adjectives, and even has a special one for the nominative plural of male animate nouns!”
Having listened attentively to my passionate, if pedantic, foray into the esoterica of comparative linguistics, the driver stopped the cab by my front gate, turned his head around to me and smiled broadly.
“Well, anyway,” he said, “Japanese is still the most difficult language in the world!”
Now, for a non-native speaker, acquiring the ability to read and write Japanese takes tremendous effort. But my driver and I were discussing the spoken language, the medium by which most Japanese explain themselves to their compatriots and the outside world.
Japanese, of the languages that I know, is actually the easiest spoken language to master.
For one thing, the number of words used in daily life is small compared to, say, English. Nuances in English are added by expressing an emotion with the use of any number of different words, incorporating layer upon layer of subtle meaning by dipping into what is an enormous chest of verbal riches. In Japanese, subtleties are added with the use of a variety of endings. When you get to the end of a sentence you can vary the tone, register and emphasis of what you say by using one or more of a number of word and sentence endings. These endings are not hard to master. The result is that a non-native can be very expressive and articulate in Japanese without having to learn thousands of words — in the case of English, words that came from Anglo-Saxon, Latin and the many other languages that have enriched its vocabulary.
And, you can pause, mumble, leave out core elements of sentences, even punctuate dialogue with long silences and still speak excellent Japanese! The other languages that I am familiar with do not allow for the huge pregnant pauses and embarrassing elipses that allow valuable thinking time for non-native beginners. What is considered an acceptable pause in Japanese, often giving the impression of profundity, would be taken for pure prevarication in English.
Verbs are generally the horror element of language learning. In English they are irregular, with auxiliary verbs and the conditional to make matters worse. Slavic languages have the perfective and the imperfective, not to mention so-called verbs of motion. (You need a different verb for “to go” depending on whether you are walking or riding in something.) Japanese verbs are a cinch. Just change the ending of the verb’s stem to get everything from “I eat” to “I ate,” “I didn’t eat,” “I wouldn’t have eaten,” “I didn’t want to eat,” “even if I didn’t want to eat” and “Sorry but I went and ate it,” which is tabechatta. Easy as pie.
Why did my taxi driver at Seijo Gakuenmae persist in perpetrating the myth of difficulty? Is it just a benign ignorance of the workings of language, or is there something else at work here?
Is his quaint obstinacy an indication of a wished-for ethnic “exclusivity”?
I believe that this irrational belief in the difficulty of their language bestows upon Japanese people, willy nilly, a false mystique, as if through their language they were able to harbor secrets to which the outside world could never be privy. This false mystique allows them to entertain a feeling of national sharing without having to prove it explicitly. “We all think and feel the same way,” it tells them, “and we can express this in a way that is only open to Japanese. The fact that non-Japanese cannot decipher this is proof of our ethnic cohesion.” If they admit that the Japanese language is no harder than any other, and maybe even easier in some ways, their self-styled aura of exclusivity loses much of its shine.
Over the years, a number of Japanese politicians have dropped what are essentially racist clangers, the most famous perhaps being Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s unseemly remark about the “low intellectual level” of certain American minorities. These politicians, speaking in Japanese of course, put their foot in their mouth and yet are taken aback when foreign journalists vividly describe the heel protruding from their lips. Do they really think that their language is a code that cannot be deciphered by non-Japanese?
In former times it may have served the Japanese national cause for this country’s people to be seen as shuffling in a foggy aura of inscrutability. By striving to be “not understood” and holding their cards close to their chest, so to speak, they bolstered their position. “We Japanese have a depth that you cannot fathom, and this is the source of our power.” But in our explain-yourself-or-pay-the-price era, where the very survival of a nation’s culture may depend on its ability to express its people’s aspirations in a clear and unequivocal manner, the myth of difficulty is no more than an artificial obstacle, a high wall that locks Japanese people in more than it deters the rest of the world from entering.
It is time that Japanese people rejoiced in the fact that people around the world can and, despite Japanese provincial biases and nostalgic predilections, will understand them.