Roger Pulvers’ Nov. 29 article, “Though elusive to all, the language of Japan surely merits a break,” raises the difficulties faced by foreigners learning Japanese and Japanese learning other languages. This is an old story, and a recent publication by sociolinguist Takao Suzuki (summarized by Pulvers) brings the story back into its rather grainy focus.

Suzuki has not changed his point of view over the years: that Japanese must be considered a special case. We are familiar with its obliqueness, its social nuances, although a forthright speaker, such as a businessman, cannot always afford the luxury of ambiguous expression. Certainly the task faced by the foreign learner of Japanese is jeopardized by the possibility of the social gaffe, although the chance of making a gaffe also exists in Spanish or French. It’s about time these problems were looked at more positively. A “how to” approach is advised.

No clear-cut solution exists yet, and there is suspicion that if there was one it would be ignored. One obvious approach is not simply to translate without comment, but to make a comparative survey of Japanese and, say, Spanish, revealing the important differences. Word order is key to understanding and speaking. The current bias against too much concentration on grammar needs to be put aside. But straight learning of structural patterns will not work unless the underlying pattern of the mother tongue is revealed as the unseen wrongly pointing signpost. Languages are based in practical and emotional needs common to all humanity. Universality needs to be emphasized more.

nicholas williams