Monday, 14 March 2011

English as spoken by the Japanese

sometimes becomes an entirely new language. Sheer exhaustion on the part of Japanese colleagues trying to set up communication lines is not helping matters. I have the easy part in all this. I am just doing some coordinating and putting people in touch with other people.
It has however made me even more aware than I was of two things.
The first is that Japanese is an extremely complex language, even for the Japanese. The second is that the Japanese do not expect others to speak their language, indeed they would generally prefer others did not try - apart from a few polite phrases.
Written Japanese is made more complex by the use of "katakana", "hiragana", "kanji" and "romaji". The first two are syllabaries. They are related in origin, identical in structure - and not used together. "Kanji" are the characters that look more like Chinese. This is because they have their origin in Chinese characters. Japanese however is in no way related to Chinese. It is, according to my reading, not related to any other language on earth. Chinese may have influenced written Japanese but it has not influenced the structure or the vocabulary. The Japanese borrowed just as much as they needed and put it to their own unique use.
Japanese is usually written in a combination of "kanji" and "hiragana" with loan words, typically from German, French and English, written using "katakana" - because katakana can handle unfamiliar sounds. (The Japanese do not differentiate between something like "l" and "r" and find it difficult to both hear and say if they have grown up in Japan.)
"Romaji" is the standard means of converting Japanese to the Roman alphabet. It has been used for over a century. It is as much a defence against foreign interference as it is a way of being polite to foreigners.
Japanese also has many polite forms, ways of being deferential (especially to superiors) and ways of communicating through an interpreter with those who do not speak Japanese. The Japanese use many euphemisms. They do not use definite and indefinite articles. The vocabulary used by men is not always the same as the vocabulary used by women. Men are more likely to use loan words from other languages. Women, even the younger women, will use a more restricted vocabulary - especially when speaking to older Japanese. It is still considered highly impolite for women to use certain words.
Trying to use Japanese is a minefield. Very few Westerners succeed in really speaking Japanese and even fewer become genuinely fluent.
Right now however the Japanese need outside help. There are going to be some communication problems. My Japanese colleagues are telling me they do not want Westerners trying to use limited amounts of very poor Japanese - which will almost certainly be misunderstood. They would prefer people to use English and rely on interpreters or on augmentative and alternative means of communication.
The Japanese will not consider this impolite. They will consider it far more impolite if we misuse or abuse their language.
It makes me wonder why we persist in the myth that we must learn Japanese if we want to do business with Japan. It seems the Japanese would prefer English - even in a sometimes delightfully different form.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I have to agree with you. On my trips to Japan I have just used a few polite phrases (and had trouble getting those exactly right!) The Japanese much prefer to use English and/or interpreters. They consider it impolite when others mangle their language. I find it much harder than Thai!

Rachel Fenton said...

We were at a party hosted by Japanese friends several months ago where the mother was over from Japan. A woman came who had stayed with the family when they had all lived in Japan - she had gone on exchange to learn the language - they chatted fluently for a few minutes in Japanese until the visitor wanted to ask if she could help with the food. Apparently she hadn't learnt how to ask this the first time around!

jeanfromcornwall said...

Watching NHK news when the disaster had just happened we were amazed by the skill of the people who were providing simultaneous translation.

catdownunder said...

I admire the translators as well because Japanese is very difficult for a Westerner and to get right for a Westerner. I think they were using UN standard interpreters on the BBC/NHK link.
Rachel I think your experience just goes to show how difficult it is to learn Japanese. That is the sort of question one ought to be able to put together but to do so using the correct forms would be a minefield composed of grammatical and social traps.