Disclaimer: The title of course does NOT refer to myself since I am not a native Chinese speaker. I speak Mandarin as a second language at best, even though I’ve had studied Mandarin alongside English and had quite a lot of Chinese culture influences. Clearly, I don’t write my blog in Mandarin for this very reason. This post is really just about comparing Japanese and Mandarin, and my observations of Chinese in Japan.
This post is inspired by LIFT’s two very well-written posts:
How badly native Chinese people integrate or assimilate in their host countries
In this post, LIFT wrote a brief paragraph on how Japanese language is the closest thing to Chinese language
He wrote, ‘Ironically, the language which is probably closest to Chinese is Japanese given the widespread use of Chinese characters in their language (Kanji) and the numerous loanwords…’
While I understand he is trying to make a point that there is no language in the world that comes close to the Chinese language, and he probably didn’t mean much when he mentioned that Japanese is the closest language to Chinese, I’d still like to make a little clarification here.
Other than the ‘widespread use of Chinese characters in their language’, there’s really nothing else that is similar to Chinese.
I remember when I first studied Japanese, I was under the illusion (and I’m sure I’m not alone) that Japanese should be rather easy because it must be just like an extension of Mandarin.
Boy I’ve never been so wrong!
Not only is it nothing like Mandarin, it has a complex grammar system which is simply not present in Mandarin (heck, is there any form of proper grammar in Mandarin to begin with?).
Two very prominent syntaxes of Japanese language are verb/adjective conjugation and particles. English speakers would be familiar with verb conjugation. It involves conjugating a verb to past, future, past participle, past perfect tense etc from its basic present tense. Eg ran, run, will run, ate, eat, eaten etc. In Japanese, you have past and present tense as well, eg 食べる (taberu – to eat) and 食べた (tabeta – ate or had eaten). In advanced levels, verb conjugation also involves ‘to let someone eat’ or ‘forced to eat’ – all from the same basic stem word – and from here I guess is where the similarity to English ends. Likewise, we don’t conjugate adjectives for English – if we want to express an adjective in past tense we simply add ‘was/were’ in front of the word, as in ‘was beautiful’, and not ‘beautifulled’ – but in Japanese language, you do. I’m not going to delve into that – if you’re interested please feel free to sign up for Japanese language classes or you can post a question to me in the comments section. I will do my best to help.
Also, particles function in the Japanese syntax in a way that is quite similar to that in the English syntax. A quick explanation on particles: they are like connectors that connect two words from a different group together. (for more information – http://grammar.about.com/od/pq/g/particleterm.htm)
For eg, for the sentence ‘My brother went to school’, the particle here is ‘to’. ‘Went’ is a verb and ‘school’ is a noun, so in order to connect the two words together to construct a complete sentence, we need the particle ‘to’. Similarly, in Japanese, ‘兄は学校へ行きました。’ (ani wa gakkou e ikimashita) In Japanese, though, we have two particles – one is ‘wa’, which is an emphasis to the subject (in this case ‘ani’, which means ‘my brother’), and anything that comes after that will be an explanation of what the subject is doing, or a description of him/her. The second particle is ‘e’, a directional particle which means ‘going to’; it pretty much functions the same way as ‘to’ in the English sentence, except that the positions of the words ‘school’ and ‘went’ are reversed in Japanese. So in direct translation, the Japanese sentence actually sounds like ‘My brother school to went’. But yeah you get the idea. The particles in Japanese function quite similarly to English.
Now, if you were to ask me to draw the same similarities for Japanese and Mandarin, I can’t – simply because verb/adjective conjugations and particles do not exist in Mandarin grammar!
Think about it: if you were a native Chinese speaker, and all the verbs and adjectives that you know of are used as it is, no matter what the circumstances are. And even if there are words from multiple groups (verbs, nouns, adjectives) all in one sentence, you simply just string them together without any need for particles. So this concept of verb/adjective conjugation and particles is totally abstract to native Chinese speakers.
As such, is it any wonder they struggle in Japanese – or for that matter any other language since most languages have syntaxes that involve some sort of verb conjugation and particles – even though there are already so many kanjis and loan words from Mandarin? I daresay Japanese has more in common in English than Mandarin!
I am currently studying in a Japanese language school in Osaka, and guess which group of kids are struggling the most in my class?
Yup, the Chinese kids.
I facepalmed when a Chinese classmate was asked to read a passage aloud and he struggled to read even the simplest of kanjis. Like, dude, this word appears so often and as a Chinese speaker, aren’t you supposed to remember it better and faster than say, a Korean who has no contact with kanji at all before learning Japanese? I mean, I’m also no linguist or Japanese expert but if I – as someone who speaks Mandarin as a second language – can remember the very basic kanjis by heart, why can’t native Chinese speakers do the same?
To be fair to the rest of my classmates who have genuinely studied but are still struggling, this dude probably didn’t even study at all. Which brings me to the next point…
Why come to Japan?
If you are uncomfortable speaking, reading or writing in the language, and feel much more comfortable hanging out with people from your country rather than locals, aren’t you better off back at home? Why struggle on with something you don’t like and achieve nothing in the end?
LIFT and his readers have complained in unison about PRCs who totally suck at assimilation, and I have also observed the same. IMHO, I think they do a better job assimilating here than anywhere else. Probably because Chinese don’t look that much different than Japanese and can blend in better? Or maybe because they can’t play the race card here cos we are all Asians? I dunno, but for some reasons, they do adapt to life better here. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that they have COMPLETELY assimilated and are totally accepted by the Japanese society. Most of them are actually just struggling and trying not to stick out like a sore thumb, that’s all. I have a Chinese friend who genuinely wanted to make Japanese friends in order to improve her Japanese, but just doesn’t have the chance to. But then again, when I introduce Japanese friends to her she didn’t really make full use of it and practiced her language. So it’s a vicious cycle here – no Japanese friends and so can’t improve Japanese, and Japanese language doesn’t improve so can’t communicate and make friends.
Soooooo…. I dunno if they are just unwilling to speak Japanese and thus cannot assimilate, or they just totally suck at foreign languages and would rather default to their mother tongue, depriving them of a chance to communicate with the locals and get a deeper understanding of the local culture.
What I don’t understand is that if language is really a problem – and they don’t seem too keen on brushing it up – then why not just go back? The same Chinese friend whom I have introduced friends to said that she didn’t want to go back because it’s too embarrassing to go back without any degree. Errr… ok. Isn’t it equally embarrassing to still be struggling with Japanese despite being here for two years? I don’t understand what it is that she wants. Either you go all in and improve on your language – never mind your lack of friends, you can still somewhat improve without interacting with locals – or you pack up and go home. Unless her dream is to live in Japan (which is clearly not the case given how miserable she is here), then I don’t see what’s so wrong or embarrassing in going back home.
Ok too many words, here’s a picture of a potato
Lemme know your observations as well or if I’ve gotten any facts wrong by leaving a comment below. Thanks~!