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About the Japanese language

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ABOUT THE JAPANESE LANGUAGE

Is Japanese as difficult as people say?
Japanese people often claim that their language is more ambiguous and less precise than, say, many Western European languages. This is coupled with a complex writing system, described below. Linguists generally agree that Japanese grammar is not especially difficult compared to other languages.

What is the Japanese writing system like?
Where English has one alphabet of 26 letters (plus their capital equivalents), Japanese uses 2 phonetic alphabets known as kana (hiragana and katakana) together with numerous characters originally borrowed from Chinese, called kanji.

How many characters are there?
Japanese people learn around 2000 kanji as part of their compulsory education, which is the number required to read a newspaper properly. In practice, many Japanese adults know several thousand more! There are also 50 characters in each set of kana.

How does it work?
A typical piece of writing in Japanese consists of a mixture of both kana and kanji. In simple terms, words are written using kanji combinations, and the hiragana used to fuse them together by adding conjunctions, verb endings and other such information. The katakana are mostly used to write words borrowed from other languages (mainly English).

What direction is Japanese written in?
Newspapers and books normally write vertically from right to left, working down the page. Word-processed correspondence is usually written left to right horizontally, as with English. This choice of direction is made possible by the fact that Japanese has no spaces between words, although sentences and paragraphs are of course divided in the same way as in English.

What makes Japanese so "ambiguous"?
Often, much of the information given in a Japanese sentence is assumed or understood from the context rather than stated directly. The listener infers, say, who has performed an action, who something belongs to and other such information from what he knows about the situation.
For example, the word tabemashita is the past tense of the verb to eat, meaning ate. In Japanese, this one word could form a whole sentence, meaning I ate it, She ate it, He ate them and numerous other possibilities depending on the context.
There are virtually no plurals and no articles ("the" and "a"), so the various shades of meaning added by these features of English and other languages are, again, often understood from context.

What about the word order?
The verb comes at the end, with the effect that the word order is often virtually the reverse of English. Simultaneous interpreters working from Japanese often therefore have to wait until the end of the sentence before the full meaning becomes clear.

How does all of this affect people who need an interpreter or translator?
Translators and interpreters working with the Japanese language need to have sound experience of Japanese culture and business practice to enable them to understand and convey the message clearly and accurately.