Why do I feel English is 'simpler' than Japanese? What is 'The Suffocation of Japanese?'

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Nov 10, 2011 17:57 Japanese
Being in the UK for two years, my English proficiency in speaking and listening has significantly improved. Working in English-speaking environment may be one of the best ways to learn English.

Although my English is 'intermediate' level as a foreigner and I still often makes mistakes (so maybe I may have a totally different opinion when I come to speak 'advanced' English), I cannot help feeling that English is 'simpler' than Japanese.

You may say 'no language is simpler or more complicated than any other languages', and I know that is true. Becoming the real master of English is not easy even for native speakers and, needless to say, for foreigners.

Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling English is simpler. I tried to tell this vague idea to my French friend who speaks French, English, and Italian fluently as well as Japanese a bit, but he was not convinced. He asked me to give him an example. Hadn't prepared anything, however, I couldn't explain it to him further. So let me try to make my thoughts clear here.

Why do I feel English is 'simpler'? Even the French friend admitted that English is like 'a guitar'. You can start it easily, but becoming a master of it is a totally different thing. On the other hand, he said, Japanese is quite difficult to start with, having different character systems and grammar, but once you've passed the initial stage, speaking Japanese is not difficult.

Well, I disagree with his opinion. As a native speaker of Japanese, I take kanji characters and grammar for granted; they are nothing for me. However, speaking or writing in proper Japanese is often very difficult for me. So what's difficult?

I think, it is related to various personal pronouns in Japanese in part.
Am "I" わたし? Or おれ? Or who am "I"?

Including だ and です・ます styles in written language and polite expressions, there are various styles, modes or languages in Japanese. Basically, you cannot mix them. You are expected to show a consistency in your Japanese style in a situation or in a relationship, because that consistency defines your identity in the situation or relation. Difficulty in Japanese for native speakers lies at the choice of these styles.

Let's think about the following simple sentence.

My name is John Smith.

If you rephrase this in English, you may say, 'I'm John Smith' or 'Call me John Smith.' (If you can think of other examples, let me know.) I don't think these alternatives make any difference in your relationship. John Smith could be anybody; a polite young man, rude boy, or evil old man.

However, in Japanese, I can easily give you a couple of different expressions each of which tells you about a slightly different social status of the person.


The example one is a text-book Japanese expression. A person who uses this expression can have a broad range of personalities, but this sounds rather mature.
The example two is formal. He cannot be a little boy. He may be a salary-man.
The example three is almost the same as the example two. However, the lack of は gives a slightly different impression. He may be a little more active person compare to 山田太郎 in the example two.
The example four is casual. He cannot be a salary-man in duty. He could be a rude little boy or young man.
The example five is also casual. Judging from the use of おら instead of 俺, he might be from the countryside or working class. He seems to be quite friendly.
The example six suggests he's kidding or he's a samurai.

When you meet a new person, you've got to choose which style or mode to speak to him/her with. However, because you don't know the person yet, you cannot judge. So in most cases you choose polite expressions to avoid inadvertently offend the person. However, there are several levels of politeness. If you choose a too polite expressions, the person would feel mocked or uncomfortable. So this is a guessing game.

When you speak to elder colleagues and younger colleagues in your office, you need to use different styles. I often feel speaking to an elder person with polite expressions are a bit easier than speaking to younger colleagues with casual expressions. For me it is often difficult to judge how far I can be informal to younger colleagues, especially when we don't know each other very well.

Here is a serious difficulty in Japanese. When you can't judge the social relationship to the person who you are talking to, you cannot choose your style of Japanese, and therefore you cannot find a word to say. A writer 冷泉彰彦 called this situation 日本語の窒息 'the suffocation of Japanese' in his book titled "「関係の空気」 「場の空気」". This is not only the case of colloquial Japanese but also formal or informal written Japanese.

If I look for the similar aspects in English, difference between formal and informal/slang expressions and accents seem be the closest. However, most English-speaking people don't (and probably can't) switch their accents just depending on a person who they're talking to. Indeed, if you could imagine switching your accents from RP and cockney depending on situations from moment to moment, that would be quite similar to Japanese. Perhaps, you can imagine that it's not that simple.

While I'm speaking English, I speak with a consistent accent to professors, elder colleagues, younger colleagues, men, and women. And this don't offend anybody. I think this makes me feel English is 'simpler' than my mother tongue. Although I make a lot of small mistakes (which is extremely annoying), the fact that I don't have to bother to choose different styles makes me relaxed.