Ten Differences Between Japanese and English That Make Japanese an Easy Language To Learn

(I found this on line years ago and don't remember the author. However, it is really useful - Beatty-sensei)

Ten Differences Between Japanese and English That Make Japanese an Easy Language To Learn

1. There are no words in Japanese equivalent to the English articles "a", "an", and "the". If, for example, you wa(は)nt to refer to a book in Japanese, you don't have to say "a book" or "the book". You just say hon (book).

hon = "a book"

hon = "the book"

2. There are no plural forms in Japanese. Whether you refer to the equivalent of "a book" or "many books", the word used is always just hon. A listener understands on the basis of context whether what is being referred to is singular or plural in number.

hon = "a book"

hon = "(many) books"

3. There are no possessive forms of nouns or pronouns in Japanese. If you wa (は)nt to say "Mr. Tanaka's book", you simply speak the possessive particle no after the words for Mr. Tanaka and then follow it with the word for book.

Mr. Tanaka's book ---> Tanaka-san no hon たなかさんほんです。

If you want to say "my book" you just use the word for "I" (boku if you are male, watashi if you are female) and follow it with no and then followed by hon.

my book ---> boku no hon 僕ほんです。

my book ---> watashi no hon 私本です。

4. In English we have to say "I am ...", "She/he is ...", and "They are ..." in using the irregular verb "to be". In Japanese, the one word desu is used in all three instances.

watashi/boku wa(は) gakusei desu.

I am [a] student.

kanojo wa(は) gakusei desu.

She is [a] student.

karera wa(は) gakusei desu.

They are student[s].

5. Verbs in Japanese come at the end of sentences, clauses, or utterances. Once you become familiar with the structural particle patterns of Japanese, this difference in word order will seem natural, since the structural particles define the function of each part of a sentence as it is spoken, and you will usually anticipate what the verb at the end of a sentence, clause, or utterance will be.

For example:

When one hears kanojo wa(は) gakusei. . . there is a very good chance that the sentence will be completed with the verb desu ("She is [a] student"), since we would already know that what comes after wa(は) will describe or make a comment about kanojo, and once we hear the word gakusei, the normal verb that would complete the sentence would be desu. There of course would be several other possibilities, such as the equivalent of "She gave the book to the student.", etc., but this is where the context of what the person is saying comes into play. If you had previously asked "What is she?", then the use of desu would be almost foreordained. If you had asked "Who did she give the book to?" then what would come after gakusei would be different. BUT, the particles used and the context would tip you off as to what to expect.

In English the verb comes toward the beginning of a sentence, and it is the verb that usually tips us off as to the direction the meaning of the sentence is going to take. But since the Japanese verb comes at the end of a "sentence", the verb can't help us in anticipating what a person is going to say next. There's a famous rakugo (comic story) in which the raconteur goes on for several minutes without bringing his "sentence" to an end. Then when he does, he uses a verb in the negative, whereas the listeners, on the basis of content and context, have been expecting a verb in the affirmative, and this completely reverses the meaning that the listeners have been expecting. But don't despair. In 99% of verbal communications, the particles and the context will tip you off to what is coming next, and the fact that you don't hear the verb until the end will not present a serious problem. The main thing is to tune your ears into what the particles as they are spoken are telling you, and you will find that you are understanding what's going on as it is going on.

6. There are no words in Japanese equivalent to the English prepositions "to", "in", "at", and "on" and so forth. The functions of these words are provided by structural particles.

For example:

Kare wa (は) sore o Tanaka-san ni agemasita. かれ それ たなかさん あげました。

[He] [that] [Mr. Tanaka] [gave]

"He gave that (to) Mr. Tanaka."

The structural particle ni(に), above, indicates to wa (は)rd whom or where the action of the verb is directed. Similarly, wa(は) is the structural particle that indicates that what precedes it is the topic, and in English terms often the subject, of a sentence. And o (を)is a very convenient particle that indicates that what precedes it will be acted on by a verb that follows it.

Put another wa (は)y, how do we know that the sentence

Kare wa (は) sore o Tanaka-san ni agemasita. かれ それ たなかさん あげました。

literally rendered into English as

[He] [that] [Mr. Tanaka] [gave]

really means

"He gave that (to) Mr. Tanaka."

The reason we know it is, as stated above, that the function of the structural particle wa(は) is to indicate that what precedes it is the topic of a sentence or utterance. Therefore, we know that what follows wa(は) will be making a "comment" about what precedes wa(は). We don't know this due to wa(は) having some meaning that can be rendered by a word in English. It doesn't have a meaning. It only has a function. Similarly, we know that, again as stated above, what precedes the structural particle o will be acted on by a verb (here: agemasita, which has the definite meaning of "give" or rather "gave", since it is rendered in the past tense form of Japanese verbs). We therefore know that it is sore, "that", which is what is "given". Then it only remains for the structural particle ni to perform its function of telling us that the "to whom" the sore is given is Mr. Tanaka, and we then are able to arrive at the understanding that this Japanese sentence is in fact telling us that

"He gave that to Mr. Tanaka.".

(or rather "He gave that to Mr./Ms. Tanaka.", since the all-purpose suffix -san is politically correct in not being gender specific -- context will tell us which gender is indicated.)

My apologies for belaboring this point, but understanding that structural particles in Japanese have "functions", not "meanings" is perhaps the most important understanding a person can have in setting out to master spoken (or written) Japanese.

In some Japanese language textbooks, English meanings are provided for many of the particles used in Japanese. For example, the structural particle ni (に)is often defined as having the English meanings of:"in", "at", "on", "to", and so forth. This is misleading. Ni(に) itself doesn't have any inherent meaning in the sense that, for example, the word "to" (in a direction to wa(は)rd) does in English. If it did, then it would be impossible for it to contain also the meanings of "in" (within the confines of), "at" (in the location of), "on" (position on the surface of), and so forth. These are all separate prepositions in English, with separate "meanings." But ni(に) is just the particle ni(に), which has several functions (in the sense of "assigned duties"), but no "meaning", in acting as a guidepost to the structure (and meaning) of sentences.

To paraphrase a comment by Harold G. Henderson (Handbook of Japanese Grammar, p. 62) concerning the particle beki, "it seems best to recommend to the student that he take his ni(に) where he finds it, and let it go at that." But this approach will really work only if you have a firm grasp of the functions of Japanese particles, not their "meanings" -- how they are used as guideposts to the structure of Japanese sentences and utterances. If you understand the functions of Japanese particles, the Japanese language becomes a simpler language to learn than it's commonly thought to be.

7. Demonstrative pronouns equivalent to the English "this" and "that" also do not normally have plural forms in Japanese. To say "this" or "these" you use the same word in Japanese: kore. To say "that" or "those" you use: sore.

kare wa(は) gakusei desu.

He student is/am/are

"He is [a] student."

kare wa(は) gakusei desu ka (か).

He student is/am/are ?

"Is he [a] student?"

8. You don't have to transpose the words in a sentence or use special words such as "Do" or "Did" in asking a question in Japanese. All questions are formed by simply adding the question-forming structural particle ka (か)to the end of sentences.

9. If the topic of a sentence (the part of the sentence set off by the structural particle wa(は)) is understood on the basis of the context, then you don't have to say it. For example, if you were asked what you are, and replied that you are a student, you would normally only have to say:

Gakusei desu.

[I] am [a] student.

Here the topic, boku/watashi is understood, since the person speaking is "I". Similarly, if you were asked what "she" is, you would make the same reply, since on the basis of the question, the topic "she" is understood:

Gakusei desu.

[She] is [a] student.

In English, of course, you absolutely have to use "I" or "She", etc., in sentences such as the above in order to be understood. You wouldn't impress people very much in responding with just "am/is/are student".

In learning to speak Japanese one of the first things an English speaker needs to become accustomed to avoiding is the tendency to start each sentence referring to oneself with either watashi or boku. You only need to use these words if you are making a special distinction between yourself and someone else, or in the rare cases where the context might not make it clear to whom you are referring.

10. There is no future tense in Japanese. The present tense, along with "time words", is used to indicate future actions. Therefore, you don't have to learn special forms equivalent to the English "I will go tomorrow." In Japanese this would be simply:

Ashita ikimasu.

tomorrow go

"[I will] go tomorrow."

with the "I" (boku/watashi) understood from the context, and the "will" indicated by the use of the time word asita "tomorrow".