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What You Need to Know About Japanese Grammar Rules and Syntax

By Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Japanese > A Closer Look at Japanese Grammar and Syntax Rules

Studying Japanese culture has obvious allures; the lifestyle, the history, the cuisine and the language. In fact, due to the close linking between the two, you can use Japanese culture to learn the language.

So if you want to go to Japan or would just like to take Japanese lessons to learn basic Japanese, we’re here to tell you that with a little practice, you will get there!

Even if the Japanese language has the reputation of being a difficult one to learn, this article will show you that there are dozens of ways to learn Japanese. We started this article by drawing your attention to the key role that the language plays in the culture, and vice-versa. Such examples of this include:

  • manga,
  • manuals,
  • videos…

And, here is a small bonus for English speakers: Japanese grammar is easier than English grammar. That’s surely something to put your mind at ease!

Let’s get you acquainted with the lexical and linguistic rules you will need to learn to be able to speak Japanese. Read on!

Learning Basic Japanese Grammar

UNESCO recently ranked the top 10 most difficult languages in the world. Japanese came in 5th place.

“The big difficulty of this language comes from the difference between its written and spoken language. But, also, a grammar that is meant to express a wide range of politeness and linguistic formalities. Not to mention the countless Chinese characters to memorize…” says the study.

To learn Japanese grammar and the history of the Japanese language, you will need to detach yourself from the alphabet and basics of the English language.

The Japanese writing system is made up of logographic kanji characters and syllabic kana. Kana consists of two different syllabaries called hiragana and katakana. Hiragana and katakana consist of about fifty “letters,” which are actually simplified Chinese characters adopted to form the Japanese phonetic alphabet:

  • hiragana: it is the most used phonetic alphabet. It is mainly used for grammar and native Japanese words.
  • katakana: this is the alphabet commonly used to distinguish words that are not of Japanese origin and do not have appropriate kanji.

Japanese only has two tenses where as English has twelve Don’t be fooled by appearances: Japanese grammar is simpler than English grammar!

The Japanese writing system also has a form to write the Japanese characters using the Latin alphabet. This is called romaji, and it is used in any situation where foreigners who are unfamiliar with kanji characters are the target of the language. This could be on road signs, or at airports and train stations, but also in textbooks for Japanese learners.

The writing system started developing in this format from the 4th century AD when the Japanese decided to borrow Chinese characters to give their language a written element.

Once you grasp their nuances, you can have a look at the grammatical differences between the Japanese and English languages:

  • in Japanese, the verb always comes at the end.
  • the subject is always followed by wa (は),
  • the direct object is always followed by o (を) and the indirect object is followed by ni (に): these little words are particles, very much used in Japanese grammar,
  • there is a 3rd auxiliary in Japanese: desu (で す). It is always placed at the end of a sentence. You can translate it with the auxiliary “to be,” but only in certain cases: it corresponds to the expressions “to correspond” and “to be equivalent to…” It also serves to indicate that one is speaking in a polite way to an interlocutor, which is how speaking happens in real life. It can be translated by something like “I declare
  • to ask a question: you apply all the rules mentioned above and you write “ka” at the end
  • the verbs and the adjectives do not agree with the subject. They are invariable in gender, in number and in person…

To assimilate Japanese grammar, you must detach yourself as much as possible from English. Japanese follows a logic that English does not follow word for word.

Learning Japanese Grammar Through Videos

There are several ways to learn Japanese grammar:

  • reading books like manga,
  • taking private lessons at home or at university,
  • talking with a Japanese friend,
  • going to Japan.

If you immerse yourself completely in Japanese, you will learn the language faster. This means that you should surround yourself with all aspects of the language.

Obviously the best way to do this is to move to Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka, but if this is not possible, you can do this whilst still at home. The above options are just a few examples; you could also watch Japanese films and read Japanese newspapers once your reach an intermediate level.

Don’t forget that Japanese-speakers are the Internet’s 3rd largest language group.

The Japanese make up the third largest language community on the Internet, after only English and Chinese speakers. An estimated 88 million Japanese, or 9.6% of the world’s online population, are connected to the Internet. Knowing Japanese can connect you to these people in an instant. They may just be future friends or acquaintances, business associates, or even the market that you or your future employer hopes to target.

But you can also sit comfortably in front of your computer and get on the internet. Some sites offer Japanese grammar lessons via videos.

This allows you to learn linguistic basics without the constraint of time and money. Most videos are free.

We have chosen some websites that offer Japanese video lessons.

  • Digischool: this site allows you to acquire many different skills in mathematics, English, history, geography, and also in Japanese!

Digischool proposes videos in order to learn the basics of grammar on their Youtube channel. You will discover the basic principles of the language. This is a free video course.

  • Japan-Lesson: to learn in a fun way. A dozen fun videos that will teach you the basics of the Japanese language. The site offers books, mangas, and movies in their original version, as well as even tips for living in Japan.

Short one-minute videos that will give you a grammatical understanding of the language.

  • Kandjilink.com: this site is very well organized and you will progress quickly through its video courses. For each theme, you have the option to access the video with a text summarizing the lesson. Japanese courses are themed and well explained. Lessons are illustrated with pictures, texts, and quotes.

You will also learn a notion that we do not have in English: the unsaid, which is very common in Japanese. It is expressed by:

  • the subtext: context is used to work out parts of the sentence which are implied (especially the subject). For example, 買 い ま す か (kaimasu ka), depending on the context can be translated “do you buy?”, “Are we buying?”
  • the dot dot dot sentences: unfinished sentences mark that their authors are expressing a relative fact and something which is not definitive. The unsaid is deduced from the context.

These videos are an exceptional time saver and very interactive. They can also be a complement to your lessons with a teacher. Find your Japanese courses London or around the UK with our amazing selection of tutors.

Learn Japanese Syntax: Modern Japanese and Classical Japanese

The Japanese lexicon is made up of two great families: bungo and kogo.

Written Japanese has its origins in the 4th century AD In Japan there are differences in syntax. Indeed, there is modern and classical Japanese.

The bungo (文 語) is the name given to the classical and literary Japanese language, where as the kōgo is a modern language inspired by spoken Japanese.

There are lexical differences between the two forms:

  • The number of words has been reduced in modern Japanese and compared to bungo.
  • Some words have changed meanings.
  • Some modern Japanese expressions have been borrowed from Chinese.

Bungo was considered the main writing language in Japan until the late 1940s.

Today bungo is present in many modern Japanese people’s lives and is still taught at school.

Bungo, invented around the 10th century, is a verbal form that has remained the same over centuries, which contrasts to some languages which have seen a lot of change over the same period.

Nowadays, only kōgo is used in oral language as well as in literature. But in grammar and vocabulary, the bungo is sometimes used to give a stylistic effect or to correct a grammatical ambiguity that the kōgo has run into.

How to Learn Japanese for English Speakers: What is Easy and What is Hard?

Japanese writing is complicated but the grammar is surprisingly easy Japanese grammar is less complicated than it seems.

Like any language that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet (Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Japanese etc), English speakers will struggle to get to grips with how to write, especially as a beginner. But in Japanese, there are also many aspects that English speakers find easy.

Unlike the pronunciation of Chinese, the pronunciation of Japanese is not a problem for Anglophones. This can be said for other languages as well, which is what allowed the Japanese language to make its way across the planet…

Japanese grammar is also quite simple.

For example, in English we have 6 personal pronouns (I, you, he/she/ it, we, you, they). In Japanese, you only have one that applies to everyone. Cool, huh?

Same goes for conjugation… In English, we have the present, the imperfect, the simple past, the past, or the future…

In Japanese you have the present and the past. That’s all. The future is formed by speaking in the present with the addition of a word indicating the future. Too simple, almost!

There is no real conjugation (in the sense that it is understood in English), but rather a series of relatively simple declensions, particularly related to temporal structures and language levels.

For example :

  • I eat – 食 べ る た た べ る 」」 」taberu
  • I will eat – 」食 る る し た た た た る る る る る る る る る ashita taberu

Unlike other Asian languages, Japanese is not a tonal language and its pronunciation is relatively easy to master (90% of the sounds of the Japanese language are found in English!).

Something else to note. There is no space between words. The reading occurs from left to right, but traditionally from top to bottom and, in this case, the columns follow each other from right to left.

So not only has Japan given a lot to the world, the Japanese language in its own right is full of little quirks and intricacies, not all of which are difficult to master for an English speaker.

Politeness in the Japanese Language

Japanese culture is very different from western culture Politeness is an integral part of the Japanese language.

Japanese politeness is a mystery for people around the world.

In Japanese, there is a specific language called respect, which is used in conversations with a singular Japanese vocabulary: keigo (敬 語)

This is what the whole system of politeness in Japanese is based off of. Unlike Western languages, where the notion of politeness is based on vocabulary and more or less polite expressions (or even formalization, as in French and Spanish for example), Japanese has a well-defined grammatical system to express politeness.

Politeness in Japanese is generally ranked in 3 categories:

  • teineigo (丁寧 語), polite language (enunciative politeness),
  • sonkeigo (尊敬 語), language of respect (referential politeness),
  • kenjōgo (謙 譲 語), language of modesty (referential politeness).

Politeness in Japanese translates into different linguistic mechanisms with specific verbs, a passive form, and polite nouns…

It is often the traditional and more conservative Japanese who use this specific language. Japanese media are often concerned with the inability of young people to properly use the Japanese honorary language.

The new generations do not learn keigo much, and even worse, in textbooks one can now sometimes find incorrect formulas that differ from traditional grammar rules.

In summary, Japanese is a “difficult” language, but not a “complex” language. It has a very simple grammar, “too” simple even, for those of us accustomed to the difficulties of English grammar.

Here are some tips to learn Japanese even faster:

  • read a manga in Japanese,
  • sing Japanese songs in the karaoke version,
  • browse through a Japanese magazine (or a Japanese website) on a subject that you are passionate about,
  • find a Japanese penpal with whom you can talk about your common passions,
  • find a local Japanese language exchange meetup group to learn Japanese calligraphy, for example.

If you want to go to the next level, search for a Japanese teacher in your local area by using the Superprof website.

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