A post at The Welshman Learns Swedish led me to an article by Tim Feriss. Now, before I start to borrow from Tim Ferris, let me point out that he does something that I don’t particularly care for. This article is about how to learn a language fast. I’m not particularly interested in learning fast. Now, if you want to talk about how to learn a language efficiently you will have my attention.
Also, since the article stresses speed of learning, he seems to indicate that, if you can’t learn it fast, don’t learn it. If the language is too different from a language you already know, that’s a deal killer according to this article. As an English speaker who is learning Japanese, obviously I don’t subscribe to this philosophy. Our goals are different, that’s all.
One of his basic premises is that you can learn a lot about a language and how it works by translating a few well chosen sentences. In fact, he cites Japanese as being one of the languages that he has done this with. I’ve linked to his post above, so you can read there what he feels you will learn from these sentences in general and why he believes that they are well chosen.
Well, I’m game. Let’s have a go at it, shall we? (As always, corrections and comments are welcome!) (I think that we’ll get more out of this using polite Japanese rather than casual, so that’s the way I’m going to do it.
The apple is red.
What do we get from this sentence? Well, there is no word for the in Japanese. Also, we can see that the verb comes last, since a literal translation of the Japanese would give us apple は red is. And, of course, we see that Japanese uses these pesky little things called particles. In this case, the particle が indicating indicating that apple is the subject of this particular sentence. So, I guess we learned quite a lot about Japanese from that one. Let’s do another.
It is John’s apple.
This time let’s start with the literal translation first. Johnさん の apple is. Did we learn anything new here? Yep. There is no word for it, Japanese has a habit of attaching honorifics (like さん) after names and we indicate possession with the particle の instead of ‘s. Oh, and we also learned that Japanese uses a different syllabary to write words of foreign origin (such as the name John).
I give John the apple.
The literal version: I は Johnさん に apple を give. Now we’ve learned that there is yet a third way of writing Japanese: Kanji. (Bum bum bum…that was three dramatic notes in a row like you might hear in a a movie after you suddenly discover who the killer is. I think the introduction of Kanji deserves that since it would likely be a deal killer according to the philosophy of learn it fast or don’t learn it at all). We also get three new particles は – the topic marker, に – indicating the receiver of something and を – marking the direct object. Okay, so we’re still learning new things. Kudos to Mr. Ferriss. Next?
We give him the apple.
We は him に apple を give.
Hm. I’m not sure we got a lot out of that one, to be honest. Structurally, it is pretty similar to the previous sentence. I guess we learned that words exist for we and him, but I’m not so sure that’s such a great revelation. I think we learned a lot from the first few sentences, but not so much with that one. Still, let’s keep going.
He gives it to John.
He は (it) を Johnさん に gives.
Okay, so why did I put it in parentheses? Well, because we really used the word for that and let if kind of fill in for it in this sentence. Given the way that I translated this one, we can also see that some parts of the sentence can be moved around as long as we keep the verb at the end. That’s a little something gained, but I’m quite sure how much it helps us right now. Next?
She gives it to him.
She は him に (it) を gives., sinc
By the way, in this sentence, I could have said to him instead of him に but, since our object here is to see what these sentences teach us about the basics of the Japanese language, I’m stressing that it has particles. So, did we learn anything new form this sentence? I’m not sure we did, to be honest. That isn’t to say that we wouldn’t have learned a ton from this sentence if we were studying some other language, mind you.
So, what do you think of his six sentences for deconstructing a language and learning a whole lot about it in a short time?
Later in the post, he adds two more sentences. Since they aren’t part of his original six sentences, I’ll break them down in the next post.