Deconstructing Japanese

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 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.




8 thoughts on “Deconstructing Japanese

  1. A good exercise! Lots of templates there that can be used to say hundreds and hundreds of things just by switching out the nouns and verbs.

    Also, since Japanese is a little unique when it comes to giving and receiving, you might try to extend these sentences to every possible way to say them in JAPANESE, and then translate them into ENGLISH (so kinda the reverse).

    For example you could do a couple with もらう, くれる、and maybe いただく.


  2. Hi!

    I just wanted to say how interesting your blog is. Thank you for taking the time to write about your progress from the very beginning! I have read it from start to finish this past week and it was exactly what I had been looking for. It’s very motivating (although I’m not sure what I think about a textbook that’s mostly in Japanese from the very start. That’s a bit scary).

    You could say I’m in Phase 1 – comparing different techniques and resources and deciding how I’m going to study it. I am going to start in about a year and a half (I want to reach C2 in German first, so it’s not just that I’m putting it off), but I want to learn the Kanji and read Tae Kim’s grammar before then. Is there anything else you would recommend as prep?

    Also, you seem to think learning the kun’yomi and on’yomi isn’t worth it. Is that because you have to learn how to read words again anyway?

    Keep on writing! Best of luck on your language journey.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi.

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I’m glad you found some encouragement from the blog.

      Since you’re already learning German, you must have developed some study skills and learning techniques that work for you, and I’m sure there are ways that you can apply them to learning Japanese when the time comes. I have benefited a lot from learning the Kanji first, using the Heisig method, but, if I was going to recommend a single book, it would be Human Japanese. It’s an e-book and only costs about $10.00 but it has the best grammar explanations I have ever read. I personally find Tae Kim’s grammar guide to be a hard read, but that’s just me. I think that his writing style is just too different from my learning style.

      I do not think learning the on’yomi and kun’yomi is worth the effort, to be honest. As you learn to read Japanese, you’ll learn the readings for the Kanji organically. I hope what I mean is clear. You pick it up as you go.

      Some people consider learning to write the Kanji to be the best way to learn them. It is very likely true, but I didn’t go that route, so I can’t say from personal experience.

      One thing that I would suggest is listening to things in Japanese just to get the sounds of language in your ears. If you can find music that you like, for example, that can be a big benefit.

      And, above all, have fun with it!

      Just out of curiosity, why Japanese?


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