February 3, 2015
In English, word order of a sentence is very important. Not just the basic subject, verb, object order, but also things like prepositional phrases. For example:
I saw the lady on the train.
On the train, I saw the lady.
It’s not an important point for the story, perhaps, but it does change whether I was on the train or not.
In Japanese, such differences do not exist. Things like who did what and where, are signified by grammar called particles. Of course Japanese has a typical word order. One does not just put a subject wherever one pleases. But the point is that even if you do, the sentence will be understandable.
For new learners of Japanese, it can be quite a daunting or confusing task. It takes some time not only to get used to speaking that way, but also to understand how they are used. To make matters worse, the explanations that one often comes across are rarely helpful. This isn’t because they are bad explanations, to the contrary, most of them are rather good. But trying to explain the grammar rules of one language, in a different language, well, loses something in the translation. No one explanation ever helps you get a clear picture of what is going on. The answer? Practice.
When I studied French in high school, the masculine and feminine forms of everything was overwhelming. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. One day my teacher said to the class, “You just lean it (le or la) as part of the word. French people don’t think, “Oh, table… let’s see… it’s feminine, so it would be la table!” You just learn it as a set.
Learning to speak Japanese is the same way. When you say, “Watashi ha (WA)” it means that you are taking about yourself. That’s it. There is no need to think any further. Of course reading various explanations can speed up your learning of grammar points. Just don’t rely on them to solve all the problems.
Knowing is half the battle.
One of the particles that I learned (WO) I thought I had understood perfectly. It is the direct object marker. After all, English has direct objects. But an important point to note is that verbs in Japanese do not behave the same way as they do in English. The sentence that confounded me? “When the bus comes to a complete stop, stand the seat.” (Rough translation) the noun “seat” was marked as the direct object. How on earth do you stand a seat? Of course I knew what the announcement meant, but even to this day, that particular use of the direct object is strange to me.
In Japanese, verbs often become passive. It’s very natural and has a very different nuance than it has in English. If you see something that has been translated from English to Japanese, you are likely to see a passive English sentence. Another perplexing example of English and Japanese differences that I learned was when I tried to explain that I had heard something. In English we have:
I heard something.
Normal, right? Not in Japanese. If you directly translate the sentence from Japanese you get:
A sound was heard.
Sound is the subject so your Japanese sentence is おと(sound) が(subject marker) 聞こえた(could be heard)。 Approximate pronunciation (owe tow GA kee ko ay tah) or, “A sound was hearable.” “Sound” is marked as the subject because of its relation to the verb. In English we would consider it the object because it received an action by the speaker, who would be the subject. Yeah, it can be that different.
So, what do I do?
So the idea is that practice is best. It takes time. Read as much as you can about and see as many examples as you can. Each will help you a little further toward understanding. Remember, there is no magic answer that will suddenly bring you to a perfect knowledge of the subject. Patience pays off and is a lot less stressful.