Language of Japan ( Japanese )
Language Spoken in Japan
The common language spoken in Japan is Japanese. Although there are some difference in accents or intonation between regions, Japanese is spoken and understood throughout the country. English can also be understood in metropolitan areas, if you use simple words or short sentences, but answering questions in English seems to be a more difficult task for Japanese.
It is not yet known which language family Japanese exactly belong to, but from a grammatical approach Japanese is said to be similar to languages such as Turkish and Mongolian. At the same time, Japanse pronunciation is said to be close to Polynesian, and some people say that Japanese and Korean sound very alike. Well, I guess I'll have to leave this issue to the linguists.
Listening and Speaking Japanese
For people who might be thinking that Japanese pronunciation could be difficult, here are some good news. Actually, Japanese pronunciation is unexpectedly easy for there are not so many sounds used in this language.
When compared to other languages, Japanese have relatively few kinds of syllables. For instance, Japanese is said to have 120 syllables at the most, while Mandarin has more than three times as much, and English, not less than 80,000. Did that encourage you a little?
However, this means that there are many homonyms in Japanese which sound the same but have different meanings. In Japanese, the accents are not as distinct as it is in English or other languages, so that basically you will have to judge from the intonation of the speaker or guess the meaning from the context, in order to figure out which of the homonyms the speaker is meaning. This may be the most difficult part in listening.
As for speaking Japanese, here too the correct intonation of the words and sentences I think, would be the most of difficulty to make yourself understood, not the pronunciation itself.
Basic Japanese grammar is comparatively simple for mainly three reasons. Reason one, verb forms do not change by subject in number and person, reason two, distinctions between the singular form and the plural form is not so strict, and reason three, there are no distinctions between masculine nouns and feminine nouns.
But putting all three together, Japanese expressions often turn out to be vague. In other words, you can say that the language owes a lot to the listener or the reader, who must try to understand what the speaker or the writer really meant to say, by sensing their feelings.
Letters Used in Japanese Writing
There are mainly three types of letters used to write Japanese ( four types when Romaji, Japanese written in Roman letters are included ), and usually they are combined and used together in one sentence.
Kanji character ( also called Mana corresponding to Kana ) is an ideogram originally made and used in China, with each character having its own meaning. It is told that Japanese started to use Kanji, when they were brought into Japan from China in the 5th or 6th century, and the letters are still in daily use today. In Japanese, the generally used Kanji character is said to be about 1850, but I think the actual characters used in daily life is about 500 to 600, or 800 at the most.
Besides this Kanji character, Kana consisting of Hiragana and Katakana is additionally used. Kana is a phonogram, and each letter stands for a combination of one or two consonant and a vowel. Both Kana ( Hiragana and Katakana ) are said to have developed from Kanji during Heian Period (794-1185), and there are 46 letters respectively, that are pronounced the same but have different appearances.
Hiragana is mainly used to assist the Kanji character, while Katakana is often used to express exotic words, onomatopoeia, and mimetic words. Using these three types of letters ( Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana ), Japanese can be written in two different manners. One is the western style, which is written in horizontal rows from left to right ( like the contents of this web page that you are now reading ), and the other is the traditional Japanese style, which is written in vertical columns towards the bottom of the page from right to left ( often seen in Japanese newspapers or books ). Both writing manners are still commonly used today.
The Vocabulary of Japanese
One of the reasons for Japanese being thought as a difficult language I suppose, must be the fact that it contains so many words. Good examples can be seen in the letters used in Japanese writing.
As Kanji characters were brought in from China, some of them are still used to represent its original Chinese meaning, while others are used to express words that are indigenous to Japan. On the other hand, Katakana are often used to express new words that came into Japan, with modern western culture.
It can be seen that these letters used to write Japanese have been expanding, being influenced by different culture. And this expansion in letters, seem to tell that such cultural influence must have also played a large part, in expanding the Japanese vocabulary as well as the types of letters used in Japanese writing.
Resultingly, it is said to be necessary to learn nearly 10,000 words (!!) to understand about 90 percent of the Japanese conversation, while English need only 3,000 words to understand the same level.
Levels of Speech ( Keigo )
Japanese are usually very conscious of the difference between inside and outside, as well as the vertical relationships. They tend to distinguish members that are inside one's own group, from those who are outside the group and treat them accordingly, keeping distance toward the outsiders.
Same thing happens between people in upper position and the lower position, or between older people and the younger ones. This goes for the language too, and different words or expressions are used depending on who you are talking to. Especially in formal occasions when you are expected to be polite, Keigo, an honorific language level is still in use today.
Though I must admit that recently many Japanese including myself, are becoming unable to use this Keigo properly according to each situation.