June 16, 2009

On relative difficulty

Japanese has three distinct levels of formality, the use of which depends on the relationship between the speaker and his or her counterpart. Talking to your boss? High formality, high respect. Your kids? Different level of formality. Your peers get the third. The concern over this distinction, and the embarassment associated with the use of the wrong level in a given situation, led to the creation of a totally neutral approach to answering the phone, just to help avoid the loss of face that would occur if you answered the phone expecting your boss and got your worst enemy instead. This aspect of Japanese is often referenced when I hear people say that it is among the hardest languages to learn.

Then consider that these conversations are taking place in English, a language in which telling someone "fat chance," and then saying their chances are slim, means exactly the same thing.

Still think Japanese is harder? Fat/slim chance.


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