Abstract vs. Tangible Learning in Japanese

There’s More Than One “Learning”

One of the largest annoyances in trying to teach Japanese is that many words have differences that dictionaries will not tell you about. Some differences ought to only matter to ex-translators, like me; but not all.

Among these frustrations is the fact that, without having learned Japanese natively, a learner will not have a “feel” for where one word should be used, as opposed to where another word should be used instead. Often, I have been “mostly” aware of an issue but only truly nail it down when I break out an online Japanese-to-Japanese dictionary and look at how something is used.

This stretches to the very words used to discuss studying and learning in themselves.

In modern Japanese, “to study” (as a verb) is benkyou suru. This is “benkyou” (勉強べんきょう) as a kanji compound word, formed of kanji for “strive” and “strength”; mentally speaking, it’s about putting your back into it. The “suru” is the Japanese catch-all verb suffix, “to do.”

Now, Japanese nouns have a bias towards the plural when neither singular nor plural is indicated. So, “benkyou” by itself would be best read as studies.

The problem is, when you get to “to learn,” Japanese has two very distinct verbs, both of which are used for learning, as opposed to “studying” per se.

Verb #1: manabu (学ぶまなぶ)

Verb #2: narau (習うならう)

As you can see, these are “native Japanese” verbs rather than a compound word built out of kanji with “suru “slapped onto the end.

Now, are these verbs redundant? Quick answer: no.

As my own “benkyou” has increased over the years, I have learned that modern Japanese has very few true redundancies, and these become less and less as the language is refined by educational authorities. A lot of things that look the same in a dictionary simply aren’t exactly the same in practice; and so it is here.

The difference is that one refers to abstract learning, while the other refers to tangible learning.

In other words, manabu means to learn per se, while narau essentially means learning by rote, that is, learning by repetition via lessons.

Now we begin to see how the three are separate, if related.

The Japanese for “basics” (again, bias towards plural) is kihon (基本きほん). So if we have a sentence saying:

nihongo no kihon o manabu

This is to learn the basics of Japanese (nihongo).

If, in contrast, we have this:

nihongo o narau

This is to learn Japanese via lessons, such as those I provide in private tutoring (chiefly over Skype).

In contrast:

nihongo no kihon o benkyou suru

This is studying the basics of Japanese. This does not necessarily involve any interaction with a teacher or tutor; you can “hit the books” all by yourself in the comfort of your own room.

Finally, for contrast:

hatsuon o narau

This is learning pronunciation, or hatsuon (発音はつおん), through repetitive lessons. After all, unlike, let’s say, Physics or Civil Engineering, pronunciation is something that can be learned, at least to a significant extent, by rote.

Thus, you are probably safe using “manabu” for most anything having to do with learning, but “narau” should be used in the specific contexts I have laid out here. Just because the dictionary says they’re both verbs for “learn” does not mean they are identical and should be used the same way.

Benkyou ni Naru

Now, the real stumper for all this was when I came across the expression, benkyou ni naru (勉強になる). Naru is a verb that is often read as “to become,” but a really narrow reading shows its roots are in growth, so something can “grow into” something else.

The fundamental problem is that English just doesn’t swing that way. I can read this, and know what it’s trying to tell me, but I can’t directly translate it, because English uses a word with a different root to get to the same place.

This is where a video game character, the flashy American Excellen Browning comes in, from the Super Robot Wars series of mecha tactical role playing games. Unlike American game offerings, I’ve had the luxury of hearing the Japanese voice actress in a few video games that never made it to the US. But anyway, the point of this…

This girl was explaining that Ochstan Launcher, the primary weapon of her personal machine, the Weissritter (“White Knight”), a long twin-barreled weapon firing both armor-piercing bullets and a powerful beam, means “yari” in Japanese. (やり) This is for “spear” and “lance.”

She follows this up by saying,

Benkyou ni naru deshou?”  (勉強になるでしょう?

Now, she can’t be the subject of that sentence; it must be the “yari” meaning (or imi (意味いみ)) of “Ochstan,” which is German. (I’m using the best source I can so if that’s not a good English romanization, tough.)

So, given that this revelation is the subject, she’s giving a “deshou” statement of pretty decent conviction that her previous sentence will “benkyou ni naru,” which would have to mean, become part of one’s studies, become a matter of one’s education… OK, now we have a candidate. If it’s related to education, then perhaps it is educational.

So, you see, even though “study” isn’t part of the final version, “educate” is stretched to carry the nuance of the English-language word “educational.”

The problem is, an idiom this does not make, and this girl lives for three things: accurate shots, idioms, and really bad puns, which I won’t get into today and might take five years of “benkyou” to appreciate, anyway.

But, we can dress this up like this:

‘Ochstan’ means ‘Lance.’ Learn something new every day!

That’s more like it.

Puns and Lame Jokes

Speaking of Excellen’s lines, this was a different one.

The Ochstan Launcher’s “B-Mode” stands for “Brilliant.” You believe me, right?

She’s a gem. She really is. – J

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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3 Responses to Abstract vs. Tangible Learning in Japanese

  1. Go-men Na-sai I beg your pardon….This differs from the above in that its more of a physical apology for walking in someones way and the like. I tend to say Arigato when I would just say Cheers in British English but Ive been told I should used Domo for that.

  2. J Sensei J Sensei says:

    There’s a gray area for all of this stuff. I’d agree that “domo” would be better there, but in person, what you convey with your expression and body language is just as important, or more so, as the word you choose. Communication is all about what you convey in the end.

  3. b says:

    i both love and hate this about japanese. love it because it allows for precise, perfect accuracy in what you want to say. hate it because of the same reason. i love the lexical nuances in asian languages. great article, sensei