A Question Came to My Inbox: Does the grammar of the language influence how the Japanese and Koreans think?

Actually, it is the other way around. The way people think influences their language. The way they think is the culture, and an extension of the culture is language. I can give you numerous examples with the Koreans and the Japanese both that show how their thinking or culture influenced the language that developed.

These ladies are friends, but still, they will bow to one another and say things like, “I supposed” or “I think.” It is only polite.

To begin with, the Japanese think it is impolite to be straight forward. Because of this, they have developed several things in their language to stop them from being straight forward. If you are speaking to a Japanese in Japanese, rather than express their opinion as a fact as we do in the west, they will say what they think and add phrases like “I suppose,” “I think,” or maybe” to what they say. They may know they are completely right, but that doesn’t mean they are going to express themselves that way. They could get so indirect to not even tell you, but tell someone else to tell you. I chewed gum in my Japanese class, and my Japanese teacher asked someone else to tell me not to chew gum in class rather than come right out and correct me like an American teacher would do.

The Japanese also think precision is very important. That is one of the reasons they haven’t gotten rid of kanji as the Koreans have gotten rid of the hanmoon. The Japanese call the Chinese characters kanji, and the Koreans call them hanmoon. In English, if two words sound alike, we just put up with it, but the Japanese don’t just put up with it. They use the kanji to tell the difference between words that sound alike. For example, we have the word “rain,” but we also have the word “rein.” They sound the same, but they are spelled differently and we use them in different contexts, so there is no problems telling them apart. However, in Japanese, their phonics is more precise than the English phonics if a word is pronounced in a particular way, you can only spell it in hiragana one way. For them to tell the difference, they need the kanji. The Koreans also have words that sound alike, but they got rid of the hanmoon anyway because precision is not quite as important to them. They are more like the rest of the world when it comes to precision.

As these two Japanese guys are talking to one another, the one who is not doing the speaking will be saying, “so desu, ne!” or “Hi! so desu!.” Those are ways of showing he agrees.

The Korean impreciseness goes so far as to have two pronunciations for one letter or have two letters that are pronounced the same. Koreans are used to impreciseness. When they talk to one another, they often don’t even listen to what the other is saying, but just assume what they think they are going to say and act or respond accordingly. Many Koreans talk knowing they won’t be listened to, but they just want to express themselves whether anyone is listening or not. In Japan, though, the opposite is true. The Japanese have a thing called “active listening,” and they take listening to the extreme. You have to constantly bow your head and agree with the other person while they are talking or they think they aren’t listening. You have to do things exactly right in Japan. It is like the difference between when a white preacher is preaching at a white congregation in America or a black preacher is preaching at a black congregation. The white audience will sit and listen and some may go to sleep. The black audience will constantly be saying “amen!” or “preach it brother!” You know those blacks are listening! Preachers love the participation of the blacks in the audience in America. The Japanese do this kind of thing on a one on one basis. If someone is talking, they will be saying, “yes!” or “that is the way it is!” They encourage the listener, and the communication actually takes place. There is no question as to whether or not they heard.

The Koreans got rid of the hanmoon, but the Koreans will never get rid of the kanji. It is fine with the Koreans for one person to say “d” and the other one to say “t” for the same letter or for one person to say “g” and the other to day “k” for the same letter. It is fine with the Koreans if they have two letters that are both pronounced with a short “e” sound. Impreciseness doesn’t bother them.

I used to travel around with knitting or crocheting when I flew so I wouldn’t get bored when I had to sit for so many hours. To do so, I had to carry a pair of small scissors to cut the yarn from time to time. Those scissors passed through security all over the world, in America, in England, in Nigeria, in Hungary, in Romania, Belgium, in the Philippines, etc., but they didn’t pass in Japan. The Japanese took them away from me, and I had to stop carrying my knitting and crocheting with me. They didn’t even like knitting needles or crochet hooks. The Japanese are the most precise people I have ever met. Their word for “pretty” also means “clean.” If it isn’t clean in Japan, it isn’t pretty. This is why they will never get rid of their kanji. They must be precise. They have to be so precise in language that they have the hiragana, the katakana. and the kanji. The hiragana is for Japanese words. The katakana is for foreign words, but in English, we only use one alphabet and bend it around to make it work. We don’t write foreign words in a special alphabet. We just borrow words, begin using then, and pretty soon, no one knows they were foreign. They become English.

After Sy, he Korean artist sang “Gangnam Style” that was popular throughout the world, his next hit was “Gentlemen.” The cultures in the east don’t understand what it means to be a gentleman, but the Korean men are trying to learn what it means to be a gentleman. They are ready to try to incorporate it into their society, but the Japanese won’t be doing that because it is not the Japanese way. However, the Koreans can see that it helps society for the men to act like gentlemen, so they are trying to learn it.

The Korean culture has also influenced their language. The Koreans are complicated thinkers. . Most people don’t realize the people who originated what we called Chinese characters were not the Chinese. We just call them Chinese characters because people from the west saw them in China first. The Koreans made up the Chinese characters. You see, Korea has another characteristic. Since the beginning of time, they have had a goal to have an orderly, very civilized society. They want civilization more than anything. The heroes in Korea are the people who brought them civilization while the heroes in Japan are their samurai. Each culture has a different kind of heroes. The Romanians admire college professors and poets. The Americans admire great generals or people who brought peace. The British admire great kings of the past. The Koreans admire people who brought new ideas and helped to civilize them. It doesn’t matter to them if these new civilizing ideas came from the Korean people themselves or from the outside. They have always just wanted new ideas that help the society to run smoother.

Koreans try harder to speak to you in English. Two of these three guys are fluent in English.

A good example of this is the Confucian system that is represented in the Korean language so strongly. The Japanese are Confucian too, and you can see parts of their language that tell you they are Confucian too, but there is more in the Korean language that points to Confucianism. There are levels of society in a Confucian society, and in Japan, it has caused some differences in the language, but it has caused an overwhelming amount of difference in the Korean language. Japanese is easier for foreigners to speak because their language is not as complicated as Korean, and the levels in the Korean society has caused the levels in their language to go berserk because they think so much and create ways to show these levels when they talk. As I said, the Japanese did some of this too, but the Koreans really did it big time! The verb conjugations in Korean according to what level you are in society or who you are talking about can really make a foreigner studying Korean crazy, but it is a symptom of the Koreans trying to have a higher civilization, to order the society. It is also a symptom of the Korean tendency to be more complicated thinkers than most societies. The Koreans go so far with their complications in their language that they use words rather than punctuation, and they go with their lack of precision by leaving the punctuation out often.

This guy is a Korean preacher’s son. His dad teaches both Bible and hanmoon. He thinks hanmoon is the way to understand the Bible better. Hanmoon is also the way to understand the ancient texts of the eastern cultures better. This guy understands more of the hanmoon than the average Korean. When he picks up a book to read, the more complicated the better. He loves to read complicated things. That is why he studies hanmoon. He reads ancient philosophy books for pleasure. Thinking deeply is a Korean trait.

The Koreans grabbing on to Christianity so hard is a symptom of their need to order their society, to make it higher and more efficient. They want peace. They want better ways of doing things. This has caused them to take Christianity, a religion of real peace, and really run hard with it. Close to 50% of Koreans are Christians. Their deep thinking goes into the theological discussions they have. They can compete with the best theologians around the globe in theological discussions, and the Korean Bible scholars and preachers discuss some topics that the other countries never even thought of. They love to publish books, to write in scholarly journals, and to discuss the deep principles among themselves on the computer. They try to relate oriental philosophy to the Bible. They talk about how to apply Christianity in an oriental context. Do English preachers ever discuss how to apply Christianity to an English context or the American preachers discuss how to apply Christianity in a strictly American context? Missionaries think about culture in America and England, not preachers.

Hiragana was made for the Japanese ladies of the court to write poetry, but the hangul of Korea was made to hep society.

When the Korean King Sejeong invented the hangul, the Korean alphabet, he did it so more Koreans could learn to read because he could see they needed to be reading more books. In times past, it was the people in the upper class families who could read because they were the ones educated in hanmoon (the Chinese characters). King Sejeong wanted to bring the society up, so he invented hanmoon. That is not why hiragana was invented. Hiragana was invented for the ladies of the court in Japan so they could write poetry. It wasn’t developed for the good of the society, to elevate them like hanmoon was developed. The mindset of the people influences the language.

Koreans feel the burden of communication on them. I they haven’t studied English and hear English on the phone, they know they haven’t done their homework, so they hang up. The Japanese will try to speak to you in Japanese whether you understand or not. I often had to tell Japanese to slow it down on the phone because I am a foreigner. The Koreans feel it is their responsibility to speak English, but the Japanese don’t. Even if you speak to the Korean in Korean, they will say, “Just a minute. I will call you right back,” and they will hang up. Someone who speaks English will call you back even if you speak Korean because they figured out you are a foreigner.

In Japan, they definitely think being indirect is better. Even if they speak English, they may use a translator so they don’t show off their knowledge so they can seem more humble. However, the Koreans don’t think that way at all. If a Korean speaks English, he will speak it. If a Korean sees a foreigner and hasn’t done his homework by studying English, he may literally run when he sees the foreigner or hang the phone up if they hear English. Koreans know that their language is complicated. They don’t expect foreigner to learn it, They expect to study English. If you speak to a Japanese in Japanese, he will respond in Japanese, but if you speak to a Korean in Korean, even if he only knows one sentence in English, he will try that one sentence. In some ways, the Japanese force you to speak Japanese because of their love of the Japanese language. However, the Koreans would like you to learn Korean, but they make it hard because they are all trying to facilitate things by speaking in English.

The Japanese indirectness doesn’t just show up in language. If they are building a road and run into a mountain, they will build that road around the mountain. They never tackle a problem straight on. However, there are many mountains in Korea, and many tunnels right through the mountains. In the west, we don’t might getting straight to the point, and we will also build the tunnels right through the mountains. Koreans may be indirect at times in their speech, but not as indirect as the Japanese, and the Koreans don’t mind tunneling through the mountain either.// Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If a Japanese writes an essay or a paragraph in Japanese, it will not begin with a topic sentence. You won’t know the meaning of what they wrote until you get to the end. It is their indirectness that causes this. In Korea, they use both the circular logic that is used in Japan as well as the western logic that uses thesis and topic sentences. The Koreans see validity in both ways. They are going to grab a hold of all everything they can to make things better no mater how much it complicates things. It is just the nature of the Koreans.

Koreans’ tendency to borrow ideas from one another goes right into their churches. You could walk into a church of Christ and the next Sunday into a Presbyterian church, and the next Sunday to a Pentecostal church, and have trouble seeing that they are much different. They may all be speaking in tongues borrowed from the Pentecostals. They may all be singing without musical instruments borrowed from the church of Christ or the church of Christ may have adopted a music instrument because they heard it at the Presbyterian church and liked it. The different denominations in Korea borrow from one another. //Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As far a the Korean impreciseness, with churches, many make no difference between churches like we do in the west. One church is like the other to them, and often even though they have a different name on the sign outside, the different denominations borrow ideas from one another. One American missionary complained to me because he said the Koreans thought of Christianity as a smorgasbord to pick anything they wanted, but not particularly do it what he thought of as the scriptural way. Every church does what they want to do in Korea. The Pentecostals may add ideas from the church of Christ. The church of Christ may add ideas from the Presbyterians. The Presbyterians may add ideas from the Baptists, etc. Being precise is not so important to most Korean Christians. The only difference they really make is that many of the Protestant churches don’t consider the Catholic church as Christians. One of the reasons I began teaching Bible classes in Korea was because I saw so much zeal for God among the people without a real knowledge of what was in the Bible. They were busy borrowing from one another rather than realizing the answers were in the Bible. They love the Bible classes I teach! The Koreans are very teachable people when it comes to Bible. They love the Bible! Koreans are really into classes and schools. They think it is the only way to learn.

Going to school is a way of life in Korea. In Romania, everyone, even the farmers, are trying to learn a foreign language, but they don’t have a school on every street corner. In Korea, there is a school everywhere you look, either a public school or a private school. They think you cant learn if you don’t go to class.

In Korea, they have special schools outside of the regular school system everywhere called hogwans. The Japanese also have their jukus, but the jukus are mostly to help the students study for school. They call them “cram schools.” The hogwans are more than that. They teach everything. They have special hogwans for English, for Math, for computer science, for piano, for learning about agriculture, etc. My Korean son in law went to one to learn how to operate a forklift and got a license to operate a forklift even though he already has a masters. The name of and the ideas in his masters are so complicated it would take a long time for me to explain it to you. It is just a symptom of the complicated Korean way of thinking. He is thinking about going to another hogwan and wondering if he should learn to cook Korean style. These hogwans teach all kinds of things! Koreans think you can’t learn if you aren’t sitting in a classroom.

Indirectness is a way of life in Japan.

When you talk to a Korean in Korean, most of them really have a hard time making what they say more simple. They are used to a hundred or more little nuances that are not in other languages. They can’t imagine speaking without them. Complicated is a way of life for a Korean, and their language reflects it. Making society better is a way of life for a Korean, and their language reflects that also. Precision and cleanliness is a way of life in Japan, and their language reflects that. Indirectness and humility is a way of life in Japan, and their language reflects that. Culture is reflected in the way we speak, in our grammar, how we organize our thoughts, etc. , not the other way around. Language doesn’t make culture, but culture makes language.

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