Is Japanese Hard to Learn

Is Japanese Hard to Learn? Really…?

You may have heard that Japanese is among the hardest languages to learn if you’re coming from an English speaking background. In fact, the US Department of State places Japanese in the “super-hard languages” category.

Hearing that, you might be wondering if it would even be worth it to start learning Japanese.

However, there are many things to consider before giving up! While some aspects of the language can be quite challenging, reaching a level of communication you can be happy with might not be too far out of reach.

Reasons Why Japanese Should Be Your Next Language

Pronunciation

Japanese has perhaps one of the easiest pronunciations of any foreign language. It is not effortless, but compared to trying to learn the rolled “r” in Spanish or tones in Chinese, nothing in Japanese comes close.

There’s evidence of this in the “phonemes”, or units of sound. English has 44 phonemes, and Japanese has 24. Not only this, but unlike English the phonemes in Japanese are consistent with the “letters”.

For example, in English the letter C can sound different depending on which word it’s in. Sometimes it sounds like a “K” (cat), and sometimes like an “S” (center). This is not even getting into the large variation of vowel sounds in English—despite there only being a few vowels, they comprise 20 out of 44 phonemes.

In Japanese, an “O” will always sound like “oh”. If you know the spelling, you’ll basically know the sound of the word, even if you’ve never heard it before! You don’t have to worry much whether the context changes the pronunciation, the way it does in English (like with cow vs. low vs. drop, etc).

If you’d like more information about Japanese pronunciation, check out this article.

A Foundation in Japanese Pronunciation

Loanwords

 When an English speaker is deciding whether to learn Japanese, they should absolutely be made aware of how common English loanwords are. 

Loanwords are words directly taken from one language and integrated into another. English is the source of the vast majority of loanwords in Japanese. While the pronunciation of such words may change quite a bit in the process of being adapted, with practice you can recognize and learn them fairly easily. 

I’ll warn you they can be tricky to pronounce because the “correct” pronunciation of the original English can get in your way. However, that can be overcome with practice. And if you adjust to Japanese pronunciation rules, you might be able to successfully “create” loanwords that are accepted in Japanese conversation! 

Understanding Japanese Loanwords

Katakana

There are three writing systems in Japanese, one of which is “katakana”. Katakana is mainly used for loanwords, which means one of the systems is almost entirely dedicated to English-derived words! Since katakana is visually distinct, that allows you to quickly find those loanwords within Japanese text. 

More urban areas such as Tōkyō and Ōsaka use katakana especially frequently. Some menus have more katakana—and thus English-derived words—than purely Japanese words! If you’ve already learned katakana, try looking up “カフェのメニュー” (“kafe no menyuu = cafe menu), and just take a look at how many menu items are written in katakana. Even without remembering a list of vocabulary, you’ll be able to make an educated guess about what the words mean. 

Reading and Understanding Katakana

Kanji

Kanji” is one of the other writing systems in Japanese, and is notorious among students for being difficult. Learning “hiragana” and “katakana” is straightforward – you learn the symbol and the associated sound, and then you’ve mastered it. But learning a kanji symbol is not so simple.

Rather than being sound-based, kanji are meaning-based. This is because kanji originally came from Chinese—which you can guess is an entirely different language from English. One advantage of this system is that symbols can resemble the meaning! For example, the kanji meaning “tree” or “wood” looks rather like a tree:

Don’t relax yet, though. A single kanji typically has multiple associated sounds, and those sounds are often entirely different. This certainly does make learning them more complex.

For example, this easier-looking kanji with the simple meaning of “above” or “up” has a staggering amount of potential sounds.

This is not to mention that some kanji frankly look impossibly complicated at first glance. How are you supposed to learn this?

I won’t lie and say that kanji are easy to learn, but there is something you can do to make it much easier on yourself: learn radicals. Radicals are components frequently used within different kanji that have their own meanings.

Many people have found success studying kanji with Wanikani, which starts off with teaching radicals. This article also has a list of common radicals. 

Using radicals, we can break down that complicated kanji into parts that are much easier to manage, and even add up to make a coherent meaning. There are three full radicals, and two of those also have smaller units.

Do you now see the radicals within that larger kanji? Next we’ll combine them to discover the kanji’s meaning.

The “言” radical means it has something to do with talking—that’s simple. The other two are a bit trickier, but combine to mean sacrificing a sheep—either by using a spear, or for the sake of oneself. The historical purpose of that sacrifice gives the meaning—for justice or righteousness. In fact, there is another kanji “義” which means just that.

Now combining the “言” (talking) and “義” (righteousness), we have something like “talking about righteousness”. In what situation might you do that? The kanji “議” means “debate” or “consultation”.

Looking into the origin of a kanji gives you the clearest interpretation of the radicals, but many people also like to come up with their own creative interpretations. There are ways to make remembering kanji “easier”, and any strategy that helps you remember is a good one. However, if you are going to learn kanji, I don’t think there’s any way to make it “easy”.

Do I need to Learn Kanji?

Some people have asked, “Is it ok to not learn kanji?” The short answer is, surprisingly, “yes”. It depends on your goals.

If your focus is on speaking, then it’s true that you would never “need” kanji. While you’d think this means you don’t need to learn any Japanese characters, I would still highly recommend learning hiragana. This is so you can check the spelling and pronunciation of words more easily, as well as most resources (such as textbooks) require you to at least be able to read hiragana. 

Even if you’d like to read Japanese, there is native Japanese text that doesn’t require you to be able to read kanji! “Furigana” are hiragana characters placed near kanji to provide the pronunciation.

Furigana are commonly used in media aimed at ages 0-18. The manga magazine “Shounen Jump” (which features popular series such as: Naruto, Dragonball, One Piece, and Demon Slayer) prints all its series with furigana. The common usage of furigana means that there is plenty of material you can read without learning kanji.

Many people feel intimidated by kanji, and I understand. If that’s you, it’s fine to hold off on learning it and enjoying the things you can interact with before committing. 

In the long term, though, learning kanji is rewarding! You’ll be able to more freely navigate Japan and make educated guesses about new vocabulary. I can now appreciate those advantages, and it doesn’t feel so challenging anymore. For the people who are currently going through the arduous task of building up your kanji, I hope that’s an encouragement to you.

Kanji Explained

Grammar

There is a vast range in difficulty when it comes to Japanese grammar.

I would argue that making basic sentences in Japanese is often easier than in English. You don’t have to worry about subject-verb agreement (like using “am” vs. “are” vs. “is”) and generally don’t have to be as “precise” when communicating since so much is inferred. It is true, however, that Japanese grammar is almost entirely different from that of English, and for some people that will be a challenge. (Click below for more information about basic sentence structure in Japanese!)

A Japanese Grammar Primer

It is also true that almost everyone has a hard time with formal business Japanese—even many native Japanese speakers! This is because there are unique grammar rules, and even vocabulary, for this mode of Japanese. If you’re trying to learn up to “Professional Working Proficiency” (the standard of the US Department of State), I would agree that Japanese is one of the most difficult languages out there. But if you don’t think that’s necessary for your personal goals, that would likely knock off quite a few learning hours!

Asking Questions

Here’s an in-depth demonstration of one area in which Japanese grammar is simpler than English grammar: when asking questions. 

To ask a “yes/no question” in English, you’d start the sentence with a verb, such as “Do you”, “Have you”,  “Are you”, and “Is it”. For example, in English you would change the statement “You eat pizza” to the question “Do you eat pizza?” 

In Japanese, to change from a statement to a question you do not change the sentence structure at all! With formal Japanese, simply add the question particle “ka” to the end of a statement sentence to change it into a question. You can think of “ka” as acting like a question mark.

Formal Japanese examples:

We take the ability to create question sentences in English for granted, but for people learning English, the altered structure can be rather tricky. That’s unfortunate, because conversations are built on this ability. With Japanese, however, that’s not as big an issue!

An Easy to Understand Guide to Word Order in Japanese

Motivation

This is the most crucial component as to whether Japanese will be “hard” for you. I dedicated hundreds of hours to studying and certainly had to “work hard”, but because everything was related to something I enjoyed, learning Japanese did not feel “hard” to me personally.

There are many possible reasons you want to learn Japanese. Are you learning so you can travel in Japan? Are you learning so you can talk to Japanese-speaking family members? Are you learning because it’s related to a hobby? Or is learning foreign languages a hobby in itself?

Some of those motivations are more out of necessity, and some are more out of enjoyment. The best way to get a foreign language to stick is to maximize the sense of both. Since it was related to my hobbies, even without extra effort I frequently listened to Japanese and started absorbing words and phrases. When I lived in Japan, the language became a necessity in my daily life.

If you find that you’re struggling with learning Japanese or another language, reflect on your motivation. Maybe you’re only learning out of obligation, such as for school or work, so it’s not something you enjoy. And maybe—while you consciously tell yourself that you “need to learn Japanese”—because you don’t use the language in your daily life, your brain isn’t convinced that it is a “necessity”. Regardless of the reason, while it will take extra effort, you can overcome those barriers.

A Unique Advantage

There is also a unique advantage Japanese offers regarding motivation: Japanese people themselves tend to be very encouraging when people try to learn their language.

Japanese people typically have to study English at school, so they can empathize with your position. Not only that, but since they are often shy about speaking English, they are impressed when you have the confidence to say anything in Japanese! It’s an inside joke among Japanese learners that, after they’ve said a single word in Japanese, they’ll receive a “nihongo ga jouzu desu ne” (meaning “your Japanese is very good”).

A Huge List of Japanese Language Resources

Japanese people also tend to be more willing to “meet you at your level”. In my experience, people from more actively social cultures (like American culture) find it difficult to slow down their conversation speed. In that situation, a language learner may feel they’re unable to participate. While there are certainly exceptions, Japanese people are more likely to attempt to work around limitations and put in extra effort to allow communication. It’s encouraging to be on the receiving end of such treatment!

Don’t Give Up!

When learning a new language—or any other skill—there are always going to be aspects that either come naturally or are uniquely challenging to you. By working with a tutor, you can more clearly identify those aspects and get advice on how to overcome the difficulties.

What to Expect At Your First Japanese Lesson

You can find qualified Japanese tutors on Wyzant who would love to offer you personalized help and encouragement to reach your goals.

*featured image courtesy of FreePik

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