So, how difficult is Japanese to learn? Well, that’s a great question! I’m glad you asked. And it’s a question I get asked a lot, perhaps partly due to the mass of confusing information on the internet on this question.
On the one hand, there are a lot of blogs with similar titles such as “10 reasons Japanese is way easier than you think”. On the other, there are more scholarly research papers that put Japanese up there with Mandarin, Cantonese Arabic and Korean in terms of difficulty.
And then there’s the question of how do you define “difficult”? And who is it difficult for? And…I understand if your head is starting to hurt now.
But fear not my friends, as someone who has lived in Japan for 20 years and uses Japanese on a daily basis, perhaps I can offer some personal anecdotes and experience to help answer this question.
But before that…
What kind of language is Japanese? Is it similar to anything else?
Short Answer: Japanese is sort of unique…ish…
Japanese is an exotic colourful bird out there in the menagerie of world languages. It’s part of the Japanese-Ryukaan linguistic group, Japanese being the only branch in this family and is spoken by 130 million people. It has a similar grammar structure to Korean and adopts Chinese kanji characters into the writing system.
It’s not as widely spoken as English and doesn’t have as many speakers as Mandarin, but 130 million speakers is a fair amount of people.
One of the features of Japanese is the written language which has 3 main scripts. They are Hiragana, the basic syllabary, Katakana, used for foreign words and kanji, pictographs imported from China. It’s also quite common to see romaji or roman letters used in magazines, posters and books so things can get a little confusing at times for a student new to Japanese.
So with the exception of Chinese kanji and the increasing mass of Katakana words, Japanese isn’t that similar to other languages.
Yes, but is Japanese difficult? First of all we have to ask…
What is a “difficult” language?
Short answer: A language that takes a long time to learn and/or is very different from your mother tongue…with exceptions…
One way, but not the only way, to define a “difficult” language is to look at how different it is from your own mother tongue. For example, learning Spanish is supposedly easy for an Italian speakers as both languages are quite similar in grammar and vocabulary. They also have a common Latin root. On the other hand, it would take a French speaker a longer time to get to the same level of proficiency with Cantonese as both languages are almost completely unrelated.
The Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State has released a list of languages ordered in difficulty for native English speakers. They calculate the estimated number of hours you would have to study to get to an “S3” level which is “general professional proficiency in speaking”. For example, they calculate it takes an English speaker about 500 hours to learn Afrikaans, 750 hours to learn German and 900 hours to learn Swahili to comparable levels of proficiency.
So guess where Japanese falls on the scale? That’s right, 2200 hours right up there with Arabic and Mandarin.
The idea is that because basic Japanese grammar and vocabulary is so unrelated to English, it’s going to take your average English speaker really long time to get their head around it.
It’s interesting that Korean, Chinese and Japanese are grouped together. If you’ve ever been to a Japanese Language Proficiency Test center in Japan, it’s not uncommon to see a lot of Chinese and Korean students beating their Western counterparts hands down on the test.
Korean and Japanese grammar is quite similar and Japanese contains a lot of Chinese kanji characters. So, you can see how our Chinese and Korean friends often get a good head start on learning Japanese.
But here’s where this theory breaks down a little: I personally felt that French was way harder to learn than Japanese. That’s probably because:
a) I didn’t pay attention in French class at school and made my poor teacher’s life hell…excuse moi.
b) I found French confusing because when I didn’t know a word, I’d just use an English word with French pronunciation. This worked most of the time for words like “international” but at other times it left my poor suffering French friends confused, laughing hysterically or sometimes so angry, they wouldn’t give me another slice of pain au chocolat.
c) I’m just a weirdo
So “difficulty” can be a little tricky to define and we haven’t even talked about other factors such as motivation and hours of exposure to the language.
But for now, let’s break Japanese down into it’s component parts and see how hard speaking, grammar, listening and writing are and how they compare to other languages, at least in my experience.
How difficult is speaking Japanese?
Short answer: Pronunciation is straightforward and basic conversation isn’t too challenging.
Let’s start off with pronunciation. The great thing about Japanese is you can get away with imperfect pronunciation and still make yourself understood to some degree. On the other hand, you have tonal languages such as Thai, Cantonese and Mandarin which are notoriously hard for English speakers to pronounce accurate. A shout out to my Cantonese friends who suffered the indignity of my murdering their beautiful language as they tried to teach me a few simple phrases in vain. But at least they had someone to laugh at so I’m sure it wasn’t all that bad.
Japanese pronunciation requires you to only learn 5 vowel sounds: a, i, u, e o as in the often quoted sentence “Please pass me two egg rolls”. Learn those vowel sounds and you’re done. Although it is never mentioned that this mnemonic works best with an American accent rather than a British one.
As for basic conversation, I would argue it’s pretty simple. This is because in my experience, elementary Japanese grammar is somewhat logical. Also, Japanese is fantastic because there is a list of high frequency daily set phrases that can be used in a lot of situations. Just learn a list of them and you’re well on your way to mastering elementary conversation.
1) おはようございます– ohayou gozaimasu – Good morning
2) お疲れさま – otsukaresama – Thanks for your hard work / Well done / Nice job
3) よろしくお願いします – Please do something for me / Nice to meet you
4) いつもお世話になります – Thanks for your continued support
This doesn’t translate easily into English but is used a lot at the beginning of a polite business conversations.
5) ありがとうございます – arigatou gozaimasu – Thanks
6) すみません – sumimasen – I’m sorry
(Apologizing is one of the most important skills you can learn in Japanese. Read more about how to apologizing in Japanese here. )
Speaking really fluently and sounding like a native is hard, but that is true for any language. So basic conversation, I think, isn’t too difficult.
How difficult is reading and writing Japanese?
Short answer: It’s a tough slog but not necessarily rocket science
As mentioned before, you have 3 scripts in Japanese. Hiragana has 46 basic characters and Katakana a few more than that. However, the main beast to slay is kanji which includes thousands upon thousands of characters. To read 90% of a newspaper you would need to know around 1000 kanji.
But learning Hiragana, Katakana and kanji has become a little easier with mobile apps, games and websites.
There are a few rules to remember but again, it’s not astrophysics. If you have the motivation, time and a big stack of kanji cards to practice with you can do it. But I won’t lie, it’s a long battle. I used to be a weird kanji nerd all those years ago in college which definitely helped.
Is listening comprehension in Japanese difficult?
Short answer: It depends but understanding basic conversation isn’t too challenging
If you can get plenty of listening practice though either listening to Japanese music, news, online videos, or best through conversation, you’ll start to notice that basic Japanese conversation uses repeating patterns of grammar and daily set phrases. Also, as Japanese people can sometimes be a little minimal when speaking so listening comprehension, at least at an elementary level, isn’t too challenging.
If you watch TV, you’ll notice that some things are easier to understand such as the weather forecast and TV dramas as a lot of the language used is repeated on a daily or weekly basis.
Again, compared to tonal languages such as Thai and Cantonese, Japanese is easier to comprehend as tones are much less important.
Of course it’s not all easy especially if you are listening to high level native conversation. Turn over to a Manzai show (stand up comedy)on TV and you’ll be completely lost due to the in-jokes and culturally specific topics they talk about.
How difficult is Japanese grammar?
Short answer: It’s different but somewhat logical
I won’t get too bogged down in grammar here but there are a few things to learn about Japanese grammar.
1) Speak like Yoda: The verb at the end of the sentence you put.
東京に行きました Tokyo ni ikimashita Lit. Tokyo to went
(someone) went to Tokyo.
2) Verb endings follow easy patterns
There are a few exceptions but there are learnable patterns to conjugate verbs. For example:
食べる – Taberu – I eat
食べた – Tabeta – I ate
食べない – Tabenai – I don’t/won’t eat
食べなかった – Tabenakatta – I didn’t eat
You’ll notice the stem of the verb 食べ tabe- doesn’t change unlike other European languages. There are a few exceptions to this but not that many
3) You have to conjugate adjectives BUT they are very similar to verbs
So once you have learned some basic verb conjugations, it’s almost the same rules for adjectives:
美味しい – oishii – delicious (present)
美味しかった – oishikatta – was delicious
美味しくない – oishikunai – isn’t delicious
美味しくなかった – oishikunakatta – wasn’t delicious
As you can see, the pattern is very similar to verb conjugation.
4) There is no future tense
Hooray! That will make you happy!
5) The verb and subject don’t have to agree as in many European languages
私は東京に行きます– watashi wa Tokyo ni ikimasu
I go to Tokyo
田中さんは東京に行きます– Tanaka san wa Tokyo ni ikimasu
Tanaka san goes to Tokyo.
See? Just use the same verb regardless of the subject! Yeah!
6) You can leave out the subject and even the object of the sentence if the meaning is obvious to the listener
Hooray! Oh wait, boo! That can make things vague and a little unclear.
So, on balance, although Japanese grammar is quite different to English grammar, once you master the rules, it’s really not that hard. Koreans apparently have a really easy time learning Japanese as the grammar is so similar.
What else is difficult about Japanese?
Vagueness in Japanese
Honestly, apart from the writing system, I never really struggled that hard with Japanese. But if there is one thing that leaves me utterly confused, it’s the vagueness.
Japanese people tend not to speak too directly as it can be seen as slightly rude or aggressive. Also, Japanese is a very high context language. That means the basic information you need to understand something is not just contained in the sentence, it should be obvious from the situation. For example you could say:
昨日のパーティーは楽しかったです – kino no paati wa tanoshikata desu
The party yesterday was fun.
But if the topic of conversation is obvious to both parties then you could just shorten it to:
楽しかった – tanoshikatta
(It) was fun
Argh! There’s no subject or even an object. Something, was fun, that’s it. It’s great for quick shorthand communication but if you walk in on a conversation mid-flow or weren’t paying attention you will get lost. Therefore you have to be quite attuned to the situation around you. It’s not even the kanji or the exotic vocabulary that I found most challenging about Japanese. For me, it was trying to understand the vagueness.
Levels of politeness in Japanese
This deserves it’s own blog post, or book, or perhaps an entire library. Suffice it to say, the Japanese language has many levels of politeness that uses distinct vocabulary and grammar. Here’s an example of various ways to ask someone if they want to eat:
ご一緒にお食事に行きませんか goissho ni oshokuji ni ikimasen ka – Would you like to eat with me (very polite)
食べませんか tabemasen ka – Won’t you eat? (polite)
食べる？taberu – You wanna eat? (Casual)
飯食う？meshi kuu – You eating? (Very familiar usually between men)
So, it’s not only hard to learn all this different vocabulary but also know when to use it in the appropriate situation. But don’t give up in despair. You’re not alone, I’m regularly told by Japanese people they find it hard too.
So is Japanese difficult?!
To summarise I would say that, speaking elementary Japanese is pretty easy and the grammar, albeit with a few exceptions, is not too challenging. Koreans will find Japanese grammar easy to learn.
Reading and writing are very challenging but not necessarily complex. You’ve just got to put in the time to learn the kanji but apps and online courses can help. Of course Chinese people get a head start on kanji.
Cultural understanding and modes of communication in Japanese including vagueness and levels of politeness are perhaps the most difficult thing to master for the intermediate and advanced student of Japanese.
I also think that the degree to which Japanese is different to other languages may not be such a big factor in how difficult it is to learn because, without being too obvious or trite…
Learning Japanese is all about motivation
There, I said it. I know it’s cheesy but like most things in life, if you love it and want to do it, you will find a way achieve it. Added to that, everyone learns language differently so there is no one single method or single best practice that I could prescribe for learning Japanese. If you are highly motivated to learn, the whole process of studying Japanese becomes more enjoyable. In this way, even though Japanese might be very different from English might not matter anymore.
So although asking if Japanese is hard to learn is a great question, it’s also very helpful to ask yourself things like:
Why do I want to study Japanese?
What goal will I achieve if I study Japanese?
Thanks for reading and please leave your comments and questions below. Are you studying Japanese now? What do YOU find difficult about studying Japanese?