Do you know what you are getting into?
This will not come as a surprise, but did you know that the Japanese language is rated as one of the hardest languages to learn for an English speaker? The Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State rates Japanese as a Category 3 language, which are “languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers,” the highest level of difficulty in their rating system.
A major misconception among English speakers is that the Japanese language is really difficult to learn. The Japanese language is tough to learn, but not because it is technically difficult to understand. The real reason Japanese is challenging is because of the sheer amount of time needed to learn the language. The goal of this article is to give you an accurate picture of what areas of Japanese are easy to learn and what areas are difficult and why.
Japanese Can Be Simpler Than Other Languages
Many elements of the Japanese language is much easier to learn compared to other languages. For example, Japanese pronunciation and spelling is much easier to learn than other languages, and Japan has incorporated many English words for katakana Japanese, so you get words you immediately understand.
If you make a mistake in the intonation in a tonal language like Chinese, Vietnamese, a person will have NO clue what you are trying to say because a different tone equals a different word. Japanese is not a tonal language and you can often get by without perfect pronunciation. There are words that have the same or similar pronunciation, but similar to English you can understand the difference based on context.
English Example : bat - animal vs bat - baseball bat
Japanese Example : hashi - bridge vs hashi - chopsticks
Another challenge with pronunciation is that there are pronunciation sounds that do not exist in English. Imagine trying to figure out how to hear a sound that does not exist in your own language. For Japanese people, they often cannot distinguish between the letter “b / v” and “r / l” because there is no “v” sound in the Japanese language and neither the English r or l sound exists in Japanese. English speakers cannot tell the difference between “tsu / tu” and pronouncing Japanese “r” can be challenging. Despite this, there are less than 10 sounds that you have to learn how to pronounce. This is a really small number and to be honest, you can get away with not having perfect pronunciation.
Japanese Grammar and Spelling
Japanese grammar is not a nightmare to learn. The grammar is just weird and unnatural for us because the verb comes at the end of the sentence and you have to use Japanese particles that do not exist in English. Among the particles, the one that is tough for English speakers is figure out who is doing and who is receiving, but once you get this down, you should be doing some smooth sailing. I personally feel most websites over exaggerate the challenge of learning particles because they never learned to read 2000+ kanji, which is the real beast.
Japanese spelling is a blessing because there is only one way to spell each word based on the sound. Learning spelling in English is a nightmare for non-English speakers because it is complete randomness and you have to memorize things without knowing the reason behind it. To see how illogical and a pain in the arse the English spelling is, guess how many ways there are to spell the name Jennifer. Japanese has some challenging sounds, but there are probably less than 10 combinations in the entire language. For example, whether the spelling of what you heard is “o vs ou” or “tsu vs su.”
Japanese Katakana Words
Japanese loan words are words that came from another language that was adopted into the Japanese language. The good news is that the amount of words being adopted is always increasing and lowering the amount of Japanese words you need to learn. Most business terminology outside of accounting is often based on English terminology. Here is a small list of the many katakana words adopted into Japanese.
- Trend - Torendo
- Talent - Talento
- Try - Torai
- Baseball - beisuboru
Here is a more expansive list of katakana words that you can use in your day to day conversations in Japanese. Now that you know how Japanese is easier to learn than other languages, let’s look at how learning Japanese is tougher than other languages.
We understand how difficult it can be to pronounce different katakana words, so we've thought ahead and created our Guide to Speaking Japanese to make learning a little bit easier!
Learning Japanese is time intensive
The real reason learning Japanese is tough and a majority of people give up is because it is a time intensive language. The Foreign Service Institute estimates the amount of time to learn Japanese to be around 2200 hours or 88 weeks of classes. I would consider this to be a generous evaluation because the other Category 3 languages like Arabic and Korean does not have even close the 2000 Japanese characters you would need to learn to be proficient in Japanese.
Learn to write or not to write Japanese
Based on personal experience, it takes a lot of time to learn how to write Japanese characters. If you want to learn how to write, you will have to invest more than 8x the amount of time needed to learn to read. I am able to read around 1800 Japanese characters, but outside of hiragana and katakana, I can only write around 20 kanji characters. I made one 50 hour attempt to learn to write, but I decided to quit because of the amount of time I had to invest now and in the future.
No one will disagree that being able to write Japanese as an English speaker is cool, but are you ready to make the investment to learn how to not only write the characters, but to continually write things by hand? Your brain will delete your memory of how to write things if you do not actively do it. The good news is that you can type Japanese characters in your computer nowadays, so as long as you know how to read Japanese, you can send emails and create documents in Japanese..
In case you need more help, check out our Guide to Learning Kanji.
Japanese grammar takes time to get used to
Learning the order of Japanese grammar will take time to get used to but if you use the language persistently, your understanding of sentence structures and the usage of Japanese particles (wa, ga, wo, ni, he, de) will definitely improve. You will have a hard time remembering what to use in what moment because the particles are not direct translations of their English equivalent.
For example, in some cases, the de participle refers to in, but in other situations it could mean “by way of” and so it is not as simple as a direct translation.
Difficult to maintain motivation in learning Japanese
You will find many foreigners who have lived in Japan for 5 years or more who do not even have a daily conversation ability of Japanese. In addition to the challenges of learning Japanese as a language, most people do not know that you can get by in Japan without speaking Japanese. You will need the help of a Japanese speaker for doing legal paperwork and making a bank account and other serious things, but day to day shopping and other simple tasks can all be done in English.
Learning Japanese will take 4 times longer than European languages
Japanese can be a challenge for both people who have learned another language and those who have not. As an English speaker, we are often required to learn a European language in high school and sometimes University. For those who struggled or did not succeed in learning a European based second language, I have bad news. Most European languages are rated as a category 1, which are the easiest languages to learn as an English speaker.
Category I : Languages closely related to English
- 575 - 600 hours of class time, which is around 24 weeks of taking lessons 15 hours a week + 10 hours of homework a week.
Japanese is a high context language
In addition to Japanese characters and grammar being time intensive, understanding the highly contextual nature of Japanese conversations will take you time to learn. If you come from a culture where ever says what they feel, a low context culture, you do not really need to think about what they are trying to communicate. However, in a high context culture, there are many things that are implied and you are expected to understand.
One example is how Japanese people do not say “No” often and come up with other ways to communicate that they are not interested. This often creates confusion and frustration because a foreigner wants a Japanese person to be direct and a Japanese person wants the foreigners to just get it. The good news is that foreigners often feel that Japanese people are good listeners. The main reason for this is that you really need to pay attention to the other person to understand the context.
Foreigners just want a Japanese person to be straight up with them and just be clear with want they want. A Japanese person wants a foreigner to stop being such a simpleton who needs to be spoon fed to understand the context of the situation. This difference between high context and low context cultures is a major reason for so much miscommunication from both sides. The book “the culture map” is a great place to learn more about the differences between these types of cultures and the many communication problems that arise from it.
Learning a "very foreign language" changes your viewpoint on life
Learning Japanese is really tough, but I have found learning Japanese to have been very rewarding. The main reason is that you become a more diverse and well-rounded person because you can see the world through two different lenses. It makes you realize that there are many angles and viewpoints at which to approach a situation and that behaviors that are considered ideal in one are not in another, and neither culture is right or wrong. Speaking only one language can make you more one dimensional and seeing the world with only one pair of dogmatic lenses.
Learning a language like Japanese, Chinese, or Arabic which are completely different from English and European languages can really broaden your viewpoint. Speaking multiple European languages can impact your personality and views, but not to the extent of deeply understanding a truly foreign language. Examples include concepts that you cannot describe in English because you cannot the words in English cannot convey that feeling.
We hope we were able to give you a good idea of what you are getting into when starting to learn the Japanese language. Learning the language will be tough but will also be rewarding at the same time. Do you think you will be able to maintain motivation and continue improving your Japanese?
If yes, we recommend checking out some of our many articles on how to learn Japanese.