The U.S. government’s Foreign Service Institute considers Japanese to be one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn, along with Cantonese, Arabic, Korean, and Mandarin.
Why is that?
Well, for starters, it has a completely different alphabet, opposite sentence structure, three separate writing systems, and a complex ranking of formality.
It is possible, though, to become fluent in Japanese.
Before you get started on your language learning journey, there are some things you should know to be better prepared for the studies that lie ahead.
Find out ten essential things to know about Japanese, and then keep reading to find out some tips to improve your linguistic success.
Is Japanese Hard To Learn? (10 Things To Know)
1. There Are Three Writing Systems
It’s difficult for us English speakers to fathom much more than one writing system, let alone three.
Whereas English has separate consonants and vowels, many of which have a variety of sounds, Japan uses phonetic alphabets that avoid this confusion between symbol and sound.
Hiragana and katakana are phonetic alphabets.
When children start to learn the language, they first learn Hiragana because it is the simplest.
Hiragana’s characters have more rounded shapes whereas katakana characters have more corners.
Thankfully, hiragana is the most used form of the language, and the easiest.
Katakana is used for words that are sounds like “wham” or “ring” and foreign words.
Kanji is the most difficult writing system to learn, even for native Japanese speakers, because it is entirely pictographic, much like Chinese.
The symbols are called mojis and represent a concept rather than a sound.
This means that each character can be read differently with varying pronunciations, even though the idea remains constant.
The number of mojis is unknown, but there are at least 2,136.
It is estimated that an adult should know at least 1,000 kanji characters to read proficiently.
Once you know some kanji, you will be able to learn other kanji through context.
For example, the kanji pronounced “ki” means to “to wear” and “mono” means “thing.”
Of course, when we put those together, it becomes kimono, or thing to wear.
If you know some kanji when you combine them, you can learn totally new kanji.
Some learners find katakana even harder to learn than kanji because it is so uncommon.
2. Japanese Is Read Vertically
This takes some getting used to.
In English, we read horizontally from right to left.
In Japanese, you would read vertically from right to left.
Though this is super different from what we are accustomed to in English.
Language learners report getting accustomed to this method of learning quickly.
If you can learn to compartmentalize the languages as two separate entities, you will not find yourself trying to read English vertically or Japanese horizontally.
3. Grammar Is Very Difficult
Japanese grammar is one of the biggest challenges English speakers face when learning Japanese.
In English, we go in order of subject-verb-object.
In Japanese, they use subject-object-verb order.
For example, “She swam in the pool” in English would be “She pool (in) swam” in Japanese.
That’s a simple sentence, so more complex ones with multiple clauses and tenses are even more difficult for native English speakers to master.
One relief, though, is that the grammar is consistent.
At least you know that verbs will always come at the end of the sentence.
English, on the other hand, has some wonky grammar rules and exceptions that make it really challenging for learners to grasp.
It is also important to note that there are fewer words needed.
In English, we like to use preposition words and articles like “the,” “a,” “to,” “with,” and more, but Japanese cuts right to the chase.
They cut out all these menial words if the meaning is understood without them.
4. Verbs Are Easy
Believe it or not, Japanese is easier than English in some regards.
Japanese speakers do not need to conjugate verbs very much, because there is no way to make them plural.
For example, we say, “I go” and “She goes” in English.
In Japanese, it would be “I go” and “She go” without changing the verb at all.
This means there is one less thing for English speakers to think about when trying to master Japanese.
The word in Japanese for eat (I eat, you eat, he/she eats, we eat, you all eat, and they eat) is “taberu.”
In Spanish, this would have six different conjugations.
There are different tenses and levels of formality to learn, but at least you do not have to worry about matching pronouns to the verb form.
5. There Are No Gender Differences In The Language
Language learners who have learned French, Spanish, or Italian are probably already familiar with the idea that words in other languages can be gendered.
It used to be the same in Japanese.
Since the world has become more progressive and gender-neutral, there has been a movement in Japanese culture to steer away from gendered vocabulary, which used to be a cornerstone of the language.
Though gender differences are not heard in everyday Japanese, it is still part of the ancient language and may be used among older generations.
Therefore, it is important to at least understand masculine and feminine sounds when learning Japanese.
Linguists describe the gender differences in Japanese by the way the words sound.
Feminine words are described as “gentle” and end in a “wa” sound and masculine words are “rough” and might end in a “ze” sound.
Nowadays, language centers are teaching a more gender-neutral lexicon.
This makes it easier for language learners, who do not have to worry about gendered nouns and matching articles, like they do in Spanish or other romance languages.
6. Politeness Is Integral To The Japanese Language
The Japanese tradition of honoring ancestors and treating others with respect is reflected in the language.
Politeness is called “keigo” and is like an exact science.
Since it is taught from a young age and very nuanced, many foreigners are given a “pass” if they do not speak with the correct formality to Japanese people.
However, if the impoliteness is perceived as intentional, it can create a horrible first impression on supervisors, coworkers, friends, and community members.
Humility is the foundation of keigo, in which the speaker implies a sense of inferiority to the listener.
To show respect to the listener, the endings of words may become longer.
For example, “desu” might become “desgozaimasu.”
Keigo is especially prominent in the relationship between customers and employees, in which employees are responsible for showing the utmost respect for their customers.
This might be difficult at first, but because keigo is used so often in the customer-employee relationship, many words and phrases will be repeated and become second nature to new speakers and listeners of Japanese.
Keigo can be broken into a three-part hierarchy: teneigo, sonkeigo, and kenjougo.
It is important to differentiate between these three systems, especially in business.
Teneigo is viewed as the easiest to learn because each verb is easily conjugated.
This is for when you are speaking to someone equal or “above” you in a social hierarchy.
Teneigo is the most popular keigo used in a business setting.
Sonkeigo is the most polite, formal form of Japanese.
It is used when low-ranking workers speak to or about high-ranking workers.
For example, if a warehouse worker spoke to the CEO of the company, he would use sonkeigo to demonstrate his workplace inferiority.
It is important to note that sonkeigo should never be used to talk about oneself, since it would be considered arrogant to hold yourself so highly.
Kenjougo is the most complicated form of keigo and, therefore, the most impressive.
If you can master kenjougo, you will be sure to surprise any native Japanese speaker.
Since Japanese is centered on humility, there is a very specific way to talk about yourself and your accomplishments to not seem too prideful.
When speaking in kenjougo, you lower yourself to an inferior stance when talking to others about previous personal milestones.
This level of formality does not usually come up in everyday conversation, but memorizing a few key phrases can go a long way in impressing people you communicate with in Japanese.
If you do not know which verb form to use, it is advised to err on the side of formality.
7. There Are Several Dialects
There are a lot of accents and vocabularies in Japanese, specific to different regions throughout the country.
The most popular dialect comes from Tokyo and is likely the one you will be taught.
It is called Kansai-ben for the region of Kansai, which contains Osaka and Kyoto.
Kansai-ben is a more colloquial dialect and has therefore become more popular in Japanese entertainment.
Osaka has become the comedy capital of Japan, so Kansai-ben is especially common in comedy routines.
Travelers in Japan should be warned that if they venture outside of Tokyo, they will probably find it hard to communicate and be understood.
The dialect they experience outside of Tokyo will likely be very different from Kansai-ben.
Some dialects, such as those in Okinawa and Hokkaido, incorporate vocabulary from Japan’s indigenous groups.
8. The More You Learn, The Harder It Gets
Don’t be discouraged, but a lot of learners say that the more Japanese you acquire, the more challenging it becomes to master the language.
This is because it quickly becomes clear that there is so much nuance to the language, especially regarding formality.
Even native Japanese speakers have a hard time understanding the language, when spoken in an unfamiliar dialect.
Whereas in English, we can read ancient texts and understand the gist of what is being said, Japanese people would need to study an entirely different vernacular to understand what their ancestors wrote.
9. Japanese Should Be Understood As Two Languages: Spoken Japanese And Written Japanese
Spoken Japanese reflects the language’s native heritage whereas written Japanese represents China’s influence on the language, especially in kanji.
While Japanese people take pride in their language, they are decidedly against China’s previous occupation of the country in which it forced Japan to adopt the character-based written language.
Writing Japanese is decidedly harder because of the varying writing systems.
Speaking Japanese, however, is simple once you know some basic phrases and vocabulary.
For example, if you want to make something a question, all you must do is add “ka” to the end of it.
Seems easy, right?
10. Sounds Are Simple
Japanese only includes five vowel sounds and thirteen consonants—way fewer than what English has.
English speakers are used to speaking in a monotonal way, and without many tricky phonemes or morphemes.
Even Spanish can be hard for native English speakers, when asked to “roll the r.”
Comparatively, Japanese is pretty easy to pronounce, with the hardest sound being “ryu.”
Unlike English, there are no blended sounds.
Tips For Learning To Speak Japanese
Japanese is notoriously one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn, but don’t be intimidated.
Though it is certainly a challenge, Japanese is also easier to learn other languages in some ways.
For example, there is no subjunctive tense, it is not tonal, and has simple sounds.
Technology has also made it easier to learn Japanese, since you no longer must memorize the stroke order and can simply type it in and the let computer do the rest! If you are stuck, and do not want to risk offending someone with the wrong level of formality, you can always look it up on Google Translate.
If you are aware of what you’re getting into and ready to immerse yourself, there is no doubt that you will succeed in achieving proficiency.
Here are some tips for improving your Japanese.
1. Immerse Yourself In The Language
The best way to learn Japanese is to truly become immersed in it.
The best way to do that, of course, is to travel to—or better yet, live in—Japan.
The more you spend time surrounded by the language, the more your ear will get used to it.
Before you know it, you will start recognizing sounds, words, and phrases.
If going to Japan is not in the budget right now, watching Japanese television with subtitles or listening to Japanese music are other great ways to train your ear in the language and encourage subconscious learning.
2. Associate The Sound With The Character
When learning hiragana and katakana writing systems (collectively called “kana”), it is important to learn to match the written component with the sound it makes.
Learning the character or sound in isolation would just make more work for you down the road.
One helpful way to do this is to find charts for hiragana and katakana, and practice writing as you say the sound aloud.
This way, your brain will start to associate certain symbols with the sounds.
3. Memorize Kanji
There’s simply no way around learning kanji—you just must memorize the words.
Some Google add-ons allow you to learn new Japanese words as you go along.
You could find a Japanese website that you find interesting, enable the site, and then look for words you do not know.
Write down the words in a notebook or document in separate categories, so that you can review the words and commit them to memory.
Write down the characters, in addition to the phonetic spelling and concept behind them.
Kanji is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of learning Japanese.
4. Put In The Time
The reason the Foreign Language Institute says Japanese is so hard is that it takes so much time to acquire proficiency.
It is structured completely differently from English, so it might take a few hours of sitting down with pen and paper to rewire your brain to reading vertical symbols rather than horizontal letters.
Even for people who are good with languages, Japanese is going to be a challenge.
That doesn’t mean you cannot do it.
You just need to commit yourself.
5. Go Easy On Yourself
No one said learning Japanese was easy.
Teach yourself the same way Japanese people teach their children.
Start with the simple hiragana phonetic alphabet.
It is the simplest and most common form of Japanese, so you will be sure to get yourself far by mastering that along.
The other forms: katakana and kanji, are important, too, but more for upper-level Japanese and impressing others.
The U.S. government estimates that it takes 88 intensive weeks, or 2,200 hours, to achieve fluency.
Of course, not everyone can devote 88 straight weeks to learning Japanese, so learn at your own pace.
Installing Duolingo or becoming friends with Japanese people are great ways to increase your familiarity with the language.
Though it is possible to get by in big cities with little knowledge of Japanese, you will be missing out on a lot of history and culture.
Communication with people is part of what makes the country so great, and a lot of older citizens do not know any English.
If you want to truly understand Japanese culture and history, you’ll have to commit yourself to learning the language.
There are several movements to make Japanese easier to learn and understand, the most popular being yasahii Nihongo, translated to “easy Japanese,” which encourages the language to move away from complexity and towards accessibility.
The Japanese language is constantly growing and changing.
Though it is ranked as one of the most difficult to learn, it is far from impossible.
Armed with this knowledge and these tips, you are sure to succeed.