Is Japanese Hard to Learn?

Published November 14th, 2022

The Foreign Service Institute published a map of the world indicating which are the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. Guess which language was listed as a "Category V" or "exceptionally difficult for native English-speakers"?

You guessed it, Japanese.

With an opposite sentence structure than English, three distinct writing methods, and a whole hierarchy of "politeness," it's no wonder some are daunted by the task of learning. But is Japanese hard to learn, really?

Despite these challenges, learning a language is a uniquely valuable accomplishment. For those willing to put in the time, learning Japanese doesn't have to be daunting. Here are several keys to making Japanese easy to learn.

Is Japanese Hard to Learn?

The answer for native English-speakers is simple: yes. However, it is not as difficult as some make it out to be.

With the right tools, expectations, and education, (plus lots of practice), this foreign language can become like second nature.

Typically, the most effective and efficient way to learn proper Japanese is through immersion.

Perhaps you've wondered why Mormon missionaries from Utah seem to pick up on complex languages like Japanese within a matter of 6-9 weeks. The tactic of immersion into a culture and language forces you to learn and also introduces you to colloquialisms that would be difficult to understand otherwise.

Having a community of people who are native speakers is another vital resource. You will benefit from a place to ask questions, gain correction, and practice speaking with those who are fluent.

You can even access Japanese language groups for individuals looking to hone their skills or help others develop their own Japanese-speaking abilities.

Writing in Japanese

The question of "how hard is it to learn Japanese" depends on your perspective. Understanding what it entails makes it less intimidating.

The Japanese language has three writing systems. These are kanji, katakana, and hiragana. If you're a native English-speaker, you may have found it frustrating as a child to learn that your own alphabet sometimes treated vowels with special rules and even forced you to pronounce certain letters differently at different times.

There's none of that with Japanese. One of the perks of learning Japanese is that hiragana and katakana are both phonetic alphabets. This means you only have to learn one way to write and pronounce each "letter".

Also unique to the Japanese language is how the writing is read. Very unlike English, Japanese is read vertically from right to left.

Writing in Kanji

Is it hard to learn Japanese? Not completely. Kanji is one of the more difficult aspects but can still be overcome.

Kanji is unique among the Japanese writing systems. It is pictographic. Every moji represents a specific concept instead of a sound. (Now you know where the word "emoji" comes from).

As an example, in kanji, the moji "", represents one. However, there are several different ways to pronounce or read this moji.

There are over 2,000 kanji commonly used and adults generally know closer to 3,000 to be able to read properly. True students of Japanese will want to take the time to learn as much kanji as possible. It may not be necessary for short visits to Japan, but to read and speak fluently, it is essential.

If you can conquer the memorization needed to grasp kanji, you will have overcome one of the biggest hurdles to learning this beautiful language.

Writing in Hiragana and Katakana

Hiragana is the foundation alphabet for Japanese. It is the alphabet most Japanese children learn first. However, both hiragana and katakana are more properly thought of as syllabaries instead of actual alphabets.

The hiragana symbols are more rounded and soft-looking than the katakana counterpart. While both are very similar, katakana is more often used to give an added emphasis to certain words. It is also commonly used to refer to foreign words or ideas.

Perhaps the most effective way to memorize the two (and keep them separated in your mind), is to get a chart indicating each symbol and its pronunciation.

You can practice recognizing the hiragana vs. katakana symbol for each "letter." It may take as little as a week to memorize these two syllabaries. Compared to kanji, they are quite simple.

Understanding Gender in Language

Similar to many of the romantic languages such as French or Spanish, Japanese has distinct gender differences in language. The Japanese language refers to different nouns as either male or female. This is often related to the language emphasis on politeness as we will describe later on.

Some linguists differentiate between the male and female words by referring to the female (ending with a "wa" sound), as "gentle" sounds. The male tend to have a harder ending (with a "ze" sound).

As in learning any other language, knowing which words are "male" or "female" is really a matter of memorization. A Japanese dictionary can help you. Fortunately for new learners of Japanese, the tendency to use gender in speech is becoming less common in many large cities.

Many Japanese schools are even teaching gender-neutral words now, so you are less likely to offend if you use these termsespecially as a foreigner.

"Manners Matter"

If you know even a small bit about the Japanese culture, you realize the heavy importance on politeness and respect. This ideal relates to more than people's interactions with one another. It is essential in speech as well. The term "keigo" is used to refer to respectful language.

Keigo is often used when speaking to teachers, elders, powerful individuals, customers, employers, and others. It is a way to show respect, deference, and honor to those in a position of authority.

Most Japanese will excuse foreigners who may breach the rules of politeness. However, to make strong impressions and positive connections, you need to understand the cultural value of keigo. Use the honorifics.

For example, when speaking with someone else, it is more appropriate to humble oneself. Elevating the person listening to you is deemed polite. It is the idea of putting others before self.

The values of hospitality and "the customer is always right," are important in Japanese culture.

Keigo is also especially important in business settings and may require special Japanese lessons to understand. You should also become familiar with the different forms of business keigo.

They include: sonkeigo, kenjougo, and teineigo.

Having a resource to practice business keigo with a native speaker will accelerate your learning. The more you hear and use honorifics in their proper setting, the more natural your speech will become.

Learning Japanese Grammar

Japanese grammar is not intimidating. Most of what you are learning is how to conjugate verbs.

There are very few exceptions in Japanese grammar. Unlike the far more confusing English conjugations, Japanese has very rare exceptions to the rules and can be easily memorized.

Again, practicing with native speakers is one of the best ways to learn conjugations and proper grammar. This can also be learned well through online forums where you can see proper writing.

Another great method to learn all the conjugations is by studying with Japanese language textbooks or with a native speaker or tutor.

How hard is Japanese to learn? It also depends on which dialect you are learning. Keep in mind that there are various Japanese dialects. Each different dialect may use slightly different grammar or verbs.

While most of these dialects are spoken in smaller cities or towns, you should still familiarize yourself with some if you plan to visit Japan. Learning a specific dialect may be easiest by joining a group of native speakers and practicing with them.

Doing so will help you hear which part of the words to add emphasis to. You may benefit from listening to Japanese media. Television, audiobooks, radio, all are great tools for hearing the right intonation of speech.

The most common, or standard, Japanese dialect is hyoujungo. This is often used in Japanese media and catching on to conjugations can be quite simple the more you listen.

You are more likely to hear hyoujungo in larger cities like Tokyo as well.

Start Learning Japanese Today!

So, is Japanese hard to learn? The truth is, with the right tools and mindset, anyone can learn Japanese!

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