Why People Say Japanese Is Hard To Learn And Why They’re Wrong

Japanese can be a tough language to get into. Not because it’s a hard language to learn, necessarily, but because there are a bunch of mental barriers and misconceptions. Koichi’s talked a bit about this before, but there’s a bit of an elephant in the room: Japanese has a reputation for being hard to learn.

I can kind of understand why – Japanese can be scary to people. You have to learn all these brand new characters, grammatical structures and – oh God – there’s kanji. Nothing scares off a potential Japanese student like kanji.

Native English speakers instead like to learn Romance languages (Spanish French Italian) because they’re so similar to English in a lot of ways.

But I’m here to tell you that it’s all a bunch of crap. People tend to build up Japanese as an impossible language to learn but, in my experience, Japanese is straight-forward and easy to learn.

Let’s look at the nay-sayers and why they’re wrong.

Who Says It’s Difficult

Within the US government, there’s an organization called the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). It prepares US diplomats and other government officials for trips abroad by teaching them the language and culture.

The FSI has a ranking system for languages based on how difficult they are and how long they take for native English speakers to learn.

The FSI prepares US diplomats for foreign affairs

The easiest languages are our old buddies, the Romance languages: Spanish, French, and Italian, among others. Most of these languages are in the same language family as English.

And, according to the FSI, the hardest are Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.

The FSI can be pretty hard to argue against. After all, it has plenty of experience teaching languages, so presumably the FSI knows better than most.

But I think that the FSI isn’t giving Japanese a fair shake. There are lots of aspects of Japanese that are pretty simple and straight-forward, even for native English speakers.

Why Japanese Is Easy To Learn

Most people get hung up over a few specific aspects of Japanese while ignoring the nice and easy ones. When you look at Japanese compared to other languages, there are a lot of things about Japanese that are actually much easier.

Sounds

For one, Japanese phonology (the sounds that make up the language) is really simple. There are only five basic vowel sounds (most of which are common in other languages), and the consonants are pretty basic as well.

Compare that to English phonology. English phonology, especially the vowels, and much more complex than Japanese.

Another nice thing about Japanese is that it isn’t a tonal language. In a bunch of different languages, like Mandarin or Vietnamese, your meaning varies depending on your tone

In Japanese, the pitch of your voice does matter a bit, but it’s not nearly as pronounced as in tonal languages.

Grammar

Anybody who has tried to learn a Romance language knows that subjunctive tense will make you want to rip your hair out. What is subjunctive tense? Basically, it’s expressing a future desire.

In Japanese, it’s really, really easy to do. But in other languages, well…let’s just say that I’m a native English speaker and, to be honest, I don’t have a clue how subjunctive tense works in English.

And if you’ve studied Spanish or French at all, you know that in those languages, different nouns have different genders and need to be treated differently. El biblioteca is different from la biblioteca.

In Japanese, you don’t have to deal with any of this. At all. A chair isn’t male and a library isn’t female. You will never have to guess the gender of an inanimate object.

K-k-k-kanji!

Even kanji, the boogeyman of the Japanese language, is actually pretty easy. Technology has not only made it a lot easier to learn kanji (through spaced repetition systems), but a lot easier to read and write kanji too. You no longer have to memorize the stroke order of each kanji; now, you can just type it in!

Don’t fear the kanji!

And if you don’t know a kanji, it’s incredibly easy to look it up on a phone or electronic dictionary. Much nicer than lugging around a thick kanji dictionary.

Of course, it’s not easy to say that one language is objectively easier to learn than another. Language learning, generally, is a very subjective experience.

Don’t get me wrong – Japanese can definitely be a struggle for new learners. Different people learn differently, there’s no two ways about it.

But learning Japanese might not be as insurmountable a task as you think. Give it a shot – you may even find that Japanese is a breeze for you.

[Header image source.]

  • Kintaro_Mononoke

    Hmm actually. that falls under conditions and modal verbs, like : will, can, may, and shall.

  • bobballs

    I’m a beginner so don’t have much authority to what I say… however after a month of learning Japanese I think I’m actually better at it than I was after a month of learning other European languages.

    The verbs are crazy with european languages and I also find the pronunciation more difficult to understand often.

    With Japanese I find the words much easier to hear, and while trying to work out the structure of the sentence in my head takes time when speaking, trying to conjugate all the verbs correctly in other languages probably just took just as much.

    It seems scary, but if you just say, well, lots of other people have learned it, so it will happen, then just go out and speak and listen to it lots, you’ll also get good.

    A good point someone made somewhere is that immigrants learn Japanese really fast… the reason being that they don’t put Japanese on this pedestal, coming to learn it isn’t some fun or rewarding endeavor, but just they have to do it to live and work.

  • smackpony

    to be fair to all those talking about the FSI and it doesn’t know what it’s talking about (and not that I agree or disagree with it)….

    The FSI is just talking about time taken to reach general proficiency in writing and speaking, then puts Japanese in the highest category of 88 weeks at 12 hours a week.

    Now I think you could achieve general proficiency in the spoken language quite quickly, and I’m not saying the kanji are super hard, but would you not agree that to get a general proficiency in reading Japanese would probably take a year and a half (88 weeks) of only 6 hours studying a week (given that the other 6 hours might be spent speaking the language)?

    So it’s not saying the language is necessarily harder or easier, but just saying to achieve this all round proficiency would take longer. Which I agree with because of the writing system.

    Depends what a general proficiency is of course though, if it’s just same vague understanding then it would take less… though if it means something more, then I don’t think they’re figures are right for ‘easier’ languages like Italian, French and so on. As 24 weeks of 12 hours of study a week will allow you to get the jist of a newspaper article, but you won’t have any true command of what you read perhaps.

  • AntigalacticToast

    Any verb can be subjunctive, it’s just prefaced with the subjunctive form of the finite, most commonly ‘were.’ ‘If I were to open it. . .’ It’s actually really easy in English and I think most people’s problem with it is recognizing where to use it and not what to do.

    In fact, it’s not actually expected that you signal the subjunctive in conversation anymore. To some people it even sounds weird.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    “And if you don’t know a kanji, it’s incredibly easy to look it up on a phone or electronic dictionary.” Don’t think this is at all true unless you already know kanji!

  • Rubicon

    I’m a native Chinese speaker and have been telling people what this article is trying to say for a long time, except about Chinese! The grammar is not nearly as complex, but the writing scares people off. But people who say Japanese is hard surely have their reasons. The hardest part of learning German for me isn’t the grammar; it’s memorizing vocab. English is my primary language, and the Roman alphabets are second nature to me, yet I still find it hard. I can’t imagine how hard most people find learning something as complex as kanji. On the other hand, would being a native Chinesepeaker help my learning Japanese in any way?

  • Remus Visan

    I study Kanji now and I have to say WOW! amazing! I love it! before I was scared of kanji but now I think it’s the best thing there is.

  • Ed

    “You no longer have to memorize the stroke order of each kanji”

    That’s one of the easiest parts of kanji, and I don’t know why anybody makes a big deal out of it. Once you learn a few patterns, they’re all basically the same. Left to right, top to bottom, and so on. After a couple weeks, you won’t even think about it any more.

    You can show any Japanese speaker a rare and complex kanji they’ve never written, and I guarantee they’ll all write it with exactly the same stroke order. Once you know the rules, it’s easy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wonmanfactory Hoy Cheung

    Even Japanese are not sure how to speak Japanese “correctly”. No wonder Japanese is the most difficult to learn, just because it is not well “defined”.

    A couple days ago, I asked my girlfriend, how to say “I had 10 stitches.” Sounds simple, but,

    She couldn’t say which is the correct way to say it.

    Several suggestions were raised

    jyuhari, juppari, jippari

    but they all sound strange.

    If you can’t speak Japanese well and you feel because it’s so difficult, don’t bother with it. It’s not your problem.
    I think learning Japanese is like catching a fish with your bare hand. It’s difficult and slimy!

  • http://www.facebook.com/wonmanfactory Hoy Cheung

    Another reason Japanese is diffcult to learn.
    There is no convenient ‘you’ in Japanese. Your have to use “xyz san” when you refer to them. Remembering people’s name is the most difficult thing in the world, isn’t it? There is no work around way. You just have to remember their name for 10 years having not met them or ask their name although it’s very embarrassing. Or don’t ask a question.

  • Saikoujikan

    That’s not entirely true. First there’s the pronoun あなた (anata) which, although fairly familiar, is still safe enough to use on most situations. There’s also all the familial terms おばさん (obasan) おじさん (ojisan) which are the equivalent of “mam” and “sir” for people you don’t really know and aren’t in association with. These terms will depend on their age.

  • deboob

    Getveem jeezy

  • Hamsterdjuret

    Learning Japanese is not so hard, not even kanji. Anyone can be more or less literate and able to survive in a japanese speaking environment after 3-4 years of studying. However, going from theoretically advanced to actually having a good, perfectly free command of the language is extremely difficult in my opinion. I make mistakes in my second language English, but I can at least express my own thoughts and feelings in my own distinct way. Unfortunately I cannot say the same for my japanese abilities even though I read newspapers without much trouble. I also know enough Japanese to be able to say with confidence that the same applies to the majority of non-japanese. Even at an advanced level people tend to resort to a robust but limiting schoolbook-style language devoid of any real finesse or personality.

    I have yet to see a native indo-european language speaker, seemingly without effort, posting a long, spot on accurate, highly personal and entertaining comment to a japanese newspaper article. I dare say there aren’t many, not even people who have been speaking Japanese for decades, who could actually do this. This is where Japanese becomes difficult, but I agree, learning how to read and understand the language is relatively simple.

  • Ally

    I am just now beginning to learn Japanese myself, I want to go to Japan In high school as an exchange student, it is so far pretty easy. I’m beginning with the writing part, I have almost completed learning ひらがな, and next I’m going to do かたかな. It seems like it is easier to learn the writing first and then the speaking. I am bilingual, my native language is English, but I am just as fluent in Hebrew, I am just as fluent in Hebrew as I am in English. So I am pretty used to learning and memorizing symbols.

  • Evelynn

    This article is kind of BS

  • MisterM2402

    Care to explain?

    I’m guessing either:
    1. You’ve never even *tried* to learn the language.
    2. You’re currently learning (or have tried in the past) but are using / have used the wrong methods, making it harder than it ought to be.
    3. “BS” now means… “Bloody Super”? I’m not too sure about that one…

  • MrMackerel

    First of all, it’s rather silly to compare cat 4 languages and say which ones are the hardest. Silly and most of all subjective.

    Second, FSI creates these categories based on the experience of L1 English language speakers. FSI’s main job is to train intelligence officers and spies for the US gov. When they say Japanese is the most difficult, what they really say is that “for some reason, we have noticed that over the years, those learning Japanese tend to take the longest.”

    Finally, as a grad student of linguistics with 8 years xp in Japan and a Japanese wife, I’ve seen many people that struggle with Japanese, and a few that find it easy. The people that talk of Japanese being easy fall into two categories: 1) the vast majority don’t have a Japanese skill near as high as they think they do, and 2) the rest worked really hard to get to the good level of ability they’re at.

    Japanese is wonderfully deceptive. At the beginning levels, it is easy as all hell. Pronunciation and rudimentary grammar are easy to grasp. However, even those who have active knowledge of higher grammar tend to come across to native Japanese as childlike in their speech, or just plain coarse in the way they talk. The Japanese however are a very polite and forgiving culture, and will continue to encourage you and tell you how well you’re doing.

    When learning any language, you have to learn culture as well. Japanese is a class A example of this. You absolutely cannot learn good or proper Japanese without in-depth knowledge of the culture and their labyrinth of subtleties. It’s actually because of these myriad subtleties that some native Japanese feel that it’s a rare foreigner who really grasps the language.

    However, I am talking about learning the language well, really well, so that you can express yourself as you please in any topic. If you simply want to order food at a restaurant and/or say, “I like bananas. Do you?” Japanese will be a delightful break from the other languages that surround us.

  • Subjunctive

    Subjunctive is not a tense, but a mood, and each mood has its own tenses. Also, subjunctive is not used to express a future desires at all! I like your apology of Japanese (I language I am trying to learn myself), but I think you should learn a little bit more about subjunctive before lecturing about it.

  • http://twitter.com/ierika Erika Suzuki

    well, its quite common sense that a verb followed by a hiragana that ends with the vowel ‘u’ is supposed to be red in kun-yomi (Japanese reading). There are patterns to whether you have the read the word in kun-yomi (japanese reading) or on-yomi (chinese reading).
    I, however, find Japanese much easier to learn than spanish. Because Japanese has pattern that’s quite consistent. Spanish on the other hand is just a little unorganized.

  • http://twitter.com/ierika Erika Suzuki

    I still think Japanese is , in fact the easiest language to learn. I do not think of my Japanese skills as fluent enough, and I’m perfectly aware of what I still have to learn. I speak politely already, but there are far more out-of-this-world polite words in Japanese that I still haven’t learned yet. Just a little effort and time is needed.

    There many levels of politeness , for example: (these for me is the hardest thing to learn in the Japanese language)

    suru -> shimasu -> itashimasu -> sasete itadakimasu
    normal/casual -> proper/formal -> polite -> super polite

    The reason for that is, the pattern of the Japanese language are so carefully laid out. Thanks to them.

    Language school will just give you the foundation, the idea on how to handle verbs, nouns, kanji, polite words, etc. works. then…

    Apply for a job that requires interaction with locals, for example: restaurants etc… It’s a very effective way to learn, since making friends with shy Japanese is a little bit challenging.

    I did just that, and it paid off.

  • http://twitter.com/ierika Erika Suzuki

    I agree, Kanji is art that have meaning.

  • http://twitter.com/ierika Erika Suzuki

    This yellow haired woman or gay seems to be everywhere, lol.

  • IamLegend

    I think people often confuse “work” with “hard,” or that work is always hard. You have to put work into learning Japanese, but it doesn’t have to be hard work. Work smarter, not harder.

  • Silver Sabrewulf

    I think a lot of people generally tend to confuse ‘difficult’ and ‘time consuming’ when they talk about learning languages (or any skill, for that matter). Though Japanese grammar can feel very awkward at first to speakers of most Indo-European languages, it’s still fairly simple compared to, say, German.

    There’s no denying that learning thousands of kanji will take time and effort beyond what most languages require in order to be functionally literate (the Latin alphabet works just fine for most of the popular ones after all). I’m currently studying Japanese and I’ve learned around 300 or so kanji.

    I’m learning at a pace of 20 new kanji per week, and I take about 30 minutes a day in total. It’s nice because it doubles as vocabulary practice in many ways. It’s a pace I’ve set for myself and one that I can keep up really easily. But I make sure that, during those 30 minutes a day, I’m focused on what I’m doing. But with this pace there’s no stress involved and I’m having fun.

    A friend of mine learned the joyo kanji in 3 months. He also devoted several hours per day specifically to the study of kanji. I probably wouldn’t be able to muster up that level of dedication and motivation. Studying at that kind of intensity is pretty difficult. But he did it and was proud of his accomplishment (and rightfully so – I could not have done the same). He also had a motivation to do it as he got a job offer that pretty much required it.

    But I’m fairly confident that I’m having a lot more fun on my journey than he had on his. And mine’s probably easier than his, too. It just takes more time. And TRULY mastering a language and all its nuances is something that takes a lifetime anyway, because languages and their surrounding cultures are constantly changing. Doesn’t matter if it’s French, Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, Swahili or Inuktitut. Even once you’ve reached native-level fluency, you’ve STILL only scratched the surface.

  • i-i-c

    Calligraphy in ALL languages IS art, and it also has its own meaning.

    Not just in Japanese.

  • Iceman

    When languages are more “exotic”, they’re automatically deemed as more difficult. And one one lacks motivation, fluency is never likely to be achieved.

    Very few non-native French speakers can ever write an article with the same as a very educated French native. It’s a fact! But people learn to speak French fluently with a heavy accent and many grammatical mistakes. But guess what? They’re still speaking French very fluently. The same goes for Japanese.

    I only see Japanese as difficult in one area as compared to other languages: the writing system (Kanji takes to time to learn). I’m afraid that French and Russian as well as Spanish are much more difficult in grammar, even if Japanese has a few difficult aspects like particles, etc. And trust me: in French, many of those great cognate friends are really fake ones.

    I don’t agree with the FS1 (studying languages all my life). I think native English speakers have more motivation to learn European languages than Far-East languages. And some it is due to the exoticism as mentioned above. These two factors alone automatically make Japanese feel much harder to the non-native Westerner.

    Spoken language alone, Japanese is easier to pick up than Russian and French in many ways (pronunciation. grammar, etc.). But I do agree, once again, that the written language takes much more time in Japanese because of Kanji and cultural subtleties in the language that take time to suss out. Tough, they are subtleties in French, too, that non-natives don’t realize until being immersed for a while.

    It is indeed very possible for a native English speaker ot learn to read, write and speak Japanese like a native, but few really want to. Many learn French and Spanish fluently, but they never “master” it in the way an educated natives does: Why? Mainly the motivation isn’t there.

    (PS: I do agree that a very small minority of people are very gifted for learning languages; and when you combine this with big-time motivation, the person learns at an exponential rate.)

  • ~~~

    For me, Japanese is pretty easy, even though I’m nowhere near fluency. I think one major thing that made it easier for me was the fact that I didn’t have to re-learn kanji, because I’m Chinese and that aspect of Japanese wasn’t intimidating. I think the only thing for me is the grammar, and the particles, which I can never seem to get right. Also, listening comprehension is a huge issue for me…does anyone have any good suggestions? music? dramas? I took the N4 recently though, and so I think I have a very weak grasp of Japanese.

  • no

    This is ridiculas. Japanese is the most difficult language, with Chinese vying for that title. Kanji easy? try memorizing 2000 (minimum) unique complex characters (kanji is not an alphabet) with tens of thousands of permutations. There is a reason the West got rid of characters thousands of years ago. Even Japanese students are learning new kanji in high school.
    Japanese is a feudal language. The complexity of hierarchial point-of-view language is mammoth. I have studied for a few years and still don’t understand the difficulty involved, much less have conversational ability. What is the purpose of this article????

  • no

    I think FSI is flawed. For instance, look at the high ranking of English. Anyone familiar with ESL knows English is quite easy–at a basic conversational level. I assume the relatively high ranking of English, other than anti-Westernism, is a product of how hard it is to speak at a fluent graduate level. Even today, I still struggle with different grammar and syntax; however, while speaking English conversationally takes about 2 years of hard of study, Japanese could be years.

  • Saikou

    Where to begin… Firstly I’m confused by the sentence “The west got rid of characters thousands of years ago” because I wasn’t aware of western cultures using ideological characters, as most of our written language stems from Greek and Latin, both of which used alphabets. Unless you’re referring to Egyptian hieroglyphics, but they weren’t abolished, so much as was lost and found again. Also, south korea did not abandon Chinese characters, they use hangul along with chinese characters in many of their written communications including newspapers, novels, and text books.

    As for the characters themselves, I’m not entirely sure how you’re counting them, “2000 minimum” I assume refers to the jouyou kanji, the required number of kanji to be taught by high school level, but when you say “thousands of permutations” that’s just inaccurate. Perhaps you’re referring to the various onyomi and kunyomi that characters posses, but if that’s the case, calling them “thousands” of permutations is very much an exaggeration. Yes it requires memorisation but it’s not as difficult as you are making it out to be, in fact, kanji are rather logical once you get past the initial barrier of how unfamiliar it is.

    Now, let’s talk about the advantages. Once you have a couple kanji under your belt, the language really opens up to you, you can understand roughly what things are trying to tell you even without knowing the word. Example: Lets say you know 大 means “big” and 人 means “person”, now you come across the word 大人. You’ve never seen this word before, but you know it probably means “big person” and it does, the word is otona 「おとな」 and it means “adult”. Also, if you know the onyomi of a word, for the majority of situations you’ll also know how to pronounce new words. Say you know the onyomi of 学 is “gaku” (meaning study), and the on yomi of 大 is “dai” (meaning big). If you see the word 大学, then you can guess it means “daigaku” and you’d be right. This is also a good example of how kanji can be used to remember vocabulary. 大学 means university. You know Dai for big, and Gaku for study, so you now know that “big study” is university. This makes learning new words so much easier.

    One final thing, you might argue that 大人 is an example which breaks this, because its not the respective characters onyomi, which would be “daijin”. However, just like any language, there are exceptions, and the exceptions are usually in the more common words. This is true for English, and I believe it’s actually more the case for English than Japanese. Take the following examples:

    Eat, Feet, Receipt,

    bread, bead,

    only, one, on, own, bone,

    I read today, I read last night
    Wind your watch, feel the wind
    Close the door, Stay close to me

    With words like this, it’s a wonder any of us can speak this language, let alone explain it.

  • Andrew

    Hello there. I’m a 32 yo high school teacher.
    When you first start learning japanese it’s just a NIGHTMARE…then it gets progressively easier. The opposite happens with spanish. At first you might think it’s a breeze (like learning english, for instance), then it becomes HELLISH. I speak portuguese, spanish, english and japanese…and I dare say english is BY FAR the easiest language of the bunch, then japanese. Spanish is freaking HARD….and I’m really proficient at it.
    I’ve copied the chart for the verb “hacer”…one of the most common verbs and NOT the hardest. Have a blast learning spanish.

    PresentPreteritImperfectConditionalFutureyohagohicehacíaharíaharétúhaceshicistehacíasharíasharásél/ella/Ud.hacehizohacíaharíaharánosotroshacemoshicimoshacíamosharíamosharemosvosotroshacéishicisteishacíaisharíaisharéisellos/ellas/Uds.hacenhicieronhacíanharíanharán
    SubjunctivePresentImperfectImperfect 2Futureyohagahicierahiciesehicieretúhagashicierashicieseshicieresél/ella/Ud.hagahicierahiciesehicierenosotroshagamoshiciéramoshiciésemoshiciéremosvosotroshagáishicieraishicieseishiciereisellos/ellas/Uds.haganhicieranhiciesenhicieren
    ImperativeImperativeyo-túhazél/ella/Ud.haganosotroshagamosvosotroshacedellos/ellas/Uds.hagan
    PerfectPresentPreteritPastyohe hechohube hechohabía hechotúhas hechohubiste hechohabías hechoél/ella/Ud.ha hechohubo hechohabía hechonosotroshemos hechohubimos hechohabíamos hechovosotroshabéis hechohubisteis hechohabíais hechoellos/ellas/Uds.han hechohubieron hechohabían hechoConditionalFutureyohabría hechohabré hechotúhabrías hechohabrás hechoél/ella/Ud.habría hechohabrá hechonosotroshabríamos hechohabremos hechovosotroshabríais hechohabréis hechoellos/ellas/Uds.habrían hechohabrán hecho
    Perfect SubjunctivePresentPastFutureyohaya hechohubiera hechohubiere hechotúhayas hechohubieras hechohubieres hechoél/ella/Ud.haya hechohubiera hechohubiere hechonosotroshayamos hechohubiéramos hechohubiéremos hechovosotroshayáis hechohubierais hechohubiereis hechoellos/ellas/Uds.hayan hechohubieran hechohubieren hecho

  • atheist

    I learned decent Japanese in one year. I live here now in Japan where I work full time. I don’t find the language that difficult to learn. I learned Russian in the Army and it was quite difficult. I think that language was harder to learn than Japanese. Some languages are easier to learn with a “clean slate”.

  • Nathan

    This article was super interesting and engaging.

    Something that came to mind when you were talking about the roman languages, and gender differences and what not, is that it’s a lot easier than you’d think. I’m a native English speaker and I’ve learned Spanish fluently, over the course of several years (I live in Southern California). Even though technically you do have to know the gender of everything, you really don’t have to over think it too much. At first you might, but soon you’ll catch on that if the noun ends in an “e”, “o”, or a consonant it’s probably “El” (male) or if it ends with an “a” it’s probably “La” (female). That’s just talking about Spanish though.

    Having spent so much time studying Spanish and Japanese, Japanese is FOR SURE alot harder, but once you get in the swing of things and become familiar to the language, it GETS easy. And personally, I feel alot more proud of myself when I make strides in Japanese, than with Spanish. :P