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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.]

  • Giraffe

    Great article! I’ve always thought that, in general, Japanese is stupidly simple to grasp in the early stages. It’s when you get to the higher intermediate level where things get rough.
    Just one thing! I didn’t know it until I looked it up myself recently, but subjunctive isn’t even a tense—it’s a mood. And mood is… well, that’s an even more complicated story.Long story short, it’s almost criminally easy to get pretty decent at Japanese. Like anything, it’s easy to get good at it, but difficult to master.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I am a fan of puppies.

  • longtimereadersecondtimeposter

    What’s that kanji in the header image?

  • ZXNova

    I think when the FSI was classifying how easy a language is, I think they were classifying how easy it was to learn Japanese (and other languages) when your first language was English. If you consider that way, yeah, Japanese may be more difficult than others. But if a person were to learn, lets say Arabic to Japanese, it maybe be easier for them then it is to learn Arabic to English. So it really all depends on what your first language was. But the FSI should really try to classify how hard it is to learn [insert name] language as a first language to make it more accurate. Japanese is actually easy really. The vowels are primarily the easiest part, no changes at all. Unlike English were the “E” in Ethernet is different from the “E” in eat. The ”あ” in 青森(あおもり) is the same as the ”あ” in 明るい(あかるい).

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     It’s やさしい/yasashii/easy!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Whoops, just goes to show how much I understand the subjunctive. :x

  • mameshibaburrito

    Its very interesting article, and I agree with some points except to the surrealistic part where kanji is described as “pretty easy” I¨m studying japanese now for the third year, and the most difficult part we have in class is defenitly remembering the kanjis ;;;___;;; 

  • Wutlocke

    易しい=やさしい=yasashii = easy

  • Joseph Goforth

     puppies and kittens should be added to all learning materials.  you’ll be too cute overloaded to get frustrated at the difficulty level. :P

  • Treentje

    I just had a great laugh looking at those scales, dutch is considered within the easiest languages while is has more vowels than cantonese! That list needs some serieus updates…

  • Kenichikarasu

    I learn Arabic and japanese and japanese is waaaaay too easy compared to arabic

  • Joseph Goforth

    i wonder how much that ‘difficult to learn for english natives’ list is influenced by the simultaneous need for more diplomats that speak said languags (plus probably persian/farsi, etc).  most of that list is high demand in military and diplomatic circles.

  • longtimereadersecondtimeposter

    Thanks, great article by the way.

  • Joe

     Do you get dizzy and bark?

  • Michael

    It’s funny how on the front page of textfugu.com it says in big, bold letters: “LEARN JAPANESE THE HARD WAY”.  It’s almost as if you’re saying “Japanese isn’t hard, but you can pay us to MAKE it hard! :D”.  Wait, that didn’t sound right…

  • Madbeanman

    This is gonna sound really weird Hashi but are you at all Irish? From the way you write it seems like you have Irish heritage. I’d explain but it might make me sound even more crazy than this assumption is in the first place. :D

  • Hatt0ri

     That’s what “Remembering The Kanji” book is for :)

  • Eri

    Anyone who thinks Japanese is hard obviously hasn’t been studying it for very long, or at all. I almost never make mistakes in grammar (though those particles get me sometimes… haha…). Honestly, my only problem is I suck at memorising vocab, which is why I don’t even try to memorise by rote memory and use things like SRS and simply looking at the word many, many times in different contexts. Any language is hard to learn if you learn it wrong or in a way that just doesn’t work for you.

  • fvenegas

    I don’t even classify it in the hard or easy categories any longer. “I have a son and raising him is hard!” I do, have a son, but that statement is bogus, why? Well Japanese, like raising my son, is an experience. My son pisses me off at times but I’m not going to abandon him because of one or a few bad moments. Think of Japanese in the same way. It’s a learning experience. You’re going to fall, you’re going to get up. But just keep at it… ALL THE TIME! It will be almost impossible for you to not learn it, or any language, if you dedicate time to it. When TextFugu says “even 15-30 minutes a day…” they’re not kidding. Time is on your side, it will add up. 30mins a day + SRS for review x 365 = (you do the math).

    They key really is just plain ol’ consistency. It seems so simple but dedication makes all the difference.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thank you!

  • Airious24

    I personally think why Japanese is considered so difficult compared to other languages for the FSI, is that it is a lot harder to completely master. The jump from intermediate/advanced knowledge to a complete mastery is an intense climb, IMO. Although I completely agree that compared to romance languages getting to an intermediate level of knowledge in Japanese is waaay easier.

  • fvenegas

    haha!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I am, actually! My grandpa was an Irish immigrant. What made you say that?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     AAAAHHH COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

  • Pinkie Pie

    Pedant time. The subjunctive is not a tense, its a mood. You can have past, present, and future subjunctive

  • P. G.

    i thought chair was also female, i learn something new today :)

  • http://twitter.com/WackoMcGoose Kimura Okagawa

    For me at least, Japanese is actually the EASIER of the Common Four (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese). Chinese is nothing but kanji (sorry, I mean hanzi) and tones. Korean’s probably the easiest to write, but there’s no cues to the meaning of an unknown word like with kanji. Vietnamese… I really don’t know. Writing-wise, it looks like English letters with enough accent marks to make the French confused. But pronounciation… holy netherrack. Not only do you have to ignore your instincts to read it like English (“pho” is pronounced “fuh”, not “foe”; thank you Man Vs Food for teaching me THAT one), but it sounds just as tone-based as Chinese.
    Japanese, on the other hand, has the benefits of NOT being tone-based, NOT resembling English (and therefore causing pronounciation predisposition), and kanji actually HELP you understand it more easily.

    And if you want to try learning several of them, Japanese is as good a starting point as any. The pronouncation will help you in the early stages of Korean, the kanji will help with Chinese (though the meanings can be EXTREMELY different), and if you’re able to springboard from Japanese to Chinese, having experience in tones will hopefully help with Vietnamese.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Yeah.. Vietnamese is very tonal. Five to six tones depending on the dialect. I think Mandarin Chinese consists of only four tones. But like you’ve pointed out, the accent marks are there to help you out with pronunciation :)

  • Sharo93

    Great article… I just had an Arabic exam because I live in Iraq and to tell you the truth it has the most difficult grammar in the world…just for the same of example on what is female and what is male…the male and female reproductive organs have opposite gender like male’s organ is female and vice versa…at least that is what my teacher told me…believe me Japanese is easy way easier than most languages …but you got to admit Kanji is a little hard….not that much but hard

  • Yessica García

    I don’t think japanese is complicated, for saying that Spanish is “easy” or “easier” than japanese is crazy! for english you have TOELF and for japanese NOKEN spanish has so many things to consider that we don’t even have a standardize test to measure it… there is even a study that says that spanish speakers don’t even use 10% of the language… yeah kanji is horrible but “to talk” japanese rather than read or write is quite easy. sorry I ramble XD but i liked the article! you have a great point there =) sorry for my horrible english, i misspell everything because the sounds in english (to me) don’t match with the way you write them XD (weird crazy me)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1550596562 Alexa VanDemark

    This is a really good article, and I really think it’s got a lot of truth to it. Most of the time when I tell people I’m majoring in Japanese, they say, “That’s so difficult!” when I’m really having an easier time with it than I did with Spanish. 

  • Larry

    It is really essential for a student of the Japanese language to become familar with Japanese culture. Just knowing words and grammar is not enough

  • Fi

    I’m currently learning both Japanese and Irish, and I have to say, I think learning Japanese is easier than Irish! I don’t necessarily think Japanese is really difficult.

  • X7995

    It is female

  • Joyfie

     Your drunk.

  • Catherine44123

    Great article ^-^,In my opinion out of the languages I’ve studied, Japanese is the easiest, (German was pretty simple, French was annoying).

    **PS: It’s not that el biblioteca and la biblioteca are different it’s just that la biblioteca is right and el biblioteca is wrong because biblioteca is a female word.

  • Alejandro

    To be honest, I never knew squat about English grammar (not my first language btw) UNTIL I learned Japanese ahahaha!  I think that as you keep studying Japanese sincerely, you will find that it actually is a breeze compared to English and Romance languages. Im a native Spanish speaker. When I learned Italian, I relied HEAVILY on Spanish because I did not have a clue what the heck the professor was talking about when it came to those pesky grammar things. In fact, Japanese helped me to understand those grammar things even more.

  • linguarum

    You make some good points. I think someone already noted that written Japanese is a different thing from spoken Japanese. (Linguists usually study spoken languages, treating the written language separately. And some languages don’t even have a written form.)
    When it comes to speaking Japanese, I’d say it’s about as difficult to learn as any other language. (Although with Romance languages, vocab comes easier for me because so many words are related to English words. With Japanese, you just have to learn everything by rote.And then there’s keigo to think about.)

    But the Japanese written system is a whole other oni. Three “alphabets,” two with “only” about 50 characters each, plus kanji, with 2,136 (joyo) characters, each of which has up to about 25 strokes and up to about 5 different pronunciations, with no pattern or consistent way to tell which pronunciation to use except context,  andallthreealphabetsaremixedtogetherwithnospaces. If you don’t think that’s harder than the 26 letters of the English alphabet (even with all its phonetic inconsistencies), I think the mochi has started to clog your brain, my friend.
    The difficulty of the written system isn’t really Japan’s fault, though. It comes from centuries of borrowing characters from the Chinese. 

    When people ask me, “Is Japanese difficult?” I say, “No, but all the Chinese characters are.”

    (For that matter, the English written system was phonetic and consistent centuries ago, before it borrowed thousands of words from French, kept the crazy spelling, and changed pronunciation of hundreds of other words, but kept the original spelling.) 

    A small thing, though: “El biblioteca” isn’t different from “la biblioteca.” “El biblioteca” is wrong.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    “Native English speakers instead like to learn Romance languages […]”
    Really? Weird, most English native speakers I know only speak …. English?!

    When speaking of difficult grammar why mentioning the easier ones like Spanish and French? I’m German and we have three gender markers. THREE!!!
    And once you’ve studied Latin, those other Roman languages suddenly seem so easy!

    Personally I only studied English, French, Spanish and Latin before studying Japanese, so maybe I lack experience, but to me Japanese grammar is quite complicated.
    Even if you study all the rules, you often can mess things up. Japanese grammar depends a lot on the social situation and to grasp that correctly you just should have lived in Japan for a certain time. And even then it can be difficult.
    Some of my Japnaese co-workers still struggle with Keigo, for example!

    Kanji are not difficult at all. They’re a lot of fun.
    Japanese people think that Kanji must be the most difficult to learn for foreigners. Some still seem to assume that it’s their secret code that only a Japanese brain can decipher.

  • Kiriain

    I don’t find Japanese to be hard at all. In fact, I find it to be so easy, I’m learning Russian at the same time so I can up the difficulty factor. But Russian’s getting easy too! Currently however, I’m having trouble with the passive forms of verbs in Japanese.

  • melabonbon

    Also I believe in English the only subjuctive that ever gets used anymore is for the verb “to be”.

  • ಠ_ರೃ

    Hashi owns a drunk?

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    Kanji is easy. All I have to do is read RTK and then use Anki. A lot of people say that you have to learn each and every onyomi and kunyomi, but you don’t you’ll learn that naturally once you progress to vocabulary.

    To give a good idea of how easy it is to learn kanji, I’ll say this; I read about fifty kanji panels (I don’t keep count, it’s just a goal. I usually end up reading more), take a break, then go on Anki and do my reps. It’s amazing how well the mnemonics work to get the information in your head; and once it’s there, Anki does a great job at cementing it there.

    Once you start learning vocabulary, it will get much more difficult (a lot to learn), but by then, you can start reading things. Once you get to the point where you can do something with the language it will become much easier.

    If not completely easy, Japanese is at least simple.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    I’ve always pronounced ‘Ethernet’ with the same ‘E’ sound as ‘eat’ (long ‘E’ sound). I understand what you mean, though; ‘eat’ and ‘edible’ have different ‘E’ sounds, even though it’s the same letter and even a similar word.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607790802 Alex Napoli

    Not only does the FSI classify it as one of the hardest 4, but THE hardest for native English speakers. I think a lot of this has to do with subject/object markers, especially in more complicated texts. What’s this referring to, who’s performing the action, etc. (who’s narrating?!). This is easier in spoken where it’s more contextual, but then you get to deal with keigo and teinei, gendered language, casual contractions.

    Still fun though.

  • Bryan

    You may be surprised to learn that Japanese actually DOES have gender. In linguistics, grammatical gender doesn’t really refer to something being essentially female or essentially male. That’s nonsense, of course. 

    Grammatical gender is more properly defined by its original Latin root meaning type, variety, or sort. German, for example, refers to rivers, mountains and lakes with different genders, depending on whether it’s within the German borders or a foreign landmark. It’s simply a way to classify the nouns around you into groups. 

    There are some languages that have far more than the two or three genders of the Germanic or Romance languages. Mayali from Australia, for example, has a gender for “vegetables”. The African language Supyire has a gender for big things, like horses, hippos, etc. 

    Sound familiar? That’s right! Japanese counters! Every time you bust out a 3人, a 2匹, or a 6枚, you’re using genders, or classifiers, in Japanese. So really, Japanese has DOZENS of genders. Ugh…

  • MilkyChocoxD

    I had to take French for 3 years and I didn’t learn a thing. I think Japanese is way easier.

  • tama

    English HAS a subjunctive tense?

    ‘Scuse me?

  • Rashmi

    You’re right, Hashi. Japanese is easy compared to Hindi. At least you don’t have to deal with multiple tenses, gender, singular/plural… And the grammar patterns are similar to a lot of Indian languages. Of course the keigo drives me crazy all the time. 

  • Saikou

    All you people complaining about kanji, stop. Kanji is a godsend for learning a vocabulary in a language so secular as Japanese that effectively no other language resembles it.

    Ok, so you’re complaining that they’re complex, that they’re hard to read or that there are to many of them. To that I say “You’re learning them wrong!”. As textfugu cites, and I myself agree, the order of learning kanji is key. The best order possible is to learn the simpler ones first and like with like. Learning the small differences between kanji is important as it’s these small differences which will help you stop seeing them as complex lines but as pictorial symbols of meaning.

    Once you change/adapt the way you view the characters, a whole new avenue of learning techniques open up to you. Here’s an example.

    食べる Pretty well known one this, it’s たべる to eat. What about this: 物 It’s もの (It has other readings, but right now, it’s もの). It means stuff, things.

    Put them together and we have 食べ物 たべもの or  “food stuff” aka food.

    Now look at this, 着る きる here meaning  “or wear”. Here’s the fun bit. 着物 きもの or “wearing stuff”. That’s what the word for a kimono is, it’s wearing stuff.

    You might argue that there’s know way to figure that out before hand, but I counter argue saying “But now you do know, how likely are you to forget it?” This is what kanji does. Especially with the on readings.

    Kun readings are great and all, they’re mostly quite representative of the kanji with some having only a couple of overlaps, and when you learn kun readings you’re essentially learning new words (woo vocab!) but on readings allow you to actually READ new words. But not only that, but get some semblance of what they’re meant to mean!

    For example. Streptococcus. If you have no idea what this means, then just looking at the word isn’t going to help you. The japanese word for this, however is 連鎖球菌 れんさきゅうきん

    Let’s break it apart, shall we?

    連 –  on: れん  kun- つれる (to lead or take (usually with 行く or 来る attached)) つらねる (to link things)
    鎖 –  on: さ   kun- くさり (chain)
    球 –  on: きゅう kun- たま(ball/sphere (note: This kanji’s kun reading isn’t frequently used, 玉 is more common)
    菌 –  on: きん   kun- NA (There is no kun reading, but this kanji means “bacteria”)

    Now, in Japanese, the meaning and the kun reading are effectively the same thing, it’s only us learners who make the distinction between meaning and reading. (honestly, the moment the kun reading becomes synonymous with the word you’d translate it to in english, the kanji for it becomes a whole lot easier to use)

    If we used the kun reading, it would probably look like this: 連ねた鎖玉みたい菌つらねたくさりたまみたいきん which doesn’t sound at all elegant and would kinda translate to “bacteria which look round and are linked it what seems like a chain” and what’s worse is that it would require a lot of okurigana which would make it a PAIN to write out every time.

    So the on reading is used which leaves it to be four kanji only. And what we have here is this:

    れん (linked) さ (chain) きゅう (round) きん (bacteria). 

    Now. Lets say you knew the on reading for each of those kanji, you also know what each kanji itself means. You also know how to pronounce ever letter in the alphabet. Which one of these words do you better understand when you first encounter it?

    Streptococcus

    or

    連鎖球菌

    I deliberately chose a fairly obtuse word as it was more likely to be one you wouldn’t have encountered before. But this whole practice of sounding out words by reading the on reading on the kanji works for more words out there, and due to the descriptive nature of these words (like the above), you will almost always get a good idea of what it is.

    Also, Kanji provide a brilliant structural divide for grammar. You only ever have to fiddle around with the okurigana of a word when changing tense or nuance.

    Without kanji, this language would be so much more difficult to learn.

  • rodrigo

     What you say about Spanish might actually be true! We have 6 different past tenses 2 of which I had never heard of until I studied some grammar on my own. Also, here in Peru most people speak with fairly simple constructions and, as such, use an incorrect tense or mood.

  • http://twitter.com/toranosukev Toranosuke

    Whenever people learn that I’m studying Japanese, they’re amazed, and they make comments about how difficult it must be. Sure, there’s keigo, and I do find it quite difficult to manage politeness levels (not in concept, but in practice, on the spur of the moment as I’m talking), but kanji really aren’t that hard once you get the hang of it, and most of all, as you say, (1) no tones, simple vowel pronunciations, and nothing weird (to the view of a native English speaker) such as the glottal stops in Okinawan; (2) very few irregular verbs! wooo!; (3) less complex conjugations. Where Spanish has voy, vas, va, vamos, vais, van, Japanese has 行く、行く、行く、行く、行く、行く。

  • http://twitter.com/Reevine Vladimir Krasko

    Several actually. They all toil away in a basement making his ale.

  • http://twitter.com/Reevine Vladimir Krasko

    I concur. I took four years of Spanish and despise it! Spanish = no bueno.
    However I love Japanese!  (when I’m actually doing my studies like I’m supposed to lol)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3AWQP2SWYKSRM6G3IPOHKDNWUA Viking Nieku

    I wanna learn japanese right now!!!
    But I can’t. Not because I think it’s hard to learn but because my school in the netherlands makes it required to learn English, German and French. I still need to wait another year till i can drop my French and German lessons. :(  But then i’ll have the time and money to learn japanese! :D
    Great article btw!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3AWQP2SWYKSRM6G3IPOHKDNWUA Viking Nieku

    I wanna learn japanese right now!!!
    But I can’t. Not because I think it’s hard to learn but because my school in the netherlands makes it required to learn English, German and French. I still need to wait another year till i can drop my French and German lessons. :(  But then i’ll have the time and money to learn japanese! :D
    Great article btw!

  • juli

    i am german and i started to learn japanese a while back and having english and latin and spanish in school i got an impression of learning grammar. and japanese is a blessing. only thing you have to learn is vocabulary and kana and kanji. what i think is most important is that you have someone to talk to in japanese. i hadn’t and i think i forgot everything over the last years. or it’s hidden somewhere in my brain, i don’t know. 
    about learning other languages: i once saw an interesting documentary on some elementary school in Finland, where they have a lot of foreign kids and they are teaching 51 languages. they say, only if you really understand the grammar of your native language, you are able to learn any other languages. 

  • Ivesomthingtosay

    Bad example. Eat is a middle English vowel combination. It’s not Eat (emphasis on E) but EAt (emphasis on EA.) See also : sEA, mEAt, sEAt, pEAt. The EA structure once had a distinct pronunciation (as can still be heard in Northern Irish pronunciation, where Sea and See are not homophones.) However, because of other spelling inconsistencies in English, you could have used ‘be’ and ‘edible’.

  • Ivesomthingtosay

    For an English speaker, Dutch is far closer to English than Japanese is. English and Dutch are the most closely related National languages (with Frisian being the most closely.) The issue is that English adopted big chunks of Latin and French vocabulary, which clouds this relationship. But think on this:

    My name is John. How goes it? What is that? I have five fingers. Monday it was cold
    Mijn naam is Jan. Hoe gaat het? Wat is dat? Ik heb vijf vingers. Maandag was het koud.

    “How goes it?” is a little convoluted, but is still valid English. What we can conclude is that Dutch is pretty similar to the basic structure of English. The main differences are the wider vocab and specific grammatical points.

  • Ivesomthingtosay

    I thing the problem with vietnamese is that it has both tone markers and vowel markers. So, some of the diacritic change the tone (your acute, grave, and the weird fullstop (period) under a vowel and little questionmark) and some change the vowel sound (so, the ^ (roof) the ‘ (single quote)) So toi, to^i (hat over O) and to’i are different, but the same tone. If you miss one of the vowel modifiers, you are going to mess the basic phoneme up – which is pretty bad for a phoneme based language. Once you have those basics down, I think it’s a lot easier to get the general pronunciation right. Kinda..

  • Madbeanman

    Its really weird but I dont know if youve ever heard of hedging. Its like when you put in lots of extra things into a sentence to advoid offense. Obviously Japanese people are amazingly good at this but the people who do it best in English are Irish people (I know because Im the closest thing to a leprechaun Ive found in Ireland and we learned all about it in linguistics). So for some reason when I read what you write I always think you were Irish from the way you phrase stuff. Its endearing dont worry :)

  • blacky

    Japanese is even easier to learn than English. ^^ And you don’t trap in false friends that often, ’cause Japanese isn’t really connected to any other language. While all those Romanic languages are so easy to mess up -.-

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Well, I’m part Irish and part Japanese, so I guess that makes me the ultimate in hedging! I’m at least glad that it’s endearing hahaha

  • simplyshiny

    Great article! Very informative comments too! Now if I just had you hear to kick my ass into actually studying, maybe I could see how easy it could be!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    That documentary sounds really interesting, do you happen to remember the name of it?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Okinawan has glottal stops? I had no idea.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thank you for this fantastic comment, I don’t think I could have explained kanji and kanji learning better than you did.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Oh, interesting. I guess I didn’t really understand what grammatical gender is, thank you for correcting me.

  • Mescale

    The easiest language I learnt was German, that said that was quite a few years ago, and I didn’t really learn it, but I didn’t have any problems making teachers think I was learning it. Which sometimes is all that matters when you’re 12 and at school.

    I lived in France for 4 years and didn’t learn French. I would put this down to 3 reasons. 

    1. Whenever I was taught French it was through a rigorous and deranged grammatical method it was assumed I understood. Conjugation, futur imperfet, passe compose, etc. etc. I never got around to struggling with French because I was struggling with the grammar. Sorry I never learnt English that way. 

    2. Very little chance to speak French. I worked in at an American company speaking English all day. The French people at the company didn’t talk to us. And its actually really easy to survive in a foreign country with no knowledge of the language. Through…

    3. Non-verbal communication. I am very adept at communicating with people through non-verbal methods. I didn’t talk until I was 3 years old because I didn’t have to, I could easily make myself understood with my expressions, gestures and so on. Now you may think, hey maybe you were just retarded, and that is what everyone thought. However, I first really began speaking when my mother took my sister to Junior school, my mother left me in the care of the head mistress, whilst my mother and my sister talked to the teachers.

    When I was left, I was the uncommunicative child whose first word at 3 years of age was cake, when she came back I was talking in full sentences. The head teacher had taken me around the school and shown me the wall displays and talked to me about new and interesting things, and I spoke back, in full sentences, my mother was then astonished when she returned to the head teacher who told her how incredibly talented her son was at speaking and expressing himself for his age, when the only word she could get out of me was cake, and had taken me to numerous doctors to find out why I wasn’t speaking and they could find no reason.

    Its also worth noting this head mistress was the first woman’s heart I broke, apart from my mothers, when I ran away from school and got caught by the lollipop lady. Sorry Mrs England. Now I feel bad now for my Senior School Chemistry teacher whose heart I also broke, when I arrived I was so bright eyed and eager then she went to japan got married, came back and found out I had turned into a lousy student, I’m sorry to you too, but I don’t remember your name. The drama school teacher can still go to hell, you caused me to become more introverted and self concious and did great damage to myself as a person, I am glad I said bad words to you. Art teacher lady, you meant nothing to me either way, though I think she was only disappointed in me.

    Anyway I digress. I am very adept at reading a the context of a situation, reading body cues and expressions, to a point I can understand what someone is saying without understand what they are saying. 

    Its neat, but its also a bit of an albatross, because everyone thinks you’re really good at understanding the language, when you don’t understand it at all, then they assume you are better than you are and teach you at a high level. And despite all this you occasionally amaze them with your language skills. For instance one French lesson we watched a interview with the French guy that invented Parkour, he explained why he did it etc. I didn’t understand what he was saying so much as his ideas about Parkour. Simply put society pigeon holes us into some way to act or be, paths are made for us to travel along, metaphorically and actually, Parkour is about finding your own path, your own way to travel physically as a way to strike back against the metaphorical cage we are forced into.

    Anyway I understood the concepts behind Parkour, not from understanding what he was saying, I got maybe 1 word in 20, but from non verbal cues, from previous experiences, my own personal feelings etc. And when I busted out practically an English translation of what the guy had said my French teacher decided I was super great, and when I swore blind I didn’t and explained it wasn’t from knowing French, he swore blind it was part of understanding of the language.
    And so I continued to be taught French in a way which I didn’t get at all. 

    Now I apologise for my verbosity, I have rewritten this post 3 or 4 times and each time it has ballooned into a monstrosity, but I do think apologising to your Teachers is important. On that though, sorry German teacher who thought I was good at German but really I wasn’t and got a poor grade, I just remembered about that when I re-read my post.

  • Guest

    I’m learning Spanish in school, and it’s pretty easy for me since my grandad is a retired author and english teacher.The Japanese is much harder than Spanish for me, but Japanese vocabulary is about as hard as Scots. 

  • meg

    can you tell me more about the puppy in the header?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     Since Japanese can be easy, and not hard like some people think, you should think of happy things like puppies!

  • Charon

    I would agree Japanese is probably easier to learn than English for someone with no relation to either.
    And it’s arguable that Japanese is unconnected from anything: Japanese is based off old Japanese which is arguably related to Korean and Mongolian etc. and later took a huge number of Chinese loanwords, in the same way as English is based off Old English and later took in Norman (Latin) loanwords. This is apparent with some words that sound practically the same in Japanese and Chinese, but this by no means means that people who speak Chinese can easily learn Japanese.

  • Charon

    I have to mostly disagree with (the title of) this article. Of course, if the FSI says it’s hard, it’s hard, and they would know. I think that Japanese is one of those languages that’s quick to learn once you get the hang of it, but there’s a few problems:
    Take Spanish, where when you learn the word “periódico”. Once you know the word, and that it uses “el”, then you’re done.Now let’s take Japanese: you can learn “shinbun” and great, now you can say “newspaper”.But what if you see 新聞? Now you have to learn what seeing that means and to relate it to “shinbun”.Let’s say you’ve learned that. What if you have a piece of paper and need to write “shinbun”? Now you need to know how to write 新聞 which is a whole other challenge over recognising. And if you have a strict teacher, you’ll need correct stroke order too.Now what if you see the word 新しい or 聞く? That’s not “shinshii” or “bunku”- you need to know the OTHER ways of saying the same character, which is dependant on context and/or other kanji/kana around it.
    So every time you learn a new (spoken) word, you feel proud of yourself that you learned something. When you learn a new kanji to use with that word, you feel proud. When you learn the kanji’s on’yomi and/or other kun’yomi, you feel proud. When you learn how to write the word with its kanji, you feel proud. But all of those things put together are just one and a half challenges in Spanish: learning the word and its gender. Once you can say a Spanish word, you can instantly read and write it. (Technically if you use only kana in Japanese you can do that, but Japanese is annoying to read without Kanji and you’d look like a preschooler. Besides, Japanese people know 2000+ kanji and you’d better believe they’ll use them against you).As for grammar, not conjugating verbs by person and number and not having genders and not having subjunctive is really really refreshing, but once you get beyond beginner grammar, Japanese grammar is harder than you’d think. It may be simpler than Spanish grammar objectively, but Spanish grammar is pretty similar to English, and Japanese grammar is wildly different (despite what some teachers may make you think). Being able to talk fluently without grammar mistakes in Japanese is at least as hard as with Spanish (believe me, I have learned both). Particles and collocation are a bitch, and the conjugations get fun once you learn conjunctive, conditional vs. provisional, passive (really weird), volitional, polite (masu), causative, etc. etc. (and note that in Japanese there’s an entirely different theory on grammar than English-language textbooks will ever teach you). And don’t even get me STARTED with keigo. In short, learning Spanish grammar is surely harder than learning Japanese if you’re Chinese, but it’s a different story if you’re anglophone.As for pronunciation, sure it’s nice that each kana is theoretically pronounced exactly one way (with two exceptions that I recall- は and を), but in practicality this is definitely not the case. The す in すき(好き) is indeed pronounced differently than the す in すむ(住む).  端, 橋, and 箸, all はし, are pronounced differently by native speakers. Fluent, native-sounding Japanese pronunciation is about as hard to learn as the relatively insane-sounding French (again, I have learned both). Far too often do I hear a Japanese student completely butcher the language because they think all morae are pronounced exactly one way and they disregard the pitch-accent system entirely (好き sounds like “ski”, not “sue key”!!!).Knowing all of this, you may ask “why do you even bother learning Japanese then?” Because it’s -fun-. It’s really, really interesting to me learning one of only two (I think) living languages that still ubiquitously use an ideographic script. The grammar is so foreign, and you start to think differently when you know it. And on top of that, it opens up the world of Japanese culture that is normally so secretive and closed-off.Can Japanese be hard to learn? Absolutely. Does it often get me really frustrated? Sure. Should you give up now? Definitely not. Learning Japanese is like exploring a brand new world. (And if you’re American, it’s listed as a “critical language”, meaning great scholarship and job opportunities!)

    Congratulations if you read through this whole post.

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    True, depending on when and where you are (’cause we always assume time travel is possible) things are pronounced in a completely different way. My example was based on the common US pronunciation of ‘eat’.

    Depending on how you pronounce things, ‘a’ and ‘what’ can have a sound similar to ‘uh’. That’s why you look at the most common things instead. Japanese sounds can be pronounced differently as well, but normally they are the same.

  • Ivesomthingtosay

    Well, no.. Ethernet and EAt sound the same to me too… but the reason you gave is still incorrect. Ethernet is EEthernet, because the  stress is in the first syllable and English tends to use “EE” (long E, as you put it) for E in that position. EA on the other hand, is generally always pronounced EE, because that vowel combination makes that sound in Modern English spelling.

  • Untmdsprt

    I ignore all people including the Japanese who tell me the language must be difficult for me. I figure they’re failures at their own language learning.

    Japanese is easier than English, and I consider kanji to be time consuming. I try to learn a few a day and what do you know, you’ve learn 2000+ in a year. How is that difficult?

  • http://twitter.com/xalking Xalk

    Thanks for this great article, I am always horrified when I see people’s response to my Japanese Language studies as either shock “It’s it hard!?! I’ve heard it’s so difficult…” or “good for you, that’s a tough thing to learn” Kanji is a huge study and comprehension life saver, I will never forget kanji, even if I forget a word.

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

    One of these years I’ll figure out how to learn at least a single kanji!

  • Peter Locke

    Of course a website all about Japanese culture would say that Japanese is an easy language to learn!

    I’m sure that the websites all about Chinese or Korean culture or whatever would say the same thing about their languages.

  • Rotten 1

    Hello!  Enjoyed the article!  But, would like to point out, the biggest hurdle to language learning, is training.  The more you ‘hear’ how hard something is gonna be, the harder it may be!  Also, most schools in the US don’t or won’t offer ‘foreign’ languages, outside the Spanish, French, German set.   I’ll be chequing out the rest of the articles.  This stuff looks great!

  • elisabel

    Totally agree with this post. People often look at the hard aspects of a language and then totally ignore all the things that make it easy, or at least balance it out with the native language.  Counters in Japanese seem like a bit of a hassle, but since nouns don’t have plural forms, I think it balances out with the English system of having singular and plural forms of nouns, many common ones with irregular changes at that. I may not like having to think about the shape of the objects I’m counting to pick the right counter, and I’m sure my students don’t like having to worry about implying that they are 98 years old by writing “I brush my tooth.” You may have to remember whether nouns are masculine or feminine or both in Spanish, but in return you don’t have to worry about words being pronounced in a radically different way from the way they’re spelled. I think it all balances out rather nicely. : )

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    I heard of this one guy who was really fat, and he learned Japanese in an hour.  Really.  It’s that easy!  After that he made a million dollars by stuffing envelopes in his spare time.  Then he started eating just one banana for breakfast every day, and in a month he lost 100 pounds!  Then he became an astronaut!

  • Nicholas Meyer

    I recently had the fun experience of reading (in english) with kids at all sorts of differing skill levels.  I guess I see it often enough with my own kids too – but wow- seeing our twisted stupid native tongue through the eyes of a native “newbie” is a good lesson to the polyglot.  We have heavy context laden pronunciations, goofy (and highly inconsistent) grammar and spelling rules.  English is brutal.  Native speakers just had the advantage of growing up with it as the only option to communicate.  We also tend to forget how things were very hard when we were learning them…  Seeing fairly bright kids struggle with “simple” common words and grammar constructs like tense and negation reminded me of that.

    Long comment – to the payoff:  I know english (albeit imperfectly as a native speaker). I use that dumb-luck skill as inspiration that I can learn any other language that I apply my clever little monkey brain to. 

    (yeah – that’s right, dangling participle – eat that grammarians  — HA!)

    French, Greek, a ‘smidge of Latin and Spanish…. Come on Japan, bring it on!  Just remember – it took you years to learn your native tongue, I’m betting you still are learning it (or at least don’t have it mastered). いそがば まわれ – 急がば 回れ

  • nagz

    great article. and learning kanjis is FUN. i’m not kidding, it’s like making 2000+ friends. some of them seem like they’ve been friends ever before. some are meanies but still lovable. some are resembling others by behaviour, some give a bad impression at first but realize you tend to hang out with them a lot.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Amazing!

  • http://twitter.com/gretzky99_ gretzky99

    Counters are definitely not grammatical genders and they have nothing to do with them at all! Practically Japanese counters are quite similar to collective nouns in English.

    Grammatical genders trigger gender-specific inflections or conjugations and there’s no such thing in Japanese.

    If there were genders in Japanese, they would be something like this:
    Let us assume that the word 車 has male gender and 電話 has female gender. With grammatical genders the negation of the 2 words could be different because their genders are different. (for example 車じゃない and 電話じない or something like this).

  • http://twitter.com/gretzky99_ gretzky99

    Great post!

    Learning vocabulary in a language that uses the latin alphabet basically means that you have to learn a word’s phonetic form and meaning then link them and you’re done because you can usually produce the written form from the word’s phonetic form. In Japanese learning to write individual kanji is no big deal but achieving a reasonable handwriting speed (when expressing your own thoughts on paper, not when copying a text) requires a tremendous effort in my opinion. In my own case it causes a great overhead when I learn new vocab.

    Articles that promote Japanese as ‘not that difficult’ tend to avoid this thing.

  • Edohiguma

    Well, I was told, back when I started with Japanology, that it’s not hard, it’s just a lot. And it’s true. The current index of kanji in use lists more than 2,000. You have to learn them actively and passively. Read and write. That’s a lot of work. I kid you not. But it’s not hard work. Same with grammar. The Japanese grammar isn’t really that hard. Of course, if you end up with people making a bazillion sub-sentences in their sentences it can just be as frustrating as in any other language.

    The only thing you really need to watch out when speaking is simple the right emphasis on whatever syllable you run into (famous example, always used, is hashi, depending on the emphasis it means different things), the double consonants and the double vowels. That is of course done by nailing the vocabulary into your head and practice. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not hard.

  • Siri

    I think anything is possible if you try. Japanese is such an interesting and beautiful language! Its beauty defeats all else, I bet that dear puppy agrees!

  • coldcaption

    I think Germanic languages are pretty easy to learn, though I’ve never tried a Romance. I’ve been studying German for a bit and it barely sounds like a different language to me anymore.
    I don’t think Japanese is hard, but it is a lot to learn. That’s what I tell people, anyway. Since I learn by myself online it’s a bit of an “all at once” thing, so sometimes it’s a bit tough to figure out how the verb forms and the like are interweaving, but it does work.
    Also, come on, Mandarin isn’t that bad, FSI. The only hard thing is getting your head around the tonal phonology, but that doesn’t take long and it’s pretty simple after that. Usually one reading per character, no verb or adjective forms at all; you really just need to get the syntax and pronunciation down and it’s actually pretty easy. I’m on my second semester of it and that’s what I’ve gotten out of it so far. I do mix up my kanji with it, though. Since various characters were simplified differently or not at all in Japanese, my handwriting is a mess of simplified, traditional, and Japanese-simplified characters.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ümit-Yılmaz/848029350 Ümit Yılmaz

    You say learning japanese is easy. But i realy know there are people try to learn and failed and they say if it is easy why i cant learn. It is easy but not easy to learn in one weak. Please know it as well nothing easy in this word usually :D No pain no gain!!!

  • Sera Kim

    I agree with almost every point of your write-up but one. Where you said you don’t have to learn kanjis as we should just “type them out”? This isn’t solving anything for those struggling with kanjis. To look up kanjis you have to know the shape and meaning anyway. So my point is that any language has an easy part and a complicated part to learn. And comparing with English, Hindi, or some other languages, Japanese can be easier for the reasons you simply mentioned. I’ve seen many people struggling with and giving up on kanjis, but I don’t remember anyone who said kanjis is not FUN. You’ve got to have a fun learning languages!
    Happy learning :)

  • d4nie

    I know read this blog post for the second time and I still think you’re quite right.
    I’m not the fastest Japanese learner in the world and most of the time I don’t do what I should do (studying), but I’m pretty sure even I will succeed sooner or later.
    Oh yeah and about the kanji, I recently found this web site to help you with your kanji study. It’s not ready yet but beta’s starting soon, so if you wanna check it out here’s my invite code so you can participate in beta: http://kuerz.es/2SS
    So yeah I’m personally really looking forward to it :D
    Everyone ganbatte kudasai! :)

  • Subarashi

    I disagree.
    Japanese grammar makes me ,figuratively speaking, want to punch babies. It’s almost like that one joke about Russia being backwards, but in japanese’s case I find it being conpletely true in it’s written language (Compared to english). Though chinese has harder vocab and but easier grammar.
    This is from my own experience and is by no means applicable to others.

  • :o.

    All points agreed, but for the record, I use “How goes it?” frequently … More often than its more common counterparts.

  • TheCrimsonLotus

    native Arabic speaker xD
    Oh god! interesting article Tofugu sensei!
    <— currently studying Japanese, I LOVE READING YOUR ARTICLES! keep it up <3

  • http://www.facebook.com/thomas.punpck Thomas Punpck

    You won’t believe … I’m glad there is kanji! I would have to learn japanese vocabular anyway and kanji makes it easy for me to recognize the words. I hate hate hate hate hate(!!!) words in hiragana … It seems almos impossible to memorize them! :)

  • AnadyLi

    Here’s why I fear learning Japanese:
    I know both English and Chinese. Yay me, I know some kanji/han zi already,right? Wrong. Japanese basically combines two alphabets with kanji/han zi. I’m used to ONE alphabet being separated from ONE set of han zi in TWO separate languages. It seems like a nightmare to me to essentially have two alphabets mixed with a set of kanji/han zi.

  • AnadyLi

    Actually, there is also a “hidden” 5th tone in Chinese. It’s for stuff like 嘛 and 吧. Basically, there is no tone. Um, it’s sort of hard to explain; I guess it’s like sighing in English? You just have to experience it.

  • 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