Is Japanese a difficult language?

This is kind of a difficult question to answer.

The simple answer is yes… and no.

I think that learning Japanese is extremely difficult, but it's only extremely difficult in the sense that it takes a long time. Anything that requires a consistent effort over a long period of time is going to be difficult.

As a language, though, I think that Japanese is relatively easy to learn.

setsumei sasete itadakimasu
Allow me to explain.

Reasons People Say Japanese Is Difficult

(Note: You'll notice that I occasionally mention "Phases." I'll explain what these are in detail later in the course.)

Here are some misguided claims that people tend to make about the difficulty of the Japanese language…

The kanji are impossible! - Negative Nancy

(Note: 漢字 [kanji] are one of the three types of characters in the Japanese writing system. There are about 2,200 that you need to learn to be considered fully literate.)

I think the idea that kanji are impossible is the single biggest misconception of the Japanese language. I'm guilty of thinking that the kanji were impossible, too. I used to hate studying kanji. It felt like I was trying to swim across the ocean, the shore nowhere in sight.

Now, though, I have a much different perspective. I think that the kanji are one of the simplest aspects of learning Japanese. And, not only that, knowing the kanji makes Japanese so much easier. They are a foundation for rapid vocab acquisition. They are a tool for guessing the meaning of words that you have never seen before. That's why it's ridiculous that so many schools and textbooks don't use them — they make the language easier!

I'll go into a lot of detail about kanji later in this course, but for now I'll just say one thing:

I memorized 2,200 kanji in under three months, and we have had hundreds of readers on our site that have done the same.

So, no, the kanji are not impossible. Intimidating? Yes. Challenging? Sure. But not impossible.

The grammar is crazy! - Person Who Knows Very Little About Japanese Grammar

This one is kind of true, honestly.

I remember a long, long time ago, I bought a book on basic Japanese grammar (I used to buy all kinds of books because they make you feel like you're learning even if you're not; it's very exciting). In the first chapter, they talked about sentence order, saying something like:

English is “Subject → Verb → Object (SVO)," but Japanese is “Subject → Object → Verb (SOV)."

And I'm pretty sure I read another book that phrased it this way:

Blah, blah, blah.

Thinking analytically about Japanese grammar from the perspective of a native English speaker, yes, Japanese is a convoluted mess. Because English and Japanese are fundamentally different languages.

But "different" does not necessarily mean "difficult." At times, I think Japanese grammar makes a lot more sense than English grammar. And casual Japanese sentences are without a doubt simpler than English ones.

The best part is that none of this matters. After you've used Japanese for a while, you shouldn't need to think about how to form solid, complete, accurate sentences. It will just feel natural. I'll help you get to that point, so no worries, fellow student. ^_^

Reasons Japanese Is Actually Easy

Now we can go to the fun part — reasons Japanese is easy!

Japanese pronunciation is very simple. - All the cool kids

Like, so simple.

Consider this:

  • Japanese has 5 vowel sounds.
    • English has 19 vowel sounds!
  • Japanese has 18 consonant sounds.
    • English has 24 consonant sounds!
      (consonant sounds are estimates, as they are difficult to count)

Put simply, a native English speaker should be able to pronounce all of the sounds of Japanese with minimal difficulty.

Japanese has a shallow orthographic depth. - Professors of Linguistics

Say what?

Orthographic depth is the degree to which a language is spelled the same way that it sounds. A language with a deep orthographic depth is difficult to read phonetically, as many of the sounds will vary. English is like this, and it's a nightmare for foreign learners. For example, how many of these words sound the same, or different…

  • Query, very
  • Tow, vow, row, bow, bow
  • Monkey, donkey
  • Grasp, wasp
  • Though, through, plough, dough, cough

Luckily for us, Japanese has an extremely shallow orthographic depth. Word sounds are (almost) always pronounced exactly as they are spelled. So if you can read the characters, then you should be able to read almost any passage aloud accurately.

There is one exception to this, unfortunately, and it's the problem of Japanese intonation and rhythm, which can be a bit tricky to master. But mastering this mostly comes naturally from language exposure, so you don't need to worry about it too much. I'll talk about this more in the Kana Mastery Course (in Phase 1).

The reason that I think having a shallow orthographic depth makes a language much easier is that you often understand words the first time you hear them, simply because you have read them in a book, or because you know the building blocks (i.e. kanji) of that word.

Whereas, for example, many Japanese students of English can't catch the meaning of a word in a conversation, even though they would be able to understand it if they saw it written down. That's because English is pronounced so differently than it is written. Aside from crazy “rules" about phonetic spelling, we also have liaisons (word linking), meaning through stress, and countless accents and dialects.

It's easy to find language partners. - Me, speaking from experience

Since so many Japanese people want to learn English (and are struggling with it), it's extremely easy to find enthusiastic language exchange partners. In other words, it's extremely easy to practice using Japanese in a casual setting, even if you don't live in Japan.

I'll talk more about language partners in the Caveman Convo Guide (in Phase 1).

Things That Will Always Be Difficult in Japanese

Okay, so I've listed a lot of reasons that I think Japanese is not at all impossible to tackle. However, it would be dishonest of me to say that there's nothing difficult about Japanese as a language. In particular, there is one thing that I still have a problem with even today:

Natural Japanese phrasing is very difficult to acquire.

You should always keep in mind that if you don't know how to say it already, then you don't know how to say it.Tae Kim

English and Japanese are fundamentally different. I'm really good at Japanese now, but a good portion of my brain is still functioning in English—the part that's writing these sentences right now, the part that wanted to say “piece of cake" to my wife while we were talking this morning. But I can't say that. I mean, yeah, I can literally say “piece of cake" in Japanese, and I can say “it's really easy" in Japanese, but what I want to say is “piece of cake," as an idiom, in Japanese. But that would be wrong.

This is good news, though, because it's an opportunity to learn some fun, new Japanese. To continue Tae Kim's quote:

…if you can, ask someone how to say it in Japanese including a full explanation of the answer and start practicing from Japanese.

If I do that, I might learn the phrase ちょちょいのちょい (cho-choi-no-choi), which, aside from meaning “a piece of cake; a walk in the park," is also super fun to say. Cho-choi-no-choi!

Or maybe I'd learn the phrase 朝飯前 (asa meshi mae), which literally means “before breakfast," but is an idiom in Japanese for “really easy."

I think it helps to look at this backwards. Japanese people have a really hard time speaking English for the same reason.

For example, let's say that I'm at a restaurant with my Japanese friend, and we're both looking at the menu, trying to decide what we want to eat.

My Japanese friend, when ready to order, might say, “I decided."

But that's a bit strange in English, isn't it? It would be more natural to say “I'm ready (to order)." Or we could even say “I've decided" or “I know what I want."

The reason my Japanese friend says “I decided" is because, in Japanese, he would say 決めた (kimeta), which means, literally, “I decided."

Conversely, if I said ≪注文する≫準備が出来た (chuumon suru junbi ga dekita, literally, “I am prepared to order," or 何食べたいか分かる (nani tabetai ka wakaru), literally, “I know what I want to eat," then my Japanese would sound very strange.

We cannot directly translate English into Japanese like this, because the words we say are different from the start.

Multiply this by virtually every situation in life and, yeah, mastering natural phrasing in Japanese is going to take quite a bit of time. I think that it's probably the most difficult aspect of this (or any) language, especially once you get to a higher level.

However, this does not mean that Japanese is hard to learn. It just means that it is hard to reach a level where you can speak like a native Japanese person, where you can phrase sentences naturally and effortlessly—something that will happen naturally over time, given that you've set up a Japanese learning environment conducive to improvement (e.g. followed this course, created your own system, etc.).

How long does it take to learn Japanese?

For this one, I'll take a quote from famous polyglot:

To me the question and answer 'How long does it take to learn a language?' 'X months/years/lifetimes' is ludicrous, as it leaves far too much undefined and only caters to lazy one-size-fits-all mentalities, which is something I personally detest about many major expensive language learning courses.Benny Lewis

I used to ask these questions all of the time.

  • How long will it take me to learn the kanji?
  • How long will it take me to be fluent in Japanese?
  • How long will it take me to become a translator?

But every time that I was asking these questions, it was because I was feeling impatient or uncertain whether I was actually capable of doing these things. Aside from the obvious truth that when learning a language, one size does not fit all, the time it will take is irrelevant.

People who learn a language are people that commit to learning a language. So, every time I plan to start a new language, I ask myself the following question:

Are you prepared to study and use this language (somewhat) regularly for the rest of your life?

And if my answer to that question is no, then I need to seriously reconsider if I should spend time and money trying to learn this new language. Because, logically speaking, it does not make sense to start learning a language if you're going to stop using it one day. Even if you managed to completely master a language in a few months (which is also a ludicrous concept), it would be largely meaningless if later in life you let that knowledge fade away from misuse.

Instead, I say commit to learning Japanese.

If you plan to integrate this language into your life permanently, then doesn't matter how long it takes to learn it. The outcome is inevitable. And once you get to a high enough level (Phase 4), you don't even really need to "study" anymore.

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