So, you’ve decided to up your linguistics game and the language you’ve settled on is Japanese. Excellent choice! A popular East Asian language, it is the ninth most spoken language globally, with over 130 million fluent speakers. That’s a lot of people to talk to! But how hard is it to learn Japanese and what are the best ways to learn it?
Well unfortunately it’s hard to give a clear answer – it all depends! The biggest factor in difficulty is your commitment and willingness to practice!
Learning a language that uses the Latin alphabet like French, Spanish, German or Italian gives you a head start because you can already read and understand the letters! Japanese means picking up a whole new writing system and learning to read all over again.
Unlike our measly 26 letters, the Japanese alphabets – yes, plural! – are made up of thousands of letters, so it’s no wonder people feel intimidated by starting to learn it.
Don’t worry, though – it’s not actually as difficult as it may seem!
Today, we’ll take you through the basic processes of what incorporates reading, writing, and speaking in Japanese. So, you’ll soon be able to decide if you’re ready to make that commitment! We’ll also give you some top tips to help you along the way.
Without wasting any more of your time – let’s get started!
English vs Japanese – What Are The Differences?
As we’ve already mentioned, there are multiple alphabets to consider – more on those later. But, there are several other nuances that make English and Japanese two very different languages.
Perhaps the biggest difference that a native English speaker would pick up on when learning Japanese is their phonetics. A lot of the sounds that the language uses don’t actually exist in the English language, so pronouncing words proves tricky.
In Japanese, one of the biggest influences on the language is the culture itself, and a huge part of fluency is understanding more about life for East Asian communities. One specific thing to mention is the keigo, or the Japanese politeness system.
When you’re talking to those with authority over you, AKA the people in society who effectively ‘outrank’ you, you need to behave differently. There are a lot more of these figures than you might think! Your bosses, teachers, lawmakers, officials…
Becoming Familiar with Keigo
Essentially, you need to bear in mind the two fundamentals of keigo:
- Always humble yourself, minimizing your thoughts and actions to be respectful
- Always uplift or compliment the person who holds authority over you, encouraging and uplifting their thoughts, words and actions
Unfortunately, this means learning a whole new vocabulary of respectful language, which changes the words you need to use depending on the context. Be prepared for that one!
If that sounds intimidating and stressful – don’t freak out! Keigo is an ancient Japanese tradition, the fundamentals of which come from incredibly easy linguistic basics that you’ll pick up on right at the start of your learning journey.
How Hard is it to Learn Japanese Writing?
Now, this is where things get a little more complicated. How hard is it to learn Japanese as far as writing is concerned? Well, when it comes to Japanese, there are actually THREE ways of writing the Japanese alphabet. That’s not even including romaji, which is basically the English alphabet expressed differently.
First things first, we have hiragana and katakana – these aren’t so much alphabets as syllabaries, which the clever readers might note is a portmanteau of syllable and library. Essentially a collection of syllables referred to together as the kana.
Both groups work in a systematic way and katakana is just a different take on writing hiragana and the two are quite identical; the primary change is simply that katakana is used for writing with emphasis or incorporating foreign words into the language.
These two systems are pretty easy to understand and learn, as well as killing two birds with one stone by helping you memorize the written symbol and the phonetic sound that it represents, which is great for when you start speaking!
The third and final Japanese writing is kanji, which actually utilizes Chinese characters and is therefore primarily used for content words (those that have a clear cut meaning and can be looked up in a dictionary, for example).
It is notorious for being the most difficult to learn, though a native Chinese speaker (or another language derivative of Chinese) will pick it up much easier. Thousands upon thousands of kanji symbols exist!
That being said, there are exactly 2,136 joyou kanji, which are in basic terms just the official “regularly used” Chinese characters, and those that high school students will be taught.
Being a lot more complicated than the kana as a collective, many kanji characters actually have multiple possible readings and alternative meanings, so picking it up can take a whole lot more dedication than learning kana does.
Writing is one thing, but reading Japanese can also prove quite tricky! Once you’ve mastered all of those alphabets we talked about (romaji, katakana, hiragana, and kanji) then you’re good to go – typical Japanese writing uses all three of the main alphabets in combination.
Each alphabet or ‘script’ has a specific purpose – referring to a different part of the language, in order to help you figure out the origin and function of each word you read. Intertwined together, they form the Japanese sentence!
For instance, kanji are the foundation or building blocks of each word, indicating the basic meaning, whilst hiragana is used to indicate phonetics, grammar, and word endings, and katakana is used to indicate foreign words from other languages.
The 46 characters of hiragana represent a corresponding syllable – these create every single sound of the entire language – therefore, as soon as you’ve mastered this, you’ll be able to read (and therefore say) absolutely anything in Japanese!
Mastering your reading and writing skills is a whole different ball game to this toughie… grammar. Fortunately, Japanese grammar is quite straightforward for the most part, and primarily about (shudders) learning how to conjugate verbs.
Bear in mind that, like with English, French, Spanish, and pretty much any other language that exists, there are various dialects that make up the language across different regions – the emphasis is placed on different parts of the word, for instance.
Word order is another thing you ought to think about – unlike English speakers, you’ll find that Japanese speakers actually place any verbs at the end of their sentence – but this is a consistent feature of the language system and doesn’t change.
Top Tips For Learning Japanese
Establish A Goal
Decide what you’d like to successfully learn – several words, a number of phrases, enough to get by, total fluency – and when you’d like to achieve that by. That’s the first step, and now you have something to work towards!
By planning exactly what it is you want to be able to do, you’ll have a future to look towards, and something to serve as motivation. Want to be able to order Japanese food or read a menu fluently? You do that!
Want to speak the language to natives on a vacation? Go for it! Whatever your intentions, it’s all about personal preference and your willingness to give things a try. As long as you do your best, that’s all that matters.
Take an Online Japanese Course
There are plenty of great online Japanese courses to help you learn Japanese, making it less hard. Pimsleur Japanese is an audio-based course that focuses on oral language, and they offer plenty of different language courses to learn. The lessons are offered in both women’s and men’s voices so that you can learn how different genders pronounce the words differently.
Pimsleur offers 150 30-minute lessons in Japanese, and you can even use the driving mode to learn in the car. There are different levels of subscriptions to choose from according to your expertise level.
Be sure to check out our review of Pimsleur Japanese.
Practice Every Day
Even if you just spend five minutes a day learning a couple of new words or working on your reading and writing skills with an app or online tutorial, you’re slowly embedding and consolidating your knowledge.
The more you try, the more effort you put in, and the stronger your commitment, the more likely you are to succeed! It’s all about motivation, so find ways to reward yourself, like a nice treat after a full week of revising your work every day.
Work With Others
Enlist a friend or study buddy to work with you! By practicing alongside someone else, not only will you pick up on new content you haven’t covered yet, but you can also receive feedback on your own reading, writing, and speaking.
It helps if you happen to know a fluent Japanese speaker! Don’t worry if you don’t – just the motivation that you and a friend or family member, even a stranger online can provide is enough to encourage you to keep going.
Find a Japanese Tutor with italki
There are plenty of great online Japanese tutors to help you learn Japanese. An online tutor will help you to improve your Japanese speaking.
italki is a global language learning community that connects students and teachers for 1-on-1 online language lessons. More than 10,000 teachers are teaching more than 5 million students over 130 languages on the italki platform.
Make It Relevant
Watch your favorite TV shows or movies and put on Japanese subtitles! Or, even better, watch Japanese films and television but with English subtitles! These tiny steps can help you become much more familiar with the language, in a quicker period of time.
So, the next time you ask yourself ‘how hard is it to learn Japanese?’ we hope you’ll take these tips into account. Good luck!