As an English speaker, some languages are simply easier to learn and understand than others. A lot of new people ask me “is Japanese hard to learn?”
When it comes to any language, things like the grammar, sounds, and the written part of the language can all be very similar to or TOTALLY DIFFERENT from English!
And truth be told, those all play a part in how easy or difficult it is to learn a language. Let’s take a look at the different aspects of Japanese to see what easy about it and what’s hard.
Everything’s hard before it’s easy.
First of all let’s be honest: every language is hard to learn at first. Studies have shown that when you learn a new language you actually open up a new part of your brain to store that information.
And considering just how much information is contained in a language, it’s no wonder that it takes time and effort in order to really learn it. But of course, learning a language is like learning anything. And the more you learn Japanese, the easier it becomes.
You need to give it time. There is something special about the 6-month mark when it comes to learning. At that point your brain has done a ton of rewiring and has established new paths to make the new information easy to use.
That’s how it was for me when I learned to play the guitar. It was slow going for several months and then all of the sudden it was like someone flipped a switch and it became super easy to do.
Bottom Line: Japanese is hard to learn at the very beginning, but it gets easier every single day that you practice it.
AND, this fact is not just unique to the Japanese language. It is common for learning anything new that you’ve never done before.
“To speak, or not to speak” that is the question.
When it comes to the speaking part of Japanese, I’ve got good news and bad news…
(1) The Sounds – EASY!
The Japanese language actually has a very limited number of different sounds in it – only 48! To break it down even further it only has 11 consonants and 5 vowels.
There are a few combinations of sounds that can be a little tricky for an English speaker to get used to, but at the end of the day: if you speak English, you can speak Japanese.
Unlike German or Russian where you will literally have to learn how to produce new sounds, with Japanese you already know and use all of its sounds (if you speak English!).
(2) Loan Words – EASY!
Most languages have what are known as “loan words.” Words that are basically borrowed from another language. Here are a few that we have in English and their origin:
Prima donna (Italian)
Quid Pro Quo (Latin)
Likewise, the Japanese language borrows a bunch of words from other languages; including English. Actually, there’s a LOT of English loan words!
I counted over 300!
You can find a list of them on Wikipedia by clicking here.
The pronunciation of these loan words are a little different from their English pronunciation because Japanese doesn’t have as many sounds in it as English does. But you should be able to hear and recognize them easily enough.
(3) Grammar – TRICKY!
I say the grammar is more tricky than it is hard because there’s really only a few things you have to learn. They seem weird if you’re only used to speaking English, but once you get used to it, it’s pretty simple.
One of them is the word order. In English we use a SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT structure. Here is an example:
“Billy (S) ate (V) his sandwich (O).”
Japanese however, uses a SUBJECT-OBJECT-VERB structure. So in Japanese that same example would sound like this:
“Billy (S) his sandwich (O) ate (V).”
So that takes a little getting used to, but after the first couple of hours it becomes natural. And actually, the more you use the language the more it starts to make sense because of how the verbs can change when you use them.
Another tricky thing is that Japanese uses a lot of spoken particles. For example, the Japanese word か (ka) is literally a spoken question mark (?) when it is the last word in a sentence. Pretty cool, huh?
And as a final note on grammar: Japanese doesn’t have a future tense! They use the same tense for both present and future. At first this sounds like it would be hard, but honestly the context of the conversation makes it obvious which one is meant.
Like reading manga?
Now we get to the written part of Japanese. Did you know that the Japanese actually has three (3) different writing systems?
(1) Hiragana and Katakana – MOSTLY EASY!
Now don’t freak out, because two out of the three are really easy. They are Hiragana and Katakana. Think of them like the English lower case and upper case letters.
a – lower case
A – upper case
あ – hiragana
ア – katakana
The reason I compare them to upper and lower case letters is because they are pronounced the exact same way, you just use them in different situations.
Also, each hiragana and katakana represent a single sound and no meaning. This is also just like each letter in our alphabet. Kanji on the other hand, is more complicated. More on that later.
There are a total of 47 basic hiragana (and ditto for katakana) and then you can combined some hiragana to form new ones. But it’s so simple that you’ll get it as soon as you see it.
You can actually read everything in Japanese using just hiragana, but it’s actually harder that way because Japanese does not use spaces between words!
Therefore the way a person can tell when one word ends and the next begins is because it usually switches over to a kanji or some katakana. Here’s an example of the sentence “I like coffee” using only hiragana:
All seems to mesh together. Compare that with the same sentence, but this time using all three writing systems:
If you know absolutely no Japanese, then you probably wouldn’t know the difference anyway! But if you know both scripts (hiragana & katakana) then you would easily see each word above.
By the way, the Green is Katakana, the Blue is Hiragana and the Red is Kanji.
(2) Kanji – HARD!
There’s no sugarcoating it – learning kanji is tough! First of all, there are OVER 50,000 different kanji!
But even the Japanese agree that is way too much, so they’ve reduced the official amount that everyone has to learn to “just” 2,000.
One kanji can have multiple pronunciations and meanings. And it will change depending on how it is used in conjunction with other words in the sentence.
Learning kanji is probably the hardest thing about learning Japanese. You can become fluent in spoken Japanese without ever learning a single kanji, but to truly appreciate the Japanese language it is important that you know at least some basic kanji.
The trick is to take it one step at a time, one kanji at a time. If you pace yourself and use a good learning technique then it becomes very manageable for you. And then it’s only a matter of time before you learn them all.
(3) Reading Direction – TRICKY!
The last part about reading is that Japanese is normally read TOP to BOTTOM, RIGHT to LEFT. Here’s an example:
Although sometimes it is read LEFT to RIGHT, TOP to BOTTOM exactly like we do with English.
I actually find that reading vertically is WAY EASIER to do with Japanese than it is with English. I’m not really sure why that is. Anyone else feel like this?
Maybe you’d like to try it out too.
So that about wraps it up. I’ve gone over the major differences between Japanese and English to compare and contrast the two languages. Some things are easy. Some are hard.
But you know what? Talk is cheap. We could go on about it all day, but that would only give you a surface level understanding of it. Why don’t you spend a couple minutes and try it out for yourself?
There are lots of free resources out there (this blog being one of them) that you can use to check out Japanese for yourself. In my personal opinion, here is the best way:
This is the best course that I’ve found for learning Japanese. I actually use the premium version myself every day. The free version will let you try out all aspects of Japanese:
- Writing (well, typing anyway)
It’s super easy to use; you just need an email address for the free version.
So if you’d like to try using Japanese yourself, then you might want to check out the free trial by clicking this link:
I hope that answers the question “is Japanese is hard to learn”! What are your thoughts on it? Do you think Japanese will be hard or easy for you to pick up? Let me know with a comment below!