If you’re thinking of learning Japanese then the chances are that you’re wondering: “Is Japanese really that difficult?” The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State—the country’s training institution for personnel involved in foreign affairs—singles out Japanese even among Chinese, Korean, and Arabic as the most difficult language for a native English speaker to master. So if you’re looking for the standard answer, it’s “yes”. However, such assessments judge the difficulty of a language based on the number of hours required to learn the scripts or achieve a certain level of fluency without considering factors which might affect the motivation of the student.
Nevertheless, mastering Japanese is not without its hurdles. Below are the commonly cited reasons why Japanese is often considered the most difficult language.
Kanji are Chinese characters that have been adopted into the Japanese writing system. To be considered fluent you need to be able to read approximately 2,000 kanji. Compounding this feat is the fact that each kanji; can have multiple readings depending on the usage (in Chinese the vast majority of characters have only one reading).
Relative to English, Japanese grammar is “reversed”. For instance, the sentence “I am waiting for my friend to come” would have the same basic syntax in Chinese (“I wait friend come”) but in Japanese becomes “I friend come waiting”—the verb always being placed at the end of the sentence. This structure is extremely unnatural for English speakers and it takes time to get used to and use without hesitation.
Japanese makes extremely heavy use of particles to form the grammar. In some respects these are similar to prepositions in English, but far more widely used. For example, the logical structure for the sentence, “I will read a book in the library” is:
I [particle] library [particle] book [particle] read.
Incidentally, Korean has a very similar grammatical structure, which is why Japanese is comparatively easy for Koreans to learn.
The heavy use of honorifics in Japanese to confer respect and imply underlying power relationships is both grammatically and culturally unfamiliar to English speakers. Moreover, the rules around honorifics are relatively complex, based as they are on the hierarchical position of your interlocutor, as well as the setting in which the conversation takes place.
Multiple Writing Systems
Along with kanji, Japanese makes use of two separate writing systems: hiragana and katakana, each of which contain 46 syllables. This means that the initial learning curve before you can even pronounce your first sentence (let alone understand it) is steep, especially when we consider that we can, more or less, read the Romance languages straight off.
So it’s all an uphill struggle?
Not exactly. There are equally a number of areas where Japanese makes life easy for English speakers, some of which I’ve listed below.
Low Level of English in Japan
Perhaps the biggest mitigating factor is that the average level of English in Japan across all generations is poor. This means that you can experience first-hand the benefits of even the smallest amount of progress providing you with the motivation to continue studying. To give a counter example, take someone who is studying Swedish. Swedish grammar and vocabulary may be easier to learn compared with Japanese; however, the unfailingly impressive general level of English in Sweden—especially among the younger generations—means that it could take years of arduous study before your Swedish ability surpasses the English ability of someone on the street. What a demoralising thought!
There aren’t any. You don’t have to remember which nouns are masculine and which are feminine like in the Romance languages, nor will you find yourself reciting “der, die, das, die” in a coffee shop.
Japanese Borrows Many Foreign Words
Katakana is the script used for foreign words introduced into the Japanese language. There are many of them and the vast majority are taken from English so you’ll already have a significant head start before you’ve even picked up a pen. Here are some examples.
One of the reasons that Japanese speakers find it difficult to pronounce foreign words is because their own language has a palette of only about 100 “sounds”. Yup, that constitutes the entire repertoire of a Japanese speaker’s tongue—just about all of which are covered within the English language. Moreover, the language is broadly flat so you won’t find yourself struggling with different intonations as you might with Mandarin or Cantonese.
You Don’t Need to Learn to Write Kanji
You don’t need to learn to write kanji; so long as you can read you will be absolutely fine. Writing ability—especially among the younger generations—has suffered with the prevalence of computers and mobile phones. Nowadays you can tap away in hiragana or romaji and watch as the device magically turns the words into kanji. If you can read well (and maybe remember how to write your address), you’ll get by in 99% of situations. The only caveat here is that rote learning by writing each kanji over and over is one of the best ways to memorise the characters in the first place!
Japanese Grammar is Easier
If you can set aside the fact that you’re working with three writing scripts, Japanese grammar isn’t actually all that complicated. Sure, the use of particles is strange to us, but objectively speaking they are not difficult—the reason Japanese grammar is often said to be hard is simply because it is so different to English. Plurals, for instance, don’t exist so you don’t have to spend time wondering why the plural of “bread” isn’t “breads” or why “tooth” becomes “teeth”.
So all told it’s not as bad as you might at first have been fearing. And, quite frankly, learning any language is difficult, but if you’re motivated and passionate about it then whether it’s perceived to be more difficult than Spanish, Hebrew or Inuit really doesn’t make any difference, anyway.