Japanese is notoriously listed by the US State Department as one of the world’s most difficult languages, taking the longest number of study hours to learn. Are they right? How difficult is Japanese?
The truth is that Japanese is not an inherently difficult language.
Its grammar is logical and almost completely regular. French, like other Latin languages, has pages of irregular verbs. Japanese has just two irregular verbs plus a very small number of other minor irregularities.
The grammar, and to an extent the vocabulary, is modular in a way that European languages are mostly not. From basic rules you can build more complex sentences relatively easily. And sentences that look scary at first usually resolve down to combinations of the basic patterns you learned in the first few lessons.
A lot of the difficulty of Japanese grammar is artificial, and created by the illogical and confusing way the textbooks teach it. Unlocking Japanese can really clear away many of the obstacles to learning the language.
The pronunciation system is simple and easy to learn. A few things, like the R-sound are a bit hard for English speakers, but you can be understood without getting it exactly right (even just pronouncing it like an L), unlike many languages where subtle differences of consonantal sound can change the meaning of a word.
Inherently Japanese is not difficult. But it is not at all related to English or other European languages. So if your first language is English, learning French can be likened to learning to play badminton when you already play tennis. Learning Japanese is like learning Kendo with tennis as your “native sport”.
And then there are the kanji. No arguing them away. They are beautiful and fascinating and they make Japanese vocabulary make real sense in a way that other languages do not without a deep study of etymology.
But learning them is definitely a long job.
So, would you be better off learning French? If you are seriously asking that question, then the answer is definitely yes. What I mean is that if you just want to “learn a language” and French is as good for your purposes as Japanese, then absolutely. You will find French much easier, especially in the early stages.
But, and I say this from experience, the easiest language is the language you love.
Truly learning any language is a labor of love. It takes dedication and real immersion. If you want to learn to “get by” in a language, it isn’t that difficult. If you want to truly learn it, you have to live it, at least with part of your life. And that is a big, time-consuming commitment to any language, however “easy” it is.
I didn’t give that time to French, Spanish or German, because although they interested me I did not love them. I certainly had no reason or desire to give any significant part of my life to them.
Japanese is the language I love. I want to spend my life with it. I want to read books in it, play games in it, talk to friends in it. My ultimate dream is to create beautiful stories in it. When I try to speak other languages (and I live in a non-English-speaking country) Japanese comes out. Japanese is where my heart is.
So how difficult is Japanese? In many ways it is one of the easier languages I would say, but there are significant barriers to entry. It does take dedication, but then so does any language.
If you love Japanese and want to give a part of your life to it, you will find it far easier than an “easier” language that you don’t love. I know I do.
If you don’t love it, you may well be better off with French.
How difficult is Japanese? A surprising note on kanji
I am currently in Japan on a “no English” immersion adventure. This article was written in advance so that I could avoid using English.
However, something came up that is very relevant to this article and is a point no one seems to have noticed in discussions of the question of how difficult Japanese is.
Even people who like kanji “admit” that they make the language harder to learn. In the sense of raising the barrier to entry they do… but…
I was recently helping a Japanese person in Japanese with English vocabulary, and we were also discussing Japanese vocabulary, all from a Japanese perspective. And what I realized is how much harder it is to learn English vocabulary, because there are no kanji.
Once you have overcome the initial hurdle of kanji – and I by no means know all the Joyo kanji yet – new words start to make sense.
If someone says a sound to me and tells me it means such-a-thing, I find it very hard to associate the sound with the meaning by brute force. People with very audial minds of a certain kind (mine is in some ways audial) may do better.
In the last day or two, for example, I have been told, just in the course of life, the words 保護色 hogoshoku, (animal) camouflage and 転回 tenkai, revolution. I had actually been wanting the word for animal camouflage recently as it happened. Attaching these meanings to the sounds would be a difficult task for me and would likely involve putting them in Anki and eventually getting to know them.
However, because of kanji, they were really very easy. The minute I heard 保護色 hogoshoku I knew what the kanji must be from other words – there was no need to look them up – and it made perfect sense. Instead of “ah, so this random noise means this” I thought “Ah of course, so that’s how you say ‘(animal) camouflage’. That makes sense. I’ll know that now”. For 転回 tenkai, because it was on the fly, I actually made a couple of brute-force audio-learning attempts (“what was that word for revolution again?”) Then I looked it up on my tablet, realized what the kanji were and had no further trouble. No need for Anki.
When considering the question “How difficult is Japanese?” One is apt to find it hard to dispute the State Department figures. After all, they are in the business of training people to speak languages, so they presumably know how many hours it takes to teach one language rather than another – so one might think.
But there is more to it than that. The State Department’s approach is highly functional, I would imagine. Their job is to get people functioning in a language in the sphere they need it in as fast as possible. A kind of up-market “fluent in three months” approach.
This will tend (as to a lesser, but still marked, extent does a University language course) to produce “run before you walk Japanese”. People who can’t do up their shoelaces in Japanese but can discuss the Economic Situation (or whatever they have been trained to do).
A 16-year-old native Japanese speaker has learned what amounts to an average of 6 words every day of her life. For really learning Japanese, rather than learning about it, or how to “function” in it, one needs a lot of vocabulary.
Kanji make the early stages more challenging, but if you are going all the way (as most State Department trainees, I imagine, are not), In the long run kanji is a wonderful investment that makes Japanese much easier.
Also, current methods of teaching Japanese grammar – including presumably those used by the State Department, make it much harder than it needs to be. This is because they teach Japanese by methods that were developed for teaching European languages, that just don’t fit the simpler and more logical structure of Japanese.
All this is explained in Unlocking Japanese, where you can learn in an evening the secrets that will allow you to understand Japanese Grammar from a Japanese perspective, rather than a European perspective which makes the language seem much more confusing than it really is and presents all kinds of grammatical rules and exceptions that you “just have to learn”.
In fact, once you know how the language really works you see that there are very few exceptions and that multiple “rules” and “things you just need to learn” boil down to a few simple and logical principles.
Note to sharp-eyed readers. Yes I did notice that the book on this page’s illustration is about the psychology of love, not about the Japanese language, but as you see, it is relevant to my theme!