Is Japanese a Difficult Language to Learn?

By Donald Ash | Articles

Is Japanese a difficult language to learn? That is definitely one of those million dollar, thought-provoking questions. The answer to this question is quite elusive because “difficult” is a relative term. It’s like me saying, is basketball a tough sport? If you’re Michael Jordan, your answer may be far different than the couch potato who hasn’t done any more exercise than walking to the refrigerator to grab a can of liquid bread (beer). I think the same rule applies to a person who plans to learn Japanese via osmosis and one who studies & practices his/her Japanese on a regular basis.

For me, Japanese does have its challenges, the first of which is getting used to a writing system that is totally unfamiliar to me. I remember when I first started learning hiragana, I would confuse some of the characters; I just wasn’t used to seeing or writing them. For example, the symbols for “a”-あ and “o”-お were very similar to my untrained eyes and I would often confuse the two. But it makes sense doesn’t it? A small child learning the 26-letter alphabet for the first time usually can’t write and recognize all of the letters correctly in one go; it takes time to learn. Japanese is no different. Expecting to know all of your hiragana and katakana in a day could be a bit much. Of course there are exceptions to any rule, but I’m honestly not one of those exceptional minds…I have to work at it. I’m no expert, but after practicing over and over, I can now easily distinguish between all of my hiragana and katakana (at least I’m pretty confident I can).

What else makes Japanese difficult? Grammatically, Japanese follows different rules than English does. So, in English I would say “I’m eating chocolate,” whereas in Japanese I would say “わたしはチョコラトをたべています.” or “Chocorato wo tabete imasu.” If I translated this directly, it would be “I chocolate am eating.” Pretty weird, huh? This example shows that English grammar often uses the subject, verb, object (SVO) structure, whereas Japanese grammar follows the general rule of subject, object, verb (SOV). However, once you get used to it, I don’t think it’s so bad. I have heard several people make the joke that Japanese uses “Yoda Grammar.” Do you remember Yoda, from Star Wars? Well, I think he’d be an awesome Japanese student. Sure his amazing abilities with a blazing, green light-saber and his mastery of the force would be great assets when learning Japanese. However, the most important point is that he’s already got the grammar down pat…”Study Japanese you must.”

Japanese grammar is completely different from English and so too is the vocabulary. This really hinders my speech. Instead of just going, and saying things the way I would in English, it takes me time to process Japanese phrases I hear for both the grammar and for unfamiliar words. When I attempt to speak Japanese, my dusty, old brain goes into dial-up mode and it seems like it takes forever for me to get out what I want to say.

What else is tough? Well, one last thing I find challenging is comprehending a native speaker’s Japanese. I read my textbooks and I study, but I still can’t quite catch what people say. Why? There are two reasons I think. First, a book won’t necessarily prepare your ears for Japanese speaking speed, only being in conversational situations will. Second, you have to keep in mind that books don’t always follow the rules of colloquial speech. You may not understand everything because people aren’t talking exactly like your textbook. For this very reason I feel it’s important to at least listen to Japanese as it’s used among fluent, Japanese people. Although textbooks are a wonderful start, I feel there’s no way a person can be fluent from books alone…functional, yes…fluent…no.

In the end, how difficult you consider Japanese to be is a state of mind, it’s really only as tough as you think it is. For me, the challenges of learning a new language are exciting. Making the mistakes is kind of fun for me. I also really just enjoy learning about languages and other cultures. So do I think Japanese is difficult? No. Do I think I have to work hard to learn it? ABSO-FREAKIN’ LUTELY!! The hard work is something I will continue to do, because I like it. So if you’re having a hard time learning, try not to get so caught up in how hard it is. I know it sounds a bit cliche, but just “enjoy the process.” I’m not a native speaker. I make mistakes each and every day that I speak Japanese, but I am so happy to be here in Japan, that I just don’t care. I’ll keep learning until I get it.

How about you? Are you currently studying Japanese? I’m curious to know what you find most difficult about acquiring the language or applying what you learn.

Donald Ash

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Donald Ash is an ATLien expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last six years. While in aforesaid time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator, writer, designer, editor, programmer, and occasional bad artist of blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
  • Akiko

    Hi. Is it ok to leave message here? If you don’t appreciate it, plz delete my message.
    Your article is quiet interesting for me. I just want to prove your point of Kanji, Katakana & Hiragana. I’m a Japanese and, of course, Japanese native speaker. However, it was hard (still) to learn Kanji in middle and high school days. What’s more, it’s a little bit ashamed to say, I’ve got confused Hiragana & Katakana even I’m native speaker and when I was around 10 year-old though. So I understand what you were saying.
    It’s a great challenge to study another language and it’s hard as well. I’m appreciate you chose Japanese for your challenge as a Japanese.
    I hope you’ve had and will have great days in Japan 😉
    これからも日本語の勉強頑張ってください。Korekara mo nihongo no benkyo ganbatte kudasai.

    • Donald Ash

      No way! I won’t delete this message. I really appreciate your feedback. I am really glad you found my article interesting. I often hear the learning kanji is not just an issue for foreigners. I also hear that many Japanese people have a hard time with kanji. One challenge I hear about is that kanji can be a bit harder to remember these days because people use cell phones and keyboards to enter the kanji automatically. I wonder what long-term effect technology will have on the way people read and write in Japanese. Thanks again for an awesome comment.

      はい、頑張ります。Hai, ganbarimasu. 🙂

  • Heh, interesting that this turned into a small learning opportunity for me here.

    “これからも日本語の勉強頑張ってください。Korekara mo nihongo no benkyo ganbatte kudasai.”

    From that line I recognized all of the romaji except for Korekara. so I took the Japanese text to Google translate and got this “Please luck will continue studying Japanese.” Naturally auto-translations are weak against grammar and context, but it was close. I think I best re-translated it as “Please do your best studying Japanese in the future.”

    I still have a lot to work on with hiragana and katakana, not going to even mention kanji yet. Such a long road to walk, but it is fine since it is fun. 🙂

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