Hi, I’m Emily. I’m one of the blog writers around here at Busuu. I’m a native English speaker who started learning Japanese a few years ago before going to Japan for a trip.
A lot of people ask us, “Is Japanese hard to learn?” It certainly has a reputation for being difficult – but I happen to think that reputation is unearned. So I’m here to tell you about my experience learning Japanese!
Some have called Japanese the hardest language to learn – admittedly, we here at Busuu even included it on our list of the hardest languages to learn, with a caveat about true difficulty versus time taken to learn. And there are certainly some challenging aspects to learning the Japanese language.
However, I’d argue that all languages have bits that are more and less difficult. When you get past the mental hurdle of believing Japanese is tough to learn, what you’re likely to find is that you can, in fact, learn Japanese – and with little to no more difficulty than any other language.
That said, here’s why it has such a chilling reputation.
Before we go much further, I should probably tell you about Busuu.
It’s an award-winning online language learning app. Busuu offers online courses crafted by language experts, plus feedback from native speakers in our community. You can and should use it to learn Japanese!
Where were we? Ah, yes.
There are four things that contribute to the Japanese language’s reputation as a particularly tough nut to crack.
Okay, it’s true – Japanese has three different writing systems, and one of those systems, kanji, has thousands of characters, so it takes a long time to learn. (The other two you can learn in a week or two! Stay with me, it gets better, I promise.)
The US Foreign Service Institute, or FSI, is an American government organisation that trains foreign diplomats – and they’re partially to blame for the reputation of Japanese as tough to learn. They have continually placed Japanese at the top of their list of languages that take their learners the longest to master. Because of FSI’s rankings, blog writers and potential language learners have adopted the idea that Japanese must be, therefore, the most difficult language to learn.
But the total time it takes someone to learn to speak a new language – especially the language required of diplomats – doesn’t necessarily tell you how difficult the language is overall.
Politeness is paramount in Japanese culture. While Japanese has way fewer tenses and irregular verbs overall (woohoo!), there are extra polite and humble variations of words and phrases you need to learn, especially if you’ll be doing business in Japan. This is called honorific speech, and it can be tricky even for native Japanese speakers.
Taking a wild guess, the fact that you need to learn a specific extra set of vocabulary to talk to people of different rank – especially higher up officials and royalty – could be related to the trouble new American diplomats seem to have in learning Japanese. Just the kind of problem you… probably won’t have to deal with until you’re much further along in your learning.
Japanese sentence order isn’t the same as English and many other Western languages.
We use subject-verb-object:
I go to the zoo.
Japanese sentences use subject-object-verb:
I zoo (to) go.
Speaking as an English speaker who has learned basic Japanese, once you get a feel for it, it’s not bad at all, but some people find it hard to wrap their heads around.
And here’s what I’ve found makes Japanese not that hard to learn after all.
Okay, yes, to learn Japanese, you have to learn new writing systems. But hiragana and katakana are pretty easy to learn and they have a lot of similarities, so once you learn one, the other is a breeze (well, almost a breeze).
Plus, using mnemonics (like we do on Busuu!) makes hiragana and katakana easier to memorise. It definitely takes some practice, but once you have these two writing systems under your belt, you can get into the real learning.
I, for one, found it empowering to learn a new writing system, like facing a fear. It made me feel like I could do anything, at least when it comes to language learning. It’s like learning a secret code that unlocks countless labels, menus, street signs, and more. Very satisfying!
Japanese has fewer sounds than English by a long shot – it’s more like Italian, in a funny way. The syllables are pronounced how they’re pronounced, and you don’t need to worry about funky surprises, once you learn how they go together.
Also, unlike many other Asian languages – Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese, for example – Japanese isn’t tonal. That means that, while in Mandarin, for example, your pitch changes the meaning of the word, in Japanese, it doesn’t. Tonal languages tend to be the hardest for speakers of non-tonal languages – like Germanic and Romance languages – to learn. And Japanese isn’t one of them. Boom, baby.
Staying on the language geek train, another thing that makes Japanese logistically easier to learn is its grammar.
Japanese grammar is different from English grammar (think of the zoo example from above – I go to the zoo vs. I zoo to go), but it’s very regular. It only has past and present tenses, it doesn’t use gender, and there are few to no exceptions to Japanese grammar rules. So once you learn it, you’ve learned it. No guessing whether a desk is masculine or feminine, no trying to decipher what the heck ‘desiderative past subjunctive mood’ even means. Ahh, that’s nice.
In the old days (and by the old days, I really just mean pre-smart phones), learning Japanese meant flipping through giant dictionaries, and learning to write meant meticulously learning stroke order to write kanji correctly.
While you can and should still incorporate learning to write in Japanese by hand – it’ll help you remember what you learn – these days, you can just look kanji up or type them using romaji. It’s quick and easy to add a Japanese keyboard to your phone and laptop – and it’ll make your life way easier.
The biggest hurdle with Japanese reading and writing is definitely the memorization of kanji, but you’ve got a big leg up over your ancient ancestors (please don’t tell your parents I called them that). It’s called the magic of the internet, and it lets you learn quickly and from anywhere.
We live in a beautiful mixed-up world – hold on, I’m going somewhere with this – where cultures are much more intertwined than ever before. We have way more access to each other’s food and culture than we did even 10 or 15 years ago. So it perhaps comes as no big surprise that, just like in English we know what sushi, sake, and tsunami mean, there are plenty of words that are translated into Japanese but basically shared.
バー “baa” bar
アイスクリーム “aisukuriimu” ice cream
レストラン “resutoran” restaurant
Hot tip: Katakana is typically used for words that come from foreign languages, so if you see katakana and sound it out and it sounds familiar? You’re probably right on the money.
Last but certainly not least, we have the thing that makes learning Japanese so much easier than ever before – all the resources available to you! Of course, there’s Busuu (a must-have, if you ask me), but you can also supplement your learning with everything from YouTube videos and Japanese TV to online memory games and kanji flashcard tools people have built. Truth be told, I needed to learn pretty fast, so I used apps, online blogs, games and a lot of Googling.
I literally learned the word sugoi (すごい, basically “wow” or “awesome”) from watching Terrace House while jet lagged in our hotel room. I Googled it to make sure it wasn’t rude and that I’d heard it correctly, and started using it to great effect while shopping that afternoon. It’s a new world!
Today, I’d probably focus on Busuu’s course, since it includes everything I was gathering myself from different sources, but if you need multiple supports, I say the more the merrier. The point is, everything you need is at your fingertips, and learning Japanese? If I can do it, you can too.
Our resident Japanese expert, had this to add:
“I think many people are afraid of learning Japanese, but Japanese is no different from any other language. The basics are fairly easy, the minute details to get to true fluency are hard. And in between, there’s a lot of learning! If you want to learn Japanese, there’s nothing to be afraid of – not even kanji. And, if you’re visiting, I think many Japanese people will appreciate the effort.”
On Busuu, we use mnemonics to make kanji easier to remember. Why not start off with just one?
We’ve made our case, but each learner is different. Why not start learning and see for yourself? With Busuu’s award-winning online course, you’re in good hands.
Learn Japanese with Busuu in just 10 minutes a day.
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