As the only language on Earth that combines 3 writing systems at once, it’s no wonder Japanese gets a reputation for being a difficult language!
So how hard is it to learn Japanese anyway?
Writing systems aside, the pronunciation is easy for most! Japanese has just half as many sounds as English.
Compared to many languages, Japanese grammar isn’t as hard as you might think! The sentence structure is slightly different from English, but there’s no plurals, fewer tenses and only 2 irregular verbs… compared to 200 in English!
It’s not all a walk in the park though. Native Japanese speakers themselves confess that their language is difficult, especially kanji and keigo (polite speech).
But remember, anything can be learned with motivation and practice!
Let’s take a look at some features of the language today and see how hard it really is to learn Japanese!
What makes a language ‘hard’?
Many people want an answer on a scale of 1 – 10 for how hard it is to learn Japanese. There’s no easy way to measure this, but it could depend on your native language.
Ever heard the expression ‘It’s all Greek to me!’? It means ‘none of this makes sense!’.
The more unfamiliar a language looks and sounds, the harder it will seem to the average person. Greek, like Japanese, looks complicated to those who don’t know it!
For English speakers, Latin and Germanic languages like Spanish, French and German naturally seem easier than Chinese and Japanese because they use the same alphabet.
The Foreign Service Institute, who teach the CIA foreign languages, ranks Japanese as ‘exceptionally difficult’ for native English speakers to learn, placing it in the Group 4 languages with Arabic, Korean and Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese).
Why? According to the FSI, the main reason Category 4 languages are harder to learn is due to their writing systems!
So is Japanese easier to learn for Chinese native speakers? Maybe for writing. More than 50% of Japanese kanji and Chinese hanzi characters are used in both languages with similar meanings. Therefore, the hardest part of Japanese for an English speaker could be the easiest part for a Chinese speaker!
Japanese native speakers describe English as unreasonably difficult because many words don’t sound the way they are spelled. This is a nightmare for Japanese speakers, who have a clear set of sounds outlined by their phonetic alphabets, hiragana and katakana (more on these later!)
As you can see, what makes a language seem hard ranges from writing to pronunciation, and it’s often a comparison with your native language!
Japanese pronunciation is straightforward. Firstly, it’s regular which means the sounds don’t change (like how in English the letter ‘C’ can be a soft C as in ‘ice’ or a hard C as in ‘cat’).
In Japanese, a K is a K and an N is an N. Other than は which can be pronounced ha or wa depending on context, there are none of those crazy silent letters and awkward pronunciations we have in English like the k in ‘know’ and the gh in ‘enough’.
Secondly, more than 50% of the sounds in Japanese are one consonant combined with one vowel (i.e. ma, ku, ni, ro, ga). You don’t have complex consonant clusters (two or more consonants in a row) like in English, such as the sk and rt in ‘skirt’ and the thr in ‘throw’.
Japanese pronunciation follows a simple consonant-vowel structure using two sets of characters called hiragana and katakana.
Once you learn their shapes and corresponding sounds, you can pronounce them. They remain the same, no exceptions.
Which makes Japanese kind of easier than English, don’t you think?
Japanese has 5 vowel sounds while English has a whopping 15! (depending on the dialect – British, American, Australian etc.)
The Japanese vowels are represented by the following kana characters:
|English||Hiragana (ひらがな）||Katakana (カタカナ）||Sounds like…|
That’s it! So if you see the character あ (A) you just know the sound is going to be AH! Whereas in English, the letter ‘A’ can sound different depending on what it’s next to – try reading these English words and see how many times your pronunciation of ‘A’ changes:
Pretty crazy right?
In Japanese, the vowels represented by the hiragana and katakana characters above never change. What a relief.
This applies to every single kana character!
As we learned, Japanese consonants don’t exist alone, they always go with a vowel to make a syllable! (except for the lonely n represented by the kana characters ん / ン).
The rest of the hiragana and katakana characters represent the joining of one consonant with one of the 5 vowels.
The Japanese consonants are: k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w (all found in English).
So if we add all 5 vowels to the first consonant K, we get:
k + (a,e,i,o,u) to make the sounds ka, ki, ku, ke, ko
Same formula goes for the remaining consonants!
There are only 3 consonant clusters in the phonetic alphabet: し shi, つ tsu and ち chi.
As you can see, it’s not at all hard to learn Japanese pronunciation, so don’t let that hold you back.
Now let’s get on to another question: is Japanese writing hard to learn?
The Japanese writing system
But once hiragana is as familiar as your A, B, C’s, you’ll be able to read and write every sound in Japanese.
I’m not going to lie to you, kanji are complex, but there are tricks to make learning them easier!
The kana syllabaries
Kana is the collective term for the two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, which we saw a preview of above! They are called ‘syllabaries’ because one character illustrates one syllable and they are relatively easy to learn.
It took me 3 weeks to memorize all 92 characters as a native English speaker with no prior Japanese experience. Writing practice and flashcards are the way to go!
Hiragana is the first writing system children learn and has a round shape, while katakana has a sharper shape and is mainly used for foreign loan words.
There are 46 characters in each script which represent the:
- 5 vowel sounds (a, i, u, e, o)
- 40 consonant + vowel sounds (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko / ma, mi, mu, me, mo etc)
- 1 lonely consonant, the ‘n’ sound (considered a syllable in Japanese)
Here’s an example of how they look. Left is hiragana, right is katakana.
Some kana characters are similar or identical in both syllabaries, which make them easier to memorize. For example:
- Mo も / モ
- ki き / キ
- Ka か / カ
- he へ / ヘ
Hiragana is the simplest way to write Japanese and is used mainly for grammatical purposes. It can be connected with kanji to form part of a word, or it can be used alone for particles (see grammar section).
Katakana allows Japanese speakers to write and pronounce words borrowed from other languages by applying the sounds in their phonetic alphabet.
If you thought Japanese was hard, you’d be happy to know that as of 2009 there were around 45,000 foreign loan words in Japanese of which 90% are from English. The number has surely increased!
Here’s a few examples (the dash ー represents a long vowel sound like oo or ii):
- coffee = ko-hi- / コーヒー
- table = te-beru テーベル
- computer = konpyuutaa コンピューター
- drama = dorama ドラマ
- bread (from Portuguese pão) = pan / パン
- smartphone = sumaho / スマホ
Kanji and radicals
If you have no experience with kanji, it is challenging and in my opinion the hardest part of Japanese. But it’s absolutely possible to learn!
To read basic sentences you need to memorize at least 100 kanji characters which are the first ones Japanese children learn and are not considered difficult. Learning them will introduce you to the multiple readings and meanings that kanji have.
But the easy part is that the way to pronounce every single kanji character in existence can also be written with hiragana. So if you can read hiragana, you will be able to practice reading kanji with the use of furigana (this is when hiragana are written above or beside a kanji as a pronunciation guide).
Each kanji character represents one unit of meaning. One kanji has a meaning on its own and it can join with another kanji or hiragana character(s) to make up a meaningful part of a new word such as a noun, verb or adjective.
Here’s a very basic example:
大 means big
人 means person.
When combined you get: ‘大人’ which carries the meaning big person but is the word for adult
We can also make 大 into an adjective if we add on the hiragana characters きい (kii) so it becomes: 大きい (big) as in:
Ano iie wa ookii desu ne
That house is big isn’t it.
The hardest part about kanji is that their readings and meanings change depending on the characters they’re connected to. Most kanji have at least two readings known as onyomi (Chinese reading) and kunyomi (Japanese reading) – with up to 10 – 20 readings in some cases.
For example the character for ‘fire’ is 火 and can be read as ka, hi, bi and ho depending on the context. 上 meaning ‘above’ has more than 10 different readings. There’s really no way to learn kanji fast; it requires a lot of practice in writing and reading.
A discussion on reddit reveals that even Chinese speakers find the multiple readings of kanji in Japanese difficult. Although they can easily write kanji and guess their meanings, they still have trouble reading them correctly.
But the challenge for the rest of us is learning to recognize characters and remember their meanings.
One of the greatest discoveries I had which helped me with kanji were radicals!
Radicals are little building blocks that make up a kanji character. If the kanji were a body, the radicals would be the body parts. Radicals can give you information about the meaning and sometimes even pronunciation of a particular kanji. There are 7 different radical positions and 214 radicals in total which you can find on one of my favourite online Japanese dictionaries.
You might be wondering, wouldn’t it be easier if Japanese was only written in hiragana?
Well, no. There’s a few reasons:
- It looks childish. Hiragana only texts tend to be children’s books which have a limited number of words per page to teach kids the basic sounds of Japanese.
- Homonyms! These are words that are spelled or pronounced the same but have a different meaning. For example ‘light’ in English could be a noun or adjective: ‘Turn off the light’ (a lightbulb) or ‘This suitcase is light’ (not heavy).
As we learned above, Japanese has a limited number of sounds – which means there are tons of homonyms!
Japanese would be confusing to read without kanji characters because they help readers to interpret meaning. For example the hiragana characters さんせい (sansei) could be ‘agreement’ (賛成), ‘acidic’ (酸性）or ‘production’ (産生).
- Japanese doesn’t use spaces like English so boundaries between words are created with the use of all 3 scripts together. For example:
パンが好きです. (Pan ga suki desu) I like bread.
The red is the noun (katakana), the green are grammatical particles (hiragana), and the blue is a verb (kanji + hiragana).
If things were only written in hiragana, ぱんがすきです。It makes sentenceslooklikethis!
So, how hard is it to learn Japanese writing? It can be a challenge, but you will find many aspects of the writing system are easier than you think. Don’t let kanji scare you off!
Is it hard to learn Japanese grammar? Well, Japanese grammar is one of the language’s easier features.
There is no future tense, and nouns have no gender nor plurals.
The hard part for English speakers is getting used to the Subject – Object – Verb sentence structure. If you can memorize this word order, you’ll be on your way to speaking Japanese in no time!
Let’s look at an example.
English is an S-V-O language (Subject Verb Object):
I go to the station.
S V O
I is the subject go is the verb and the station is the object. While the subject remains the same in Japanese, the verb and object change places.
Japanese is an S-O-V language (Subject Object Verb):
Watashi wa eki ni iku.
S O V
I station (to) go （私は駅に行く / わたしはえきにいく。）
In conversational Japanese, people leave out the subject (I, you, he / she, they, we) because usually the context is clear on who you are talking about.
Most people would just say eki ni iku (go to the station) instead of beginning with watashi wa ( I ) .
Nouns have no gender or number in Japanese!
In French you have to remember feminine and masculine, German has the additional neuter marker, and both of these languages and English use plural forms (girl vs girls / tree vs trees).
In Japanese, you don’t need to worry about any of this!
- Conjugation – Japanese verbs don’t have to agree with the subject. So you skip needing to memorize how to conjugate a verb for each pronoun like I, you, he / she, they or we – the verb remains the same!
- Tense – Japanese has 2 tenses. Yes, 2! Whereas English has around 16 tenses to describe the past, present and future, Japanese only has the present and past. The future is spoken about using time markers, nouns and verbs that indicate intention like tsumori (intention), ni naru (become), ni suru (do), ni iku (go) and ni kuru (come).
- Verb endings – Japanese verbs have specific endings (which can make them quite long) but which carry all of the information about whether you are speaking in the past or present. If you can memorize Japanese verb endings, you are good to go! There are very few exceptions.
Japanese contains a number of particles. Particles usually consist of one or two hiragana characters which show the relationship between words in a sentence. They are sometimes compared to English prepositions such as to, in, on, by and conjunctions like but, so, because, yet but they are not the same.
Common particles are は、が、に、で、を、and の (wa, ga, ni, de, wo, and no). They are easy to recognize but the hard part is that their function in the sentence changes depending on whether they come after a noun or verb. There are 188 particles in total!
Culture and politeness
Japanese revolves around different levels of formality which are expressed using keigo – ‘honorific speech’.
Basically, people address themselves and others differently using different language structures depending on where they are in the context of hierarchy and where the other person is.
Keigo is used in customer service, with elders or people you don’t know well, and it is obligatory in workplace settings.
It’s considered so difficult even by Japanese native speakers that non-native speakers are not expected to master keigo! So you don’t need to worry too much about it, especially when you’re just starting out.
But it’s important to be aware of the concept because it’s an integral part of the language.
There are three divisions which are teineigo, sonkeigo and kenjougo. Learners of Japanese will already be familiar with the first form teineigo.
The three kinds of keigo(敬語）
|Taught to beginner Japanese learners|
Basic level of politeness
-desu (です）and -masu (ます) forms
Honorific suffixes and prefixes
Respectful / Honorific speech
|Shows direct respect for someone of a higher position. Focuses on the listener|
Honorific prefixes ‘O-’ and ‘Go-’
Words like ‘irrashaimasu’ are sonkeigo!
|Used to humble the words of the speaker and lower their social status while speaking about themselves or others|
Is Japanese hard to learn?
So, how hard is it to learn Japanese? Some parts of the language are challenging – but overall, it’s easier than you might think!
Japanese pronunciation and grammar are relatively simple, so when it comes to speaking Japanese, many people find it easier than expected!
Reading and writing Japanese can be more difficult. Kanji is probably the main thing that makes Japanese hard to learn for English speakers with no prior knowledge of the characters. But you can master hiragana and katakana in a matter of weeks – and then you’ll have the basic literacy to read children’s books in Japanese, and other simple texts.
So is Japanese hard to learn? Not necessarily. If you have an interest in Japanese, why not give it a go with one of the many free online courses out there and see how you get on!
Related post: How Long Does it Take to Learn Japanese?
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Francesca is a freelance copywriter and teacher, who moved to Tokyo from New Zealand at age 24. A linguistics and ESL major, she spent 3 years teaching at an all-boys high school. Now based in France, she remains a self-confessed Japanophile who loves kanji, cooking, cats and the outdoors.