Is Japanese Hard to Learn? (Hint: It’s Actually Easier Than You Think)
Whenever I mention that I study Japanese, most people look horrified.
It’s easy to see why: The Foreign Services Institute—which trains US diplomats in foreign languages from scratch—classifies Japanese as a “super difficult” language.
They estimate that it takes 2,200 class hours (not even including separate study hours!) to become fluent.
But any language can be hard to learn. And I can tell you from personal experience that Japanese isn’t as hard as you might think.
In this post, we’ll take an in-depth look at what makes Japanese easy to learn.
- 1. Consistent pronunciation
- 2. No tones
- 3. (Similar) parts of speech
- 4. Gender neutrality
- 5. No noun declension
- 6. Basically no plurals
- 7. Limited word forms
- 8. Only two verb tenses
- 9. Simpler verb conjugations
- 10. No articles
- 11. Optional words
- 12. Super flexible word order
- 13. Familiar vocabulary
- 14. Set phrases
- 15. Purposeful writing systems
- 16. No spacing between words
- 17. No capitalization
- Why Most People Think Japanese Is Hard to Learn
1. Consistent pronunciation
Japanese only has five vowels, each syllable is pronounced with the same rhythm without any stress and the pronunciation of Japanese words is generally predictable.
The same certainly can’t be said of English, where the spelling doesn’t always match up with the pronunciation. You have to learn each word individually to be sure about how to pronounce them.
Learning Japanese, this won’t be an issue. None of this eau, samhain or tschüss of the European languages, either.
2. No tones
“Tones” in reference to languages refers to a particular way of pronouncing a syllable or word.
For example, in Mandarin Chinese 妈 (mā) — mother and 马 (mǎ) — horse sound like exactly the same word to someone who doesn’t speak a tonal language. They are, in fact, completely different words and are pronounced using different tones. This is how most tonal languages work.
Japanese isn’t a tonal language. This might be surprising to hear, since so many East Asian languages are spoken with tones, including Mandarin Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese.
It also cuts down a lot of the work, since otherwise, you would have to learn the tones for every word!
3. (Similar) parts of speech
Japanese parts of speech are pretty similar to their English counterparts:
Noun: 花 (はな) — flower
Adjective: 美しい (うつくしい) — beautiful
Adverb: 早く (はやく) — early
Verb: 食べる (たべる) — to eat
Pronoun: 彼女 (かのじょ) — she
One difference is that Japanese has particles that act like prepositions, except they come after the word to which they refer:
で — at/in
に — by/for
Here’s an example sentence:
(おーすとらりあで さかなに きすされて、びっくりした。)
In Australia, I was kissed by a fish and I was surprised.
In this example, the particles で and に come after Australia and a fish.
4. Gender neutrality
Aside from a few nouns, Japanese doesn’t really change word form based on gender.
Pronouns are only gender-specific in two cases: third person (she, he and they) and first person (I). Here are gender-specific options for referring to oneself:
That being said, the gender-neutral option, 私 (わたし / わたくし), is not only more polite, it’s also far more common.
There are the basic boy, girl, son, daughter and so on, but otherwise, gender is omitted from nouns and adjectives.
俳優 (はいゆう) — actor
女優 (じょゆう) — actress
若い男の子 (わかい おとこのこ) — a young boy
可愛い女の子 (かわいい おんなのこ) — a cute girl
キャビンアテンダント (きゃびん あてんだんと) — cabin attendant
Learning nouns and adjectives becomes much easier with this in mind, because for adjectives you’ll only need to remember one form, and for nouns, you’ll never have to worry about whether it’s masculine, feminine or neuter.
5. No noun declension
Noun declension means changing the form of nouns based on their purpose or location in a sentence. This happens with languages like German, Greek and Russian. Japanese doesn’t do this at all!
Instead, Japanese uses particles such as を and の to indicate purpose:
Subject: 先生 (せんせい) — the teacher
Direct object: 先生 [を] — the teacher
Indirect object (to/for): 先生 [に] — [to/for] the teacher
Possessive: 先生 [の] — [of] the teacher, the teacher’s
As with the lack of gender, this makes learning nouns and adjectives easier because they never change form.
6. Basically no plurals
Japanese essentially has no plurals. You can pluralize pronouns, words referring to people and a few animal words, but even then, there are only three possible options:
- Double the word:
人 (ひと) — person
人々(ひとびと) — people
- Add 達 ( たち ):
私達 (わたしたち) — we
- Add ら:
彼ら (かれら) — they
Emphasis on the word “option,”—as in you don’t necessarily need to use plural forms.
My cat(s) played with three mice, chased a dog (some dogs, the dog, the dogs) and ignored my friend(s).
Japanese often indicates how many of each object, and when it doesn’t, you’ll be able to infer from context.
7. Limited word forms
In Japanese, adjectives and adverbs each have only two forms. Even verbs have three—one of which is a small family of irregulars (to have, to do, to be and to come).
Adjectives: –i words and –na words
Adverbs: –ku words and –ni words
Verbs: –ru verbs and –u verbs
Each category has its own set of rules, but once you master one form of a word, then you’ve learned the same form of hundreds of similar words.
8. Only two verb tenses
In Japanese, there are only two tenses: present/future tense and past tense.
The present tense (I do) is the same as the future tense (I will do/I’m going to do). There is a separate verb form for I am doing, but for all intents and purposes, the only proper tenses are these two.
You can express a variety of moods and voices, as well, such as passive (it was done by) ability (you can do) imperative (do it) and so on. But the two basic tenses, plus the conjunctive/gerund form (doing or I do…) will get you where you need to go.
Present and future: 見る ( みる) — I (will) watch/look
Past: 見た (みた) — I watched/looked
9. Simpler verb conjugations
In Japanese, the verb really doesn’t change based on who does the action or how many people there are. In fact, you can even remove the subject of the sentence and infer the who or how many from context.
What do you do on Sundays? (On Sunday what do?)
I just sleep. (Sleep only.)
In this sentence, the person doing the action could be anyone. (What does s/he do? What do they do? What will we do?) If we were to expand the conversation, it would be obvious who is doing what, but here, even with only two sentences, both speakers still understand each other.
10. No articles
In Japanese, there are ways of indicating definite or indefinite relationships based on context, but there are no words for a, an or the.
(The) bird dove into the pool!
(A) bird dove into the pool!
You’ll find you don’t even notice the articles are gone, and it’s one less thing to learn.
11. Optional words
In Japanese, subjects and objects are optional if they’re already understood based on context.
(だれが きょうの ばんごはんをつくるの？)
Who’s going to make dinner tonight?
I am! (It’s me!)
What (are you) doing now?
(I am) swimming.
Japanese conversations often include one-word sentences, with a depth of meaning buried underneath.
12. Super flexible word order
There are only two rules about word order in Japanese:
- Verbs come last.
- In compound sentences, each clause must keep its kids in the assigned seating area.
Otherwise, go crazy with word order. Japanese uses particles to designate each piece of a statement. The particle follows the noun wherever it goes.
Therefore, nouns can go wherever they please, assuming you use particles correctly:
In the garden, the dog is playing.
The dog is playing in the garden.
Because the particles follow the nouns to which they refer, you can’t confuse in the garden with in the dog, but you can move each piece around as you please.
13. Familiar vocabulary
There are many common Japanese words that we use in English all the time.
A few words you’re sure to recognize include:
絵文字 (えもじ) — emoji
台風 (たいふう) — typhoon
可愛い (かわいい) — kawaii
豆腐 (とうふ) — tofu
寿司 (すし) — sushi
空手 (からて) — karate
大君 (たいくん) — tycoon
津波 (つなみ) — tsunami
忍者 (にんじゃ) — ninja
布団 (ふとん) — futon
There are certainly even more than these, all of which amount to a hefty vocabulary list that you’re already familiar with.
The opposite is true, as well: Japanese uses many English words, like:
ハンバーガー (はんばーがー) — hamburger
エスカレーター (えすかれーたー) — escalator
Even the well-known Japanese animation style called アニメ (あにめ) or anime is a shortening of the English word animation.
14. Set phrases
When you get to business Japanese, there are a lot of phrases that are figurative, so you won’t necessarily figure out the meaning just by analyzing the individual words.
You can make it much easier on yourself by simply learning set phrases to start with.
A pen, please. / May I have a pen? (Hand me down a pen.)
(たいへん おせわに なりました。)
Thank you very much. (I greatly became taken care of.)
Learning set phrases is at least as useful as building a base of vocabulary. They’ll take you successfully through many a conversation, and once you feel more secure with the language, it’s interesting to break them down!
15. Purposeful writing systems
Japanese has more writing systems than English. Each system has its own function, though, so determining when to use one or the other isn’t difficult:
- ローマ字 (ろーまじ) — Romaji means Roman letters, so they’re good for easy reading. You’ll start with this as a Japanese learner.
- 漢字 (かんじ) — Kanji are words in and of themselves, adopted from Chinese. Because there are no spaces in Japanese text, 漢字 help break up blocks of letters into meaningful parts.
- 仮名 (かな ) — Kana are Japanese characters that are used for pronunciation, grammatical structures, scientific names and non-Chinese foreign loanwords.
漢字 and かな are often mixed in sentences:
(わたしの あたらしい ねこは いじわるだけど、いがいに かわいいから だいすきだ。)
My new cat is mean, but because s/he is unexpectedly cute, I love him/her.
Above, the 漢字 represents the meanings (me, new, cat and so on), and the かな represents grammatical structures (of, adjective endings, subject marker, however, and so on).
If you want Japanese writing to come more naturally to you—and improve your listening skills, vocabulary and grammar at the same time—I recommend using a platform that lets you watch Japanese videos, movies, TV, etc. with subtitles.
For example, FluentU has hundreds of Japanese videos perfect for learning.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
16. No spacing between words
Admittedly, this makes it difficult when you start learning Japanese characters. And usually when you’re learning with romaji, there will be spaces between words.
But once you start using kanji, writing becomes a lot easier.
No need to worry about where to insert the space, how wide the spaces should be or how many times to hit the space bar after a period.
17. No capitalization
When writing romaji, it’s customary, though not required, to capitalize the first letter of a sentence and the first letter of proper nouns.
When writing in Japanese characters, however, the character never changes. In fact, there’s actually no way to indicate the importance of a subject or object.
That’s one less copyediting issue to think of!
Why Most People Think Japanese Is Hard to Learn
You’ve just seen 17 aspects of the language that make Japanese easy to learn… so let’s compare with reasons it seems difficult:
- The Kanji look scary and intimidating. I think that kanji takes the cake when it comes to the most intimidating part of Japanese. Since there’s nothing like it in almost any other language—apart from Chinese characters and the occasional Hanja in Korean—people who speak other languages (especially non-Asian) think it will take them an eternity to master.
- Japanese sounds so different from English. Japanese is spoken very fast—in fact, research has found it to be the fastest-spoken language in the world. And since Japanese doesn’t stress most of its syllables, it sounds very different and unnatural to untrained ears. But little do people know that this no-stress pronunciation rule actually makes Japanese words way easier to say.
- There are three Japanese writing systems. Japanese uses kanji, hiragana and katakana to spell and write words. But they’re not used interchangeably, and you’ll see sentences that use all three types. Again, kanji are Chinese characters for Japanese words, hiragana is the Japanese script for native Japanese words and katakana is the alphabet that’s used to spell foreign words, like loanwords from English.
- Japanese grammar is very different from English grammar. Japanese sentences follow the subject-object-verb (SOV) word order, whereas English uses the subject-verb-object (SVO) order. Plus, Japanese particles are used to identify the roles certain words play in a sentence. Grammar points like these can be confusing at first, but once you get used to them, you’re golden.
All these concepts make Japanese a very subtle, nuanced language. There is a structure, but it’s light like rice wine vinegar—not heavy like blue cheese.
So, is Japanese hard to learn?
You may have your own opinion still, but I hope that by viewing the language through a “big picture” lens, and seeing that it’s sometimes pretty easy, you can now approach it more confidently!
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
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FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.
The FluentU app is now available for iOS and Android, and it's also available as a website that you can access on your computer or tablet.