Japanese is a pretty incredible language.
And yet, when some people consider learning Japanese head-on, they quickly get spooked away. It’s no wonder why: Japanese, to the novice or non-speaker, can seem very difficult.
People say that there are too many “alphabets,” that the sentence structure is too different from English, that it’s far to quickly-spoken to catch on.
Unfortunately, this perception of Japanese as a difficult language leads some to abandon it before they even start, thinking, “Maybe Japanese just isn’t for me.”
So what’s the truth? Is Japanese really that hard to learn?
The short answer: No.
The slightly longer answer: No, but it can have challenging moments.
In this post, we’re going to unpack some reasons why Japanese isn’t as difficult as you might think, as well as a few reasons why it does get difficult at times.
Ready to dive in? Let’s start the process of changing your mind about learning Japanese with some reasons why it’s easier to learn than you ever realized!
Is Japanese Hard to Learn? The Honest Truth About Learning the Language
Why Learning Japanese Can Be Easy
Some of these reasons why Japanese is super easy may surprise you.
That might as well be one of your reasons for learning the language—Japanese is full of interesting surprises!
You already know many Japanese words.
For most of us, the Japanese language isn’t entirely that foreign. Even if you’ve never studied the language, there are actually 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 of words that you’re already familiar with.
The opposite is true, as well: Japanese uses many English words, like レストラン (れすとらん) — restaurant and many others. Even the well-known Japanese animation style called アニメ (あにめ) — anime is actually a shortening of the English word “animation.”
Sometimes, the two language even merge together, like in the case of カラオケ (からおけ) — karaoke, which is actually derived from a shortened, borrowed English word merged with a shortened Japanese word. (It roughly means “without an orchestra”!)
There are many instances of both Japanese words in English and vice versa. You’re not a total newbie after all!
Japanese isn’t spoken with tones.
“Tones” in relation 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 look 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.
One would think that if Japanese is derived from Chinese that it should be tonal. Not only is this not the case, but Japanese actually isn’t based on the Chinese language at all. This is a very common myth.
While kanji is based in part on Chinese writing systems, the languages themselves are totally unrelated.
So, there’s one mark for Japanese: There are no tones to worry about!
Japanese learners can learn Japanese without the need to go to a formal college class.
It’s true! You don’t have to invest in a four-year Japanese course at a fancy university for thousands of dollars to learn Japanese. Thanks to modern technology, you can learn the entire language on your own straight from your smartphone.
There are a ton of incredible websites and apps designed to help you learn Japanese.
For instance, FluentU has an impressive library of Japanese videos, complete with kanji, hiragana, romaji and English translations right in the subtitles. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. You can try it out in your browser or download the app for flexible learning.
Other popular Japanese-learning apps include Busuu and Duolingo, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! It does cost a bit of money to use some apps and online lessons, but you can definitely find plenty of apps that are free or at least have free bells and whistles.
In addition to apps, you can also find Japanese podcasts, learning videos, online courses and the list goes on and on! Thanks to the internet, you can find hundreds of resources for learning Japanese on your own.
Why Learning Japanese Can Be Hard
It’s worth noting that some of the reasons why Japanese is hard to learn can apply to many other languages as well. Whether you’re learning German, Chinese or Klingon, every language has its own pain points.
Getting past the challenges is part of what makes learning a new language so exciting and satisfying!
Japanese uses four methods of writing.
Japanese doesn’t use one “alphabet” for its writing system. Instead, it has four different forms of writing.
Two of the Japanese writing systems are syllabaries. A syllabary is a group of written characters that represent syllables in words, rather than individual letters. Unlike the Latin alphabet and other languages like German or Russian, Japanese has syllabaries rather than a letter-based alphabet.
It also has a form of writing borrowed from Chinese and an English-ized method of sounding out words.
Here’s a breakdown of the four different Japanese writing styles:
漢字 (かんじ) — kanji
Kanji is essentially the OG writing system of Japan. Kanji characters are based on Chinese characters and are often almost identical to their partner words in Chinese.
This writing system is one of the most difficult parts of Japanese to learn, as there are over 2,000 different characters to learn and many kanji have several different readings.
With practice, though, anyone can master kanji! Take it one step at a time and learn kanji as you learn new vocabulary. You’ll build up your knowledge of the writing system faster than you’d expect.
平仮名 (ひらがな) — hiragana
Hiragana is a syllabary that breaks words down into individual symbols that sound out a particular syllable.
For example, each of these characters represent specific sounds: ひ — “hi,” ら — “ra,” が — “ga” and な — “na.” Together, they spell ひらがな — hiragana.
片仮名 / カタカナ (かたかな) — katakana
Katakana is a syllabary that’s used when trying to pronounce something from another language as well as for a few other things like sound effects.
Japanese often takes English words like “hamburger” (as well as words from other languages), and turns them into a Japanese-ified word. Katakana is used for these borrowed words, turning “hamburger” into ハンバーガー (はんばーがー) — hanbāgā.
ローマ字 (ろーま じ) — rōmaji
Rōmaji is the easy one. It’s simply the romanized reading of a Japanese word. Non-Japanese speakers and readers use rōmaji to understand how to properly pronounce words.
It’s written using English letters, so there’s nothing to learn there!
It can be confusing to deal with a whole different way of writing, but learning all of the Japanese forms of writing is definitely doable! Just start with the syllabaries and pick up kanji along the way.
Japanese grammar is very different from English grammar.
Grammar is the backbone of any language. It dictates sentence structure, word order and can drastically change the meaning of a sentence when used incorrectly. Japanese and English use a significantly different sentence order, which may present a problem for learners trying to grasp the Japanese language.
Japanese grammar contains a Subject-Object-Verb word order (as opposed to English’s Subject-Verb-Object order). So a simple sentence like “I go to the park” in English would sound roughly like this in Japanese: “I park to go.”
You also need to remember that nouns always come before prepositions and adjectives always come before the noun they describe.
In addition to the word order, using the correct Japanese article can be a challenge for beginners, as well—articles are used to denote subjects, motion, object, questions and more and can be tough to master.
In this sense, Japanese grammar is a bit more complicated than English grammar.
Grammar is almost always a roadblock for newbies learning Japanese, but just like anything worth learning, there are going to be challenges!
Japanese is spoken very quickly.
A 2015 study found that Japanese is the fastest-spoken language in the world. English is spoken significantly slower, which could present an issue for learners who aren’t used to processing a language so fast.
On the other hand, Japanese sentences have a very low information density, which means that it takes many syllables to express a simple concept.
However, with a bit of time and speech practice, we bet you’ll be able to catch up!
After reading both sides of the question, are you ready to take on learning Japanese? Learning any new language is a fun, challenging and at times life-changing experience.
We hope that with a little push, you can take on learning Japanese today!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.