No language is easy. Not really.
That said, the difficulties of learning a particular language are often exaggerated.
Whenever I mention that I study Japanese, most people look horrified as the victims on “American Horror Story.”
“That must be so difficult!”
“How long does it take to learn?”
“Is that even a real language?!”
Japanese is, for the most part, the polar opposite of English.
It doesn’t even use the same writing system!
Due to a vast difference in the most basic aspects of the two languages, Japanese can seem not only complicated, but also daunting.
That being said, not all is pain and suffering.
Whether you’re just considering learning Japanese, or you’ve been studying the world of irrasshaimassssseeeeeeee or “Are you honorably fine today?” for years, it may help relieve the burden of tackling the language to think about the things that actually make it simple, and yes, there are some.
In some ways, Japanese is actually simpler than English. Other times, similarities between English and Japanese can be a big help to learners. Either way, it’s never a bad idea to think about the positives.
So let’s forget about what’s hard, and focus on what actually makes Japanese easy to learn.
Easy-to-learn Points: 15 Ways the Japanese Language Lets Learners Relax
1. Optional words
In English, you can omit verbs if context is understood from other sentences. In Japanese, subjects and objects are also optional.
「誰が今日の晩ご飯を作るの？(だれが きょうの ばんごはんをつくるの？)」
dare ga kyou no bangohan wo tsukuru no
“Who’s going to make dinner tonight?”
“I am!” (It’s me!)
ima, nani shiteru no
“What (are you) doing now?”
“(I am) swimming.”
This makes for subtle, nuanced language that you can speak quickly once you’re accustomed to the structure of sentences and the ways in which people make up for a lack of subject.
Often, Japanese conversations will consist of one-word sentences thrown back and forth, with a depth of meaning buried underneath.
2. (Similar) parts of speech
There are parts of speech. That’s really helpful. There are the same parts of speech as in English: verb, noun, adjective and adverb, plus all the other itty-bitties:
Noun: 花 (はな), hana — flower
Adjective: 美しい (うつくしい), utsukushii — beautiful
Adverb: 早く (はやく), hayaku — early
Verb: 食べる (たべる), taberu — to eat
Pronoun: 彼女 (かのじょ), kanojo — she
Pre/postposition: で, de — at/in, に, ni — by/for
You might have noticed above that prepositions become postpositions (Japanese prepositions come after the word to which they refer).
オストラーリアで魚にキスされて、びっくりした。(おーすとらりあで さかなに きすされて、びっくりした。)
oosutoraria de sakana ni kisu sarete, bikkuri shita
In Australia, I was kissed by a fish and I was surprised.
In the above example, there are two prepositions (“in” and “by”), and in the Japanese sentence, they come after the words “Australia” and “a fish,” making them postpositions. But otherwise, Japanese parts of speech function much like their English counterparts.
3. Set phrases
There are probably set phrases in every language, so this seems obvious. It can really help, however, to remember this when you start to learn Japanese, or even when you become really advanced.
You’ll hear a phrase, try and decipher the meaning, and maybe wonder why it’s used the way it is, but when you get into something like business Japanese, this can be time-consuming, as there’s often quite a difference between what a phrase means literally and figuratively.
You can make it much easier on yourself by simply learning set phrases to start with.
pen wo kudasai
A pen, please. / May I have a pen? (Hand me down a pen.)
大変お世話になりました。(たいへん おせわに なりました。)
taihen osewa ni narimashita
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 and find out why they mean what they mean!
4. Gender neutrality
Aside from a few nouns (often referring to people), English doesn’t change word form based on gender. Japanese is similar.
In pronouns, there are two cases of gender-specific words: third person (“she,” “he” and “they”) and first person (“I”). This last is unusual. There are gender-specific options for referring to oneself:
俺 (おれ), ore
僕 (ぼく), boku
That being said, the gender-neutral option, 私 (わたし, watashi / わたくし, watakushi), is not only more polite, it’s 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), haiyuu — actor
女優 (じょゆう), joyuu — actress
若い男の子 (わかい おとこのこ), wakai otokonoko — a young boy
可愛い女の子 (かわいい おんなのこ), kawaii onnanoko — a cute girl
キャビンアテンダント (きゃびん あてんだんと), kyabin atendanto — 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, neuter or the CEO.
5. No noun declension
If you don’t know what declension is, it doesn’t matter because neither English nor Japanese does it. Some languages decline nouns, changing the form to suit their purpose or location in a sentence.
Essentially, one form is for direct objects of actions, another is for your possessions and yet another is for pizza night with red wine and Hulu.
Japanese, like English, uses pre/postpositions to indicate purpose:
Subject: 先生 (せんせい), sensei — the teacher
Direct object: 先生 [を], sensei [wo] — the teacher
Indirect object (“to/for”): 先生 [に], sensei [ni] — [to/for] the teacher
Possessive: 先生 [の], sensei [no] — [of] the teacher, the teacher’s
As with the lack of gender, mentioned above, this makes learning nouns and adjectives easier. With verbs, you’ll learn about transitive/intransitive, and objects (direct and indirect), but the nouns and adjectives in those positions never change form. Besides, by the time you get that far, you’ll have already learned the pre/postpositions for objects, and learning the verbs will be a breeze.
6. Only two verb tenses
In Japanese, there are only two tenses: present/future and past. 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”) potential (“you can do”) imperative (“do it”) and so on, but the two basic tenses, plus the conjunctive/gerund form (“doing” or “I do…, and I”) will get you where you need to go, without lamenting “I would that you might not have said such nasty things to me.”
Present and future: 見る ( みる), miru — I (will) watch/look
Past: 見た (みた), mita — I watched/looked
7. Limited categories of verbs, adverbs and adjectives
Because of English’s multi-culti upbringing, each part of speech has numerous categories of words. For example, nouns that add –s for plural, nouns that add –en for plural, nouns that put on stilettos and a tiny black dress for plural (more on this in just a moment).
In Japanese, adjectives and adverbs each have only two forms, and verbs have three—one of which is a small family of irregulars (“to have,” “to do,” “to be” and “to come”).
So essentially, Japanese verbs also only have two flavors: vanilla and luscious rocky road.
Adjectives: –i words and –na words
Adverbs: –ku words and –ni words
Verbs: –ru verbs and –u verbs
There are different sets of rules for each of those six categories, and the irregular verbs, but the good news is these are sets of rules you can easily learn and categorize. You won’t have to worry about memorizing every form of every word individually, and once you master one form of one word, then you’ve learned the same form of hundreds of similar words.
8. Basically no plurals
“Three oxen and two foxes chased the geese to the women’s houses.”
Clearly, English has no easy rules regarding plurals (see above).
Japanese, on the other hand, 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), hito — person
- 人々(ひとびと), hitobito — people
- Add 達 ( たち ), tachi:
- 私達 (わたしたち), watashitachi — we
- Add ら ra:
- 彼ら (かれら), karera — they
Emphasis on the word “option,” as in you don’t necessarily need to use plural forms. A cat is a cat is the cat is cats and the cats.
ore no neko wa sanbiki no nezumi to asonde, inu wo oikakete, ore no tomodachi wo mushi shita
My cat(s) played with three mice, chased a dog (some dogs, the dog, the dogs), and ignored my friend(s).
It looks messy, but fortunately, Japanese often indicates how many of each object, and when it doesn’t, you’ll be able to infer from context. No more “Is it meese or mooses?”
9. Simple verb forms
“It is…difficult being an adult with a degree in humanities.”
In many languages, English included, verbs change based on who does the action and how many people there are. In Japanese, the verb couldn’t care less. In fact, you can even remove the subject of the sentence and infer the “who” or “how many” from context.
nichiyoubi ni nani wo suru no?
“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 can omit parts as they please and still understand the point coming across.
A lot of Japanese is left unsaid, and rather assumed, which adds an air of mystery to the language. But you can consider this aspect of the language demystified!
10. 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 (what we previously called “postpositions,” but are officially called “particles”) to designate each piece of a statement. The particle follows the noun wherever it goes, like a newly-hatched duckling.
Therefore, nouns can go wherever they please without compromising the integrity of the sentence:
庭で、犬が遊んでいる。(にわで、いぬが あそんでいる。) 犬は、庭で遊んでる。(いぬは、にわで あそんでいる。)
niwa de, inu ga asonde iru / inu wa, niwa de asonde iru
In the garden, the dog is playing. / The dog is playing in the garden.
Because the postpositions 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.
Yet another aspect of Japanese that’s easier than English.
イッピーカイエイ！！(いっぴー かい えい！！ — yippee ki yay!!)
11. No definite or indefinite 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.”
tori wa, puuru ni tobikonda
(The) bird dove into the pool!!
puuru ni, tori ga tobikonda
(A) bird dove into the pool!!
Yet another “leave it unspoken and assume as you wish” aspect of the language. Though it seems the omission would make understanding more difficult, you’ll find you don’t even notice the articles are gone, and you don’t have to worry about learning der, das, ein, una, el and so on.
12. No spacing between words
Admittedly, this actually makes it difficult when you start learning with Japanese characters. And usually when you’re learning with Roman characters or ローマ字 (ろーまじ — romaji), there will be spaces between words.
But once you start using Chinese characters or 漢字 (かんじ — kanji), reading becomes a lot easier. (More on that in a little bit.)
No need to worry about where to insert the space, how wide the spaces should be, which cologne the space should wear on a blind date or how many times to hit the space bar after a period.
13. No capital or lowercase letters/characters
There are two separate sets of Japanese characters, but they have nothing to do with the placement or importance of the word.
When writing ローマ字 (ろーまじ — 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 or Chinese characters, however, the character never changes. Capital and lower-case letters are foreign like live scorpions on a stinky cheese platter. In fact, there’s no way to indicate the importance of a subject or object.
One fewer copyediting issue to think of when you’re writing your bestselling Japanese novel about “The Bird That Sings in Cages to Wind-Up Toys About the Chronicles of Narnia.” (I don’t even know if I capitalized that properly.)
14. Writing systems for different purposes
Japanese has more writing systems than English. This might seem to make things more difficult, but in some ways it can make them easier. Each system serves its own function, so determining when to use one or the other isn’t difficult, and if you’re a graphic designer, you can use them all at once!
As already mentioned, there are Roman letters or ローマ字 (ろーまじ — romaji), Japanese characters or 仮名 (かな — kana) and Chinese characters or 漢字 (かんじ — kanji).
ローマ字 are good for easy reading (and massive billboards and trendy graphic t-shirts). You’ll start with ローマ字 so you can learn vocabulary and grammar while also learning to write Japanese characters.
かな are used for pronunciation, grammatical structures, scientific names and non-Chinese foreign loanwords. They’re becoming increasingly favored over 漢字.
With Japanese, when in doubt, you can count on かな.
漢字 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:
私の新しい猫は意地悪だけど、意外に可愛いから大好きだ。(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。)
watashi no atarashii neko wa ijiwaru dakedo, igaini kawaii kara daisuki da
My new cat is mean, but because s/he is unexpectedly cute, I love him/her.
Above, the 漢字 represent the meanings (“me,” “new,” “cat” and so on), and the かな represent grammatical structures (“of,” adjective endings, subject marker, “however,” “because,” “to” and so on).
15. Consistent pronunciation
Japanese characters, with the exception of two (へ , he / e and は, ha / wa), each have one set reading, and so Japanese is pronounced the way it’s written.
The same certainly can’t be said of English, where the leader leads the hairless bread and the lead even though he already led the leaded heirless head of the house to his untimely death. I don’t know or care what that means and even though I can pronounce it, I wouldn’t expect a non-native speaker to attempt without having learned each of the words in that sentence.
Learning Japanese, this won’t be an issue. None of this eau, samhain or tschüss of the European languages, either.
Admittedly, Japanese is a complicated language. It’s not, however, the most complicated in the world, and even though it seems like a minefield of booby traps, it’s no different than other foreign languages: They all have their issues.
But people do learn them, so it’s possible for you to attain native-speaker status as well!
In some ways, due to the aspects described above, Japanese is a very subtle, nuanced language while also being at least as flowing and organic as English.
There is a structure, but it’s light like rice wine vinegar, not heavy like blue cheese.
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!