One question that I’m asked all the time is whether Japanese is a difficult language to learn. My instinctual answer would be to say that it’s easy, but I’m 11+ years invested in the language already. Well I would say that wouldn’t I? 😀 However, I do truly believe that anyone can learn Japanese with a little time and effort.
Speaking Japanese is easier than you might think
Unlike say, Chinese or Thai, Japanese has no tones. The great thing about Japanese is that you can immediately use a new word and everyone will understand you. Try that with Chinese or even Korean!
In fact, Japanese is such a sound poor language that can be challenging for Japanese people to listen to and understand foreign languages. There’s just a lot less there in terms of sounds and that makes your job easier.
Learning to speak conversational Japanese is actually comparable to any other language. The vocabulary used between friends and family is rather limited. Basic grammar is easy once you get the hang of its inherent differentness. If you put in the effort on a daily basis, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be conversational in a matter of months of living in Japan.
Another easy aspect of Japanese is the shyness of the locals with regards to English. In my experience, Japanese people are embarrassed to use English so your efforts to learn the language will be warmly welcomed (unlike the Germans in Germany who always want to speak English!).
How long did it take me to learn Japanese?
In my case, it took about 6 months to reach a decent level of spoken Japanese. My approach was extremely simple. I bought a ton of language courses and Japanese textbooks as well as socialising with Japanese people wherever I met them. No boring language classes! The results naturally followed and it was an extremely fun process. Definitely one of the best periods of my life so far. Of course, I was still making tons of mistakes but I was usually understood.
Reading and writing are a very different beast
While I maintain that learning to speak Japanese is straightforward, reading is pretty difficult. Very difficult, even. To read Japanese, you must master 1000s of Chinese characters (known as the kanji). Further, and to make matters worse, there are multiple ways to pronounce any given kanji so it’s a long old road to literacy. It’s not my intention to scare you away here. Again, if you commit to studying the written language and put the necessary time in then you will make significant progress.
But I won’t sugarcoat it. It will you take a lot of time and effort to become literate. To paraphrase Barry Farber, when it comes to Japanese you should make speaking your hare and reading your tortoise.
Business Japanese is a distinct language of its own
Now let’s assume that you can converse with and text your Japanese friends with ease. You’ve even learned enough kanji to the extent where you’re able to read some pretty tricky texts too. So have you made it? Not just yet!
If you plan on ever working in the Japanese business world then there’s still a long way to go. You can be very functional in casual Japanese and yet useless in a business context. Go listen in on a business meeting in Japanese and feel your confidence drain away into nothing.
I think it’s not exaggerating to state that business Japanese is a distinct language of its own. It bears little resemblance to what’s commonly spoken in the bars or at home. This is of course down to politeness and technical terms to some extent, but many words are actually completely different.
When Japanese university students graduate and start their first proper jobs in the real world, they have to study business Japanese. That is, how to speak on the phone with customers, write business emails and so on.
Back when I was working for a Japanese IT company, I still remember observing a young coworker’s first week on the job. He got constantly chewed out by his older sempai for his choice of wording on the phone. On Monday he was fresh and keen. By Friday, the poor kid was almost in tears! This strict treatment continued for months until he apparently reached a level of eloquence deemed acceptable. It’s amazing to me that almost 2 decades in school doesn’t prepare Japanese students for the business world, but I suppose the state of modern education in Asia is another post for another day.
For foreigners, mistakes will be tolerated and indeed expected. However, understanding what’s going on around you will be vital to your job success in Japan. If you are at the stage of considering a career in Japan, I recommend looking into the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJPT). Certification is highly prized by Japanese employers so make sure you have some evidence of your language proficiency.
After some consideration, I would say that Japanese is an easy language to start out in. Conversation comes quickly if you study enough and put yourself out there. However, reaching an advanced level in Japanese is a difficult mission. It’s certainly not mission impossible but it will require some serious dedication and a long process. Perhaps all languages are that way to some extent, but Japanese is deep. Despite now working as a freelance Japanese translator, I still learn something new every day. On that note, I wish you the best of luck with your studies!
What were your experiences of learning Japanese? Did you find it easy or otherwise? Let me know in the comments below!