One question that I’m asked all the time is: “How hard is it to learn Japanese?”
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, effort and consistency.
Why speaking Japanese is easier than you might think
No Tones, Easy Phonetics
With the exception of a few phonemes that don’t appear in English (Tsu and Dzu for example), there aren’t many difficult sounds in Japanese.
In fact, Japanese is such a sound-poor language that can be challenging for Japanese people to listen to and understand foreign languages.
One note about intonation: though it’s not a tonal language, intonation does matter in Japanese. In that way, it’s similar to how we use intonation to convey meaning in English. But it won’t make or break you being understood.
Lots of Loan Words from English
If you’re a native speaker of English, you’re in luck. There are thousands of loan words from English in Japanese, many of which are now used more than their original Japanese counterparts.
Some common examples of loan words include:
- Suupaa (Supermarket)
- Maiku (Microphone)
- Biru (Building)
- Pasokon (Personal Computer)
- Depaato (Department Store)
Basic Grammar Isn’t Too Bad
Basic grammar is easy once you get the hang of the fundamentals. Japanese is an SOV language, which differs from SVO European languages. As such, it can be a bit tricky starting out. However, because it is organized fairly logically it makes for easy learning. Verb conjugation is relatively straightforward, however one thing that causes a lot of confusion with beginners is the correct use of particles (‘ga’, ‘wo’, ‘ni’, etc).
Another good point for learning Japanese is that the verbs don’t change with the sentence subject. For example:
- I see. (Miru)
- He/she sees. (Miru)
- They see. (Miru)
Finally, unlike some European languages (French, Spanish), nouns are not masculine or feminine; they don’t have genders in Japanese. This is a godsend if you’ve ever tried to learn a language like French!
Limited Vocabulary Used in Conversational Japanese
Learning to speak conversational Japanese is actually comparable to any other language. The vocabulary used between friends and family is fairly limited. 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.
Practicing is Relatively Easy
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!).
Reading and writing Japanese can be difficult
The writing system in Japanese is often characterized as complex, which is a fair assessment. Japanese uses 3 different ‘alphabets’ in writing: hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Hiragana and Katakana
Japanese uses two phonetic alphabets: Hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is used for native Japanese words, while katakana is used to write loan words.
They can both be learned in a day of dedicated study, so shouldn’t be too intimidating. There are a few characters people commonly mix up, but you can find good mnemonics for these as well.
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 (kun yomi and on yomi) 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.
Keigo and Formal Japanese
Formal Japanese (Keigo) is far from normal conversational Japanese, so much so that you could almost consider it a different language. Ok, hyperbole…
That said, if your goal in using spoken Japanese is mostly to have conversations with friends, then you might not need to study this much.
Business Japanese is very different from regular conversation
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.
A Real Life Example of Business Japanese
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 native Japanese people 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.
Case Studies: How long did it take us 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.”
“I think made the biggest strides in my Japanese at two different time periods. The first was when I did a study abroad year in Japan in university. It was easy to make Japanese friends, and practice the language daily. I’d say I reached a low-intermediate conversation level in that first study abroad year.
The second big level jump was when I was working as an English teacher in Shizuoka. I gave myself two ambitious goals: pass N2; and really improve my Japanese speaking. Studying for N2 gave me the motivation to really dedicate study time to reading and understanding. But the biggest thing that helped my Japanese was shadowing native Japanese daily using Japanese podcasts. At first I could only catch words here and there, but eventually I could do entire sentences. After just a month or two, my Japanese friends started complimenting me on how fast my accent and speaking were improving.”
Conclusion: How hard is it to learn Japanese?
Japanese Is Easy Enough To Speak; Takes Time To Learn To Read And Write
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 for many years, I still learn something new every day.
On that note, we wish you the best of luck with your studies! If you’re looking to get serious about learning Japanese, we recommend you take a look at JapanesePod101.
What were your experiences of learning Japanese? Did you find it easy or otherwise? Let us know in the comments below!