According to the American Foreign Service Institute, which provides intensive language training to American diplomats before their placements overseas, Japanese is one of five languages that are considered the most difficult for native English speakers to learn (the others being Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic). Diplomats learning these languages undergo 88 weeks of fulltime language training, which is almost 4 times longer than the language training provided for French or Spanish.
Is Japanese really that difficult?
Well, yes and no. Japanese is very very different from English. More different than any other language I`ve studied. And when you are dealing with greater differences at every step of the way, that means you make slower progress than you would in a language that is more similar to your native tongue. But whether you find Japanese very difficult probably depends on your goals for the language, since in my opinion Japanese gets sharply more difficult at the more advanced levels.
Becoming conversational in Japanese
Learning to communicate and have general conversations in Japanese is not that difficult. A few months after arriving in Japan, I was able to socialize fully in Japanese and go on dates in Japanese. I wasn`t speaking great Japanese, but I was able to communicate and joke around. This is true for most of my friends too.
What`s easy about Japanese?
Japanese pronunciation is easy
Japanese has a very simple and straightforward phonological system that is easy to get a feel for and easy to pronounce. In Japanese there are no consonant clusters, because consonants are always followed by a vowel. Before delving deep into any language, it`s important to learn the proper phonology and pronunciation, so an easy pronunciation system means you make fast progress right from the start.
Most learners of Japanese don`t realize how much of a free pass they get on pronunciation. Learning French has required a lot more attention to phonology than Japanese ever did, and Arabic — that`s a whole other level of challenge.
English loanwords give you a safety net
In daily conversation, Japanese people use a lot of English loanwords (after filtering them through the Japanese phonological system). Some of these are accepted as legitimite Japanese words now, while others are not considered Japanese but are still widely used. Loanwords are so common in everyday conversation that, I have always said, you could speak to Japanese people completely in English and you would be able to communicate perfectly, if you filtered every word through the Japanese phonological system and pronounced it like a loanword. As a beginner I remember falling back on these loanwords all the time when I didn`t know the pure Japanese word. Still to this day, sometimes when I don`t know the precise word in Japanese I simply try an English word with katakana pronunciation. I`m usually thinking to myself “Oh man, there`s no way that`s correct…” only to discover that it is actually correct.
Most Japanese people can`t produce proper sentences in English, but they do know a lot of words they learned in school and they often make use of them. They just change them into Japanese-sounding words. So once you learn the phonology (which is quite simple), and you learn basic Japanese vocab, you can then hack your way through conversations using loanwords (both official and unofficial). This is part of the reason I could have full conversations in Japanese after only a few months in Japan. I may have sounded like a noob, but I was communicating. WIN.
Japanese people are awesome
You might hear some foreigners in Japan complaining that Japanese people always try to practice English with them and never let them speak Japanese. It`s sometimes true, but 95% of the time that only happens in foreigner bars or at “international parties” and if they stepped beyond the boundaries of the typical foreigner`s scene they would find that most people prefer speaking Japanese.
Japanese may be shy on the surface but they are very friendly, polite, and receptive people which makes speaking the language fun and you get positive reinforcement all the time. When speaking French, I kind of have this sense of trepidation that I`m going to offend the other person by speaking their language incorrectly, but with Japanese? Not at all, there is no need to worry about mistakes or let perfectionism slow you down. People will be thrilled to communicate with you in their language, and have no expectation that you will speak it perfectly.
What is challenging about Japanese?
I`ll intentionally steer away from the word “difficult” and use the word “challenging” instead. Lots of people become fluent and literate in Japanese as a second language, so it can`t be said that it`s inherently difficult. There are just more differences to learn if you are a native English speaker than there are if you are, say, Chinese or Korean, so it requires you to invest lots of time and effort. If you are up for that challenge, then Japanese is not difficult. What is challenging about Japanese?
Kanji are ideographic characters that originally came from Chinese. They are like pictures that represent ideas. There are literally thousands of them, around 2000 of which are officially considered “common-use” Kanji that must be taught in schools. But everyday you see other kanji that are not on that list. Most literate adults know at least a few hundred more than that. There are lots of them.
They can be your greatest joy or your worst nightmare.
Unlike Chinese Kanji (actually they call them Hanzi), which have one pronunciation, Japanese Kanji normally have multiple pronunciations and you need to look at the context to guess which one it probably is. Sometimes it`s easy to know which pronunciation to use, but other times it`s not. There are some Kanji that have 10 or more possible pronunciations which represent different meanings.
Learning the first hundred or two hundred kanji is fun, like learning how to solve a puzzle. But once you reach the realm of 400 or 500 kanji, a lot of them start looking very similar and difficult to distinguish. You have to really approach kanji systematically, as well as practice reading Japanese texts a lot in order to build your literacy skills and more advanced vocabulary.
And it helps to view Kanji as a fascinating mystery to be solved, rather than some gigantic oppressive task you have to be burdened with.
Before I said that there are lots of English loanwords in Japanese that make it easier to learn, which is true at the basic conversational level. But when you reach a more advanced level and begin to discuss more advanced topics with specialized vocabulary, loanwords or cognates become much less numerous and Japanese vocabulary starts to require a lot of your attention.
The vocabulary you need to learn to reach an intermediate to advanced level of Japanese is directly tied in with your kanji study. Much of the vocabulary consists of compound words made up of 2 or more kanji, and lots of these words have numerous homonyms (words that sound the same). Let`s say there are 5 Japanese compound words that sound the same, and you only know one of them. If somebody uses one of the other words that sound the same, it could confuse the heck out of you. But if you know the kanji that make up the word, you might be able to hear the sounds of the word and guess the meaning based on the context of the conversation.
Since Japanese vocabulary is largely comprised of such compound words, you have to keep up with your kanji skills as much as you build your vocabulary skills. Japanese is not a language that you can learn to speak fluently without learning to read kanji.
The grammar is completely different from English
With certain languages I`ve studied like French, Hebrew, or Indonesian, to some extent you could just use English grammar and substitute the words with words from the foreign language, and make yourself understood. With Japanese you don`t have a chance in Hell of getting away with that. The way sentences are built is so different that you can`t directly translate or rely on quasi-English syntax – you really need to create every sentence from the ground up.
This is not a bad thing, and once you internalize the patterns then building sentences from the ground up becomes natural. But it means that learning to create sentences takes longer than it does for languages more similar to English. And even after speaking Japanese for many years I still find that it requires a lot of processing power to do this.
But if you`re a native Korean speaker, you`re in luck. Japanese sentence structure is almost identical to Korean sentence structure, so none of the challange that native English speakers face applies to Koreans who learn Japanese.
I remember when I took the Japanese Proficiency Test level N1 (the highest level), and I was one of three non-Asians in the room of 200 examinees. Maybe half of the Asian test-takers were Chinese (kanji is easy for them), and the other half were Korean (the grammar is easy for them).
So whatcha sayin`?
Japanese can certainly be intimidating and seem like an inaccessible language for people interested in studying it, and for people already studying it it can seem like a never-ending mission to achieve fluency. Japanese is the kind of language that you can study forever and never run out of things to learn, so it`s important not to hold yourself to a standard of perfection. Your criteria for success needs to be based on specific goals you set for the language.
For some people that might be to have a chat in Japanese at the bar, or to go to a local restaurant and make new friends by speaking Japanese. For others, it might be to read a novel in Japanese, to go to the cinema and watch and understand a Japanese movie; to pass an interview in Japanese. If your goal is mainly social, then there is no reason at all to be intimidated by Japanese because much of the complexity and challenge of the language comes later. If your goals are more advanced functional goals, then you`ll have to get organized and be disciplined with your study. And if you love the language, that should be an exciting prospect!