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Japanese is the ninth most spoken language in the worldJapanese is the official language of Japan, where it is spoken by approximately 125 million native speakers. It is also spoken in Japanese expatriate communities around the globe, and is also spoken fluently by some older people in Asian countries which were once colonized by Japan (such as Korea, Taiwan, and China).

Japanese is generally thought to be unrelated to any other major languages, with the possible exception of Korean – which is very similar in terms of syntax but lexically almost entirely different despite the close proximity of Korea and Japan. The most closely related languages to Japanese are the Ryukyuan Languages of Okinawa, which have been replaced by Japanese for the most part and are now endangered. But Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages form the Japonic language family.

Japonic language family map

Japanese is grammatically unrelated to Chinese, even though large numbers of Chinese characters have been incorporated into the Japanese language and this has had a big impact on Japanese vocabulary. Chinese characters are often combined together to create compound words from their Chinese pronunciations, though these pronunciations are not tonal in Japanese and have in most cases become quite different from their original pronunciation.

Chinese characters (called “Kanji” in Japanese) are written in combination with two syllabary scripts, called Hiragana and Katakana. Oftentimes, Kanji will be used to represent the root word, with Hiragana used to indicate the various prefixes and suffixes that are attached to the root. The Katakana syllabary is usually used to write loanwords from English or other foreign languages, but is also used sometimes for emphasis, similar to boldface type or italics.

Japanese is an agglutinative language, meaning that words are formed and “glued” together from different morphemes, each adding an extra element to the meaning of the word. Whereas in English you say “I ended up going” (4 words), in Japanese you would say “itteshimatta” (1 word), made up of the morphemes iku (to go) + te suffix (a connective form) + shimau (end up) + ta (past tense ending). The pronoun “I” is generally implied and not spoken.

Japanese has a number of regional dialects, though these have converged and become much less distinct during the 20th and 21st century. Almost all Japanese people can speak Standard Japanese, and these days even casual speech is much closer to Standard Japanese than it was 50 years ago.

Japanese is considered one of the most challenging languages for native English speakers to learn, because of its very different way of forming words and sentences, as well as its complex writing system which makes achieving full literacy a monumental task. But despite the challenge, Japanese is studied by millions of people around the world every year, especially in China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia. Every year hundreds of thousands of people take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) either in Japan or at a location abroad. There are 5 levels, from N5 (the most elementary) to N1 (the most advanced).

Japanese is the ninth most widely spoken language in the world, when judged by number of native speakers.

  • Joshua Yamashita

    Your comprehensive description of Japanese writing system is correct but I am afraid that it sounds so intimidating for those interested in learning Japanese language, say, because of animé, cosplay or sushi etc.

    By the way, for the Japanese who have learned literary Japanese grammar and old orthographical system, it is bit easier to take up the sound system of modern Chinese variants, such as Mandarin, Teochowese, and Cantonese.

    Lovely and great site! (^。^). Have a nice week.

  • LangFocus

    Thanks for the comment, Joshua! I hope it`s not intimidating for casual learners. Japanese is definitely a fun language to learn and it`s not hard to learn the basics.

    That`s interesting. I`ve never studied Classical Japanese, but it makes sense that it would help in learning Chinese because of their historical connection.