Good news – It’s relatively easy to learn how to speak. Bad news – reading and writing are time consuming and Japanese characters are often difficult to memorize!
Japanese is a Unique Language
You may have heard that there are “language families” and languages in the same family are somewhat similar and easy to learn. For example, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French are all in the Romance language family. Within this family, Spanish and Portuguese are categorized as the Ibero-Romance languages – that is why these two languages are very similar to each other.
The Japanese language is under the uniquely unique language.
Is Japanese Hard to Learn?
So, is Japanese hard to learn? As a Japanese teacher, I would say speaking Japanese is not difficult compared to many other languages. First of all, the pronunciation is relativly easy for English speakers. In English, there are 11 vowels (or 12 depending in regions), whereas Japanese has only 5. Those 5 vowels are almost identical to the Spanish five vowels. Once you acquire how to pronounce those 5 vowels, [a] [i] [u] [e] and [o], the only thing you have to be careful of is pronouncing the “length” of those vowles and hearing the differences.
One of the common errors that Japanese learners make is not making a difference between long and short vowels. The pronunciation is exactly the same. It’s only the matter of the length. For example, “Obaasan” and “Obasan” means two different things. The one with the long [aa] sound means “old lady” or “grandma”, and the one with the short [a] sound means “mid-aged lady” or “aunt”. When you try to say “obasan” and if you mistakenly say “obaasan”, people might get upset! (They wouldn’t show that in their face, but in their mind, they could be offended and upset!). So these two differences are quite important.
As for consonants, you need to be careful for a couple of tricky ones. For example, there are no “F” “V” “th” or “R” sounds in Japanese. They have katakana spellings for [V] (ヴァ、ヴィ、ヴェ、ヴォ) but they appear only in the loan words from foreign, especially western, languages.
The pronunciation of “F” sound as in “family” is not the same as English. When you want to make a sound of “fa”, you make your lips round and try to say the first part of “who”. Do not say [oo] but instead, say [a] after [wh]. Then it sounds like this: “famirii”
The [V] sound is very simple. It is replaced with [B] sound. Names like “Las Vegas”, “Venice” or “Victor” become “Bikutaa”
The English “th” has two different sounds as in “bath” or “weather”. The first one is unvoiced – and this becomes [s] sound. When you say “bathroom” in the Japanese loan word style, it becomes as “wezaa ripooto”
For [R] sounds and additional explanation for [F] sounds, please refer to F & R Sounds for more information.
Same as learning other languages, knowing vocabulary and basic sentence structures will help you a lot! If you are a beginner, don’t be shy to use your Japanese. Most of the time, Japanese are very nice to foreigners, and they will try to understand you very carefully. The point is that you should speak up and say things clearly. When speaking in a foreign language, people tend to speak too soft or not clear enough, because they are not confident in their speech. Japanese are always happy to hear when you speak Japanese, even a little. They will praise you for saying even simplest things in Japanese.
Here are some useful expressions for beginners:
- … wa nihongo de nandesuka? (What is … in Japanese?)
- … wa eigo de nandesuka? (What is … in English?)
- sumimasen (Excuse me/ I am sorry.)
- mou ichido onegai-shimasu (Please say it one more time.)
- wakarimasen (I don’t understand.)
- nihongo ga yoku wakarimasen (I don’t know Japanese much).
Reading and Writing Japanese
When asked is Japanese hard to learn? Most people will tell you the hard part of learning Japanese is reading and writing. Japanese use three katakana and kanji (Chinese characters). In any written materials like magazines or posters etc., you see the combination of all of them. To become proficient in reading and writing in Japanese, you will eventually have to know all of them.
In almost all Japanese classes, teachers introduce you to hiragana when you start learning Japanese. However, when it comes to language for survival, I recommend you to start with katakana. Katakana is used for loan words from foreign languages. By learning how to decode each katakana letter, there is high chance that you understand what is written much better than knowing hiragana letters. However, those loan words are spelled in the Japanized pronunciation, so you will need to be familiar with how the Japanese pronouce foreign words. Here are some examples.
- カメラ ka me ra → camera
- ワインバー wa i n ba (long vowel) → wine bar
- スポーツカー su po (long vowel) tsu ka (long vowel) → sport car
- ハンバーガー ha n ba (long vowel) ga (long vowel) → hamburger
- タワー ta wa (long vowel) → tower
- マクドナルド ma ku do na ru do → McDonalds
Japanese like to use shortened words, such as パソコン (personal computer) エアコン (air conditioner) or スタバ (starbucks) as well.
Kanji is the most ticky part of the Japanese writing. Japanese students are required to learn almost homonyms (same sounds but different meanings). For example, the sounds “kai” have the following meanings depending on the context and kanji characters.
- 会 group/meeting
- 回 times (once, twice, etc.)
- 階 floor
- 海 ocean
- 貝 sea shell
- 界 world/field of
- 買い buy
- 下位 lower rank
If you want to master kanji, basically you will need to study them all one by one. You can start from simple kanji, then you can move onto more complicated ones. Most kanji have radicals, which often shows the basic meaning of the character, so knowing radicals first will help your understandings of many kanji charaters.
Keigo – Polite speech
Japanse culture has a seniority system. They are respectful to olders or more experienced individuals. This respect is also found in customer services as well. When Japanese speak, they use different levels of politeness based on who they are talking to and who they are talking about.
Keigo is the Japanese word for respectful speech. There are three types of keigo: teinei-go (simple polite form), kenjou-go (humble form) and sonkei-go (honorifics form). If you are aiming to work in Japan, it is helpful to know all of them, and you might want to be able to speak in keigo. Otherwise, it is especially helpful to know sonkei-go, since you are more likely to be talked to in sonkei-go in customer service situations.
For example, if you ask someone where the washroom is, normal conversation and keigo conversation answers are different as following:
You: Otearai (or toire) wa doko desu ka?
Normal answer: Asoko desu. (It’s over there.)
Keigo answer: Achira ni gozaimasu.
However, if you did not understand what they said in keigo, you may simply ask again or say that you did not understand. They might adjust their speech simpler for you (knowing you are a foreigner).
Japanese is one of the most complicated languages to master. It is for sure a long way to become completely fluent. Although, the good thing is that Japanese are very generous for foreigners and they will try to understand you and forgive your mistakes. There are numerous ways to study and practice Japanese, even for free! The best way to learn a foreign language is having knowledge about the language and culture, and use your knowledge in actual speech. So, is Japanese hard to learn? Yes and no. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your daily study and practice will make your language skills strong! Good luck.