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How hard is Japanese?

Japanese is hard. Really hard.

Or is it? Many people assume Japanese is a difficult language but maybe it's not as hard as it first seems?

There are lots of misconceptions around the difficulty of the Japanese language and how hard it is to learn. I'll be addressing a few of these misconceptions such as writing in Japanese, speaking in Japanese and Japanese grammar.

What’s your mother tongue? The language you speak and are learning Japanese from can make a huge difference. If you know Mandarin Chinese, you will have an advantage with writing and reading. If you speak Korean then Japanese will be much easier to pick up, as the languages are much more similar. If you speak English (very likely) then there are new concepts to learn in Japanese that don't exist in English.

Reading and writing

Japanese has three writing systems: hiragana, katakana and kanji. The first two are syllabic which just means a character represents a sound like ひ or ‘hi’. These syllables are put together much like English uses the letters of the alphabet. Katakana also follows the same structure, so is easy to learn once you've mastered hiragana. Hiragana was created to represent Japanese words and sounds, whereas katakana was developed to represent "loan" words, or words from foreign languages such as English and French.

As for learning Kanji, it is true there are thousands, but even native speakers can’t read or write them all. According to the Japanese government there are 2,136 kanji that are in frequent usage. These are called the  Jouyou kanji (常用漢字). These are common and frequent kanji that make up about 95%+ of what you would ever encounter. If you can read and write all the Jouyou kanji then you are able to read and write fluently in Japanese.

Do I need to learn Kanji?

No, but it does help. Even knowing the first 200 can make a significant impact if you're planning to live or work in Japan.

Speaking and listening

Speaking Japanese comes with its own challenges. However getting used to the sounds and pronunciation is actually pretty straight forward. Japanese is far more consistent than English is with how words should sound.

Japanese can be tricky due to a large number of homonyms. These are words that sound the same but have different meanings. For example, '要る' and '居る', both are pronounced 'iru', but the first means 'to be necessary' and the second 'to exist'. Context can usually make it clearer which one is being used, but this can cause some difficulties for beginners. Japanese is not unique in this regard, English and many other languages have homonyms.

Grammar

Grammar in Japanese is actually very logical and consistent compared with English. Japanese grammar follows very logical patterns and uses 'particles' to label the meaning behind words. These particles such as 'は' , 'と' and 'で' pronounced 'wa' ,'to' and 'de' respectively, are used to show how words relate. For example:

私は友達と日本語で話します。

Watashi wa tomodachi to nihongo de hanashimasu.

I speak Japanese with my friends.

The three particles label the words and make clear how they are being used.

は Topic (ha)

と With (to)

で Using (de)

This makes understanding the purpose and relationships between words very explicit in Japanese.

The other challenge learners often cite is the word order. English and Chinese follow Subject Verb Object or (SVO). In Japanese, most sentences follow Subject Object Verb (SOV). This means that you need to wait until the end of the sentence to truly understand what was being said. This can be tricky when translating between languages. A helpful hint when translating from Japanese to English is to start at the end of the sentence and work your way backwards.

私は寿司を食べます。

わたしはすしをたべます。

Watashi ha sushi wo tabemasu. (Subject, Object, Verb)

I eat sushi (Subject, Verb, Object)

These are some of the reasons learners find Japanese challenging, but these can easily be mastered with a bit of practice. We will cover more of these topics in detail with guides on how to tackle these challenges.

The final piece I’ll leave you with is try not to focus on the difficulty of a language, but more your motivations or interests in learning the language. Every language has challenges or aspects that make it unique. Japanese is no different. If you want to learn Japanese and are willing to put in the effort, learning Japanese is definitely achievable.

Good luck!

頑張って!

がんばって!

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December 20, 2019 10:52 AM