It is thought by many people that Japanese is a hard language to learn, and some people even consider it one of the most complicated languages to master in the world, on par or even harder than Chinese. Or some think that only people who can already read moon-runes can learn to speak Japanese fluently such as Chinese speakers, and it is an awful idea to even try if your native language is English but, is that really true?
In this article, we will look at some of the characteristics of the Japanese language and compare it to other languages and against English to show its similarities, differences, and quirks. So, you can decide by yourself at the end if Japanese is as hard to learn as it is commonly thought or actually how Japanese is easy to learn instead.
Grammar (How hard/easy is it to learn Japanese? )
In contrast with romantic and other similar languages, pronouns and nouns do not possess a gender. For example, while in Spanish, any noun has a gender assigned to it, such as “ball” in Spanish is “La pelota,” in Japanese, such as in English, words do not possess a gender, so that “ball” is simply “`ボール” (Booru). This reduced the amount of information one needs to memorize to just the pronunciation and the word itself. It also doesn’t have definite or undefined articles, so there’s no difference in Japanese from “the ball” and “a ball” in Japanese both cases it will be simply, “ball”
No Plural forms (in general)
In Japanese, for most nouns there is no need to remember if they are so singular or plural. While In English, for example, a group of sheep is called a flock. In Japanese, you would just use “羊 .” It doesn’t matter that it is one, two or two hundred. All of them would be sheep. As an example, you are on a trip and on top of a hill. There are many sheep, while in English, the grammatically correct way would be to say, “there is a flock over there!”. In Japanese, the correct way to say it would simply be, “羊がいる！” (Hitsuji ga iru!).
There is an exception, mainly when referring to nouns. One would add plural suffixes, such as the formal たち (Tachi) or the informal ら (Ra). So, while for calling yourself would be 私 (Watashi), when referring to “We” you could use 私たち (Watashi-Tachi). It is essential to say that these exceptions are uncommon and mainly used when referring to proper nouns or is essential to denote a plurality for context. The good thing is that there are no exceptional cases besides these, so if there is a need to add the plurality, it never will be a mistake to simply use たち.
Japanese has a general verb “する” (Suru) that would be like “Do” in English. This makes it that when there is something you need to do or did, it could simply be explained by grabbing the noun and adding the general verb at the end of it, making it already the verb explaining the action. An example would be “買い物” (Kaimono), Which would translate just as “bought items”. So when adding the general verb to it “買い物する” (Kaimono suru), it would become “Shopping.”
Omission of pronouns.
Japanese, while it has pronouns, such as he 彼 (Kare), she 彼女 (Kanojo) and a whole variety to choose the one you prefer to call yourself; from the agender and formal 私 (Watashi) to the masculine and informal 俺 (Ore) and its feminine counterpart あたし (Atashi). While they exist, in reality they are omitted most of the time. In Japanese, it is common to infer to whom you are referring in a sentence based on previous context or just the absence of a pronoun. For example. When saying, “I went shopping yesterday” in Japanese, the only thing that you would need to say would be 昨日,買い物した (Kinou, kaimono shita) Yesterday Shopping did. As you can see, there is no need to refer to yourself in the sentence. This Makes the sentences shorter and, at the same time, reduces the possibilty to make a mistake or a great safeguard for when you forget the name of someone too!
Omission of particles
One of the things that can make Japanese confusing for native speakers of European languages would be the existence of “Particles” These are small blocks that join the pronouns, nouns and verbs to become a sentence. The most common ones are は(Wa)、が(Ga)、に(Ni)、へ(E)、を(O). And the biggest problem with them is that they do not have a direct translation to English. But the exciting thing is that, in Japanese is easy. It is pretty standard that when not speaking informally, like through an SNS or with friends Even without present, the particles can be inferred so they can be removed from the sentence entirely. Thanks to that the receiver will actually understand the meaning of your sentences without the need to worry about if the particle you are using is correct or not! For example. While the correct and polite way to write “I went to my friend’s house yesterday” in Japanese would be 「昨日は友達の家に行きました」(Kinou Wa Tomodachi no Ie ni Ikimashita) Yesterday WA Friend’s house NI Went, when talking informally, such as with a friend, it would simply become 「昨日友達の家行った」 (Kinou Tomodachi no Ie Itta) Yesterday Friend’s house went.
Informal and formal verbs
In one way or another, all verbs in Japanese are regular, so there are no irregular verbs such as in English “Eat” that becomes “Ate” in past tense. In Japanese there are simply two groups of verbs, Godan Verbs and Ichidan Verbs. Thanks to there being two regular groups it makes it easy to remember some simple rules for each of the group and with that, you will instantly be able to conjugate and use all the new vocabulary that you learn. And, what is even better is that, with some easy to spot exceptions, It is easy to distinguish to which group most verbs are part of. For example, all Ichidan Verbs end in る “Ru”. In Japanese, there is no need to check the dictionary every time you learn a new word to check its past, imperative, progressive form, etcetera.
And another even better thing is that if you don’t mind speaking formally, all verbs in formal Japanese act and conjugate the same! This is called the ます(Masu) Form of the verb. It is so easy to conjugate verbs in formal form that even some Japanese study guides recommend that new learners of Japanese start with formal Japanese as it is super easy to master! For example, “Eat” in Japanese would be 食べます (Tabemasu) and just changing the ます (Masu) For ません(Masen) makes it negative, for ました(Mashita) to make it past tense and ませんでした (Masendeshita) to make it the negative past form of Eat.
It is said that the Japanese language does not have a future. And that is right, the Japanese language does not have a future tense! There is no will, might, going to, etc. In Japanese, it is simply explained by changing the time of the action with the present tense. So for example, when saying “I will eat sushi tomorrow” it would become あしたは寿司を食べる (Ashita Wa Sushi O Taberu) Tomorrow Wa Sushi O Eat. This reduces the number of conjugations and the variety of words used to state future tense in English to simply none.
Reading & writing (How hard/easy is it to learn Japanese? )
I think it is a good time to talk about the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to learning Japanese. The writing system makes it look so difficult to learn because it possesses not only one but 3 different writing systems. It has Hiragana, Katakana, and the Chinese-originated characters called in Japanese “Kanji .” And while some people try to say that it is unnecessary to learn all of them as “Japanese people mostly only use hiragana and just some kanji”, it is my obligation to tell you, the reader, that all the 3 of them are used in everyday life. But there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. But for that, first the 3 different writing systems will be explained below,
Hiragana is the one that is usually taught at first in Japanese, and it is the one used to input the other two in Japanese when typing. It is necessary to say that Hiragana is not an alphabet but a syllabary. It is closer to the phonetic symbology used in dictionaries to explain how a word is pronounced in English than the Latin alphabet. Hiragana always look “curvy,” and it is the easiest to differentiate from the 3 of them; it is usually used to add the “restant pronunciation” from Kanji or for particles and conjugations. For example, “Eat” (食べる) is written with the Kanji 食 and the Hiragana for the rest of the word べる. With more than 50 symbols, it might look quite a lot more complex than the Latin alphabet. While in the number of characters, that is true, each character only has one or at most 2 pronunciations and those extra pronunciations are only used in exceptional cases. Such as to differentiate particles like は, which usually is pronounced Ha (As in Ham), but when used as a particle, it is pronounced as Wa (as in Waldo). This makes it easier to learn because, every time you use a hiragana, you will always know how to pronounce it correctly from the get go. Meanwhile, in English, we could simply see that every E in “Mercedes” is pronounced differently.
Katakana is similar to Hiragana in that it is also a phonetic syllabary, so it is also made of around 50 characters and its variations, and all of them correspond to another character in the Hiragana syllabary. One would ask why there are two writing systems if both of them have the same number of characters and pronunciations? Well, the reason is that while hiragana is used for Japanese words and phrases, it is Katakana, the one used for loan words and phrases that come from another language, such as English! For example ボール(Booru) “ball”, ペン(Pen), スマホ(Sumaho) “smartphone”.
And at last, there is Kanji. Kanji is the system that was “imported” from China and is the oldest writing system used in Japan. As a matter of fact, It is from modifying the Kanji that the other two, Hiragana and Katakana were created. Well, but what is a Kanji? Is it a letter? A syllabus like the other two?
First of all, Kanji is a character that encompasses an idea. For example, 食 means “eat,” and 飲 means “drink”. These Kanji have a meaning by themselves, so just by seeing them, a person would understand what they mean. Without anything else. Just that it wouldn’t be anything but an idea, nothing about its context nor form. That is what, in Japanese, Hiragana is for. Hiragana is used to add context and transform the idea conveyed through the kanji into a word or phrase with an actual meaning.
Then, what is the pronunciation of a Kanji? In Japanese, even though, in most cases, a single Kanji character has a single meaning, depending on the hiragana or even other kanji that are next to it, the pronunciation will change.
An example of this would be 食べる(taberu) “eat” and 飲む(nomu) “drink,” when both of them are together, both of their pronunciations change to 飲食(inshoku) and the meaning also changes to “consumption (of food and drinks).”
One would ask, there are many pronunciations and a whole myriad of Kanji to learn! How is it that I’m supposed to learn them all?!
Well, thankfully, there is a trick to be able to learn the Kanji most of the time; Kanji in Japanese have two types of pronunciations; On-Yomi and Kun-Yomi. On-Yomi is the one that is close to the original pronunciation in Chinese, and it is the one that is used when a Kanji is together with another one. For example, 食 would be pronounced (Shoku) with another Kanji. And Kun-Yomi is used when the kanji is alone or in exceptional cases only. Another tip is that complex kanji usually get their On-Yomi pronunciation from the “roots” or the simpler kanji that makes it. One example would be that most kanji that have the root Kanji 工 (Kou) share that same pronunciation, such as 項(Kou) & 功(Kou). With just knowing the roots, one could “guess” the pronunciation of a Kanji they just saw for the first time.
How many Kanji does one need to know to read Japanese? According to the list of Kanji that should be known by everyone「常用漢字」(Jouyou Kanji), one should know 2,136 Kanji. But this is considered an estimate, and depending on the situation and environment, one would use around 500~1000 different Kanji a week.
Vocabulary (How hard/easy is it to learn Japanese? )
About the vocabulary in Japanese, recently, the number of loan words used in everyday life has been on the rise, especially among the younger generation; this gives an exciting head start to English speaking people who are trying to learn Japanese as a significant amount of loan words come from English with Japanese pronunciation.
Some examples would be
- スマホ (Sumaho) -sma-rt-pho-ne
- アプリ (Apuri) -appli-cation
- パソコン (Pasocon). -Perso-nal -com-puter
- エアコン (Eacon) -air con-ditioner
- コンビニ (Conbini) -conveni-ence store
- バイク (Baiku). -Bike-
Pronunciation (How hard/easy is it to learn Japanese? )
When it comes to pronunciation, Japanese becomes one of the easiest languages in the world! Japanese only posseses the basic vowels
- あ A (as a in Jam)
- い I (as i in Mint)
- う U (as oo in Moon)
- え E (as e in Wet)
- お O (as o in Polar)
And they never change their pronunciation; it doesn’t matter if they are repeated in the same word or the consonant they are preceded by. Their pronunciation never changes. If they repeat one after another, the only thing that happens is that the sound gets extended. Another specialty of the Japanese language is that, except ん(n), there are never two consonants together; it is always a consonant followed by a vowel, making it easier for the mouth to pronounce compared to other languages. Also, There is no “Th” sound, not the Spanish rolled “R” in Japanese. There are also zero guttural sounds. This makes Japanese pronunciation relatively easy to master in comparison with Russian, German or Spanish, it is even a lot more easy to pronounce than the languages that Japanese is usually grouped with, like Chinese or Korean. Even English has a more complex pronunciation body than Japanese.
Handwriting Japanese (How hard/easy is it to learn Japanese? )
Let’s be honest, Japanese writing is quite tricky to master, mainly because it doesn’t look at all like the commonly used Latin alphabet, so it is like relearning to write from zero again. But thanks to the recent developments in technology and the normalization of the use of phones and laptops in classrooms; the times where it is a necessity to be able to write Japanese has been becoming less common every passing year, this makes it a perfect environment to only focus on reading Japanese instead of both reading and writing. It is even familiar now that some Japanese people forget some Kanji because they haven’t been writing Japanese by hand for a long time.
In summary, Japanese, while it may look like quite a challenge to learn even for experienced language learners, it has a lot of potential thanks to its simplicity in a certain way when it comes to grammar and pronunciation, its sudden complexity with its writing system might make it look a lot more complicated than it actually is. So if you would like to learn Japanese. If you try the correct way and prepare beforehand you might get surprised at how Japanese is easy instead of what is normally thought.