Written by Mo Stone
There are a lot of excellent reasons to study a new language. Many language learners choose to study Japanese because they have grown up enjoying Japanese media such as anime, manga, or video games, and want to gain a further appreciation for the culture. In addition, Japanese can be a smart choice as Japan has a robust economy with plenty of business opportunities. However, learning Japanese can be tough, and is ranked by the U.S. Foreign Services Institute’s School of Language Studies as the most difficult language for native English speakers to learn. Let’s take a deeper dive into this fascinating but complex language.
Writing Systems: A Huge Challenge
Probably the biggest challenge for students is the fact that there are not one, but three, different writing systems in Japanese. The simpler two, and where most learners start, are hiragana and katakana. These kana are both syllabaries, where each written character represents a syllable, and both are made up of 46 characters, but are used in different ways. The fact that these two “alphabets” represent the same syllables is simple yet confusing when starting out.
Hiragana and katakana are simple when compared to the other writing system, kanji. Kanji is a pictographic system, so the characters represent meaning, and not sounds, and are taken from Chinese. Kanji feels complicated for many reasons. First of all, there are thousands of kanji characters, so it takes a lot of time and dedication to be able to read texts, and one kanji can have multiple readings and meanings, adding to the confusion. And if you are not used to a pictographic language system, this alone can take some getting used to. But if you already speak a Chinese dialect, this aspect of Japanese would be much easier for you!
Also, these days you will often see a fourth writing system used, romaji. Romaji uses Latin characters for English and other loan words, so on the surface it looks the same. However, the pronunciation reflects Japanese pronunciation, so romaji is actually a bit different from other languages that use Latin characters.
Grammar: Initially Confusing
For native English speakers, Japanese grammar can feel a bit daunting at first. The sentence structure in Japanese is different from English, which uses a “subject – verb – object” sentence order. In Japanese, verbs are at the end of the sentence, with the sentence order being “subject – object – verb.” Additionally, Japanese sentences are built upon these verbs, with suffixes and particles added on to give meaning. These tiny particles can make a big difference in the meaning of a sentence, and confuse learners.
Once one gets over these initial hurdles, however, Japanese grammar can be quite simple. The structure is very consistent and uses the same patterns; there is only present and past tense and not abstract tenses like the subjunctive; and the words aren’t gendered, an aspect that trips up learners of Romance languages like Spanish and French. And if you already speak a language with similar sentence structures or roots and particles, such as Korean or Turkish, you might find that Japanese grammar makes perfect sense!
Pronunciation: Fairly Straightforward
Perhaps the easiest aspect of learning Japanese is the pronunciation. Japanese pronunciation is quite regular and has a limited amount of sounds, with only 100 syllables in total. Of course, if the sounds of Japanese are markedly different from your native language, this still may pose a challenge to get them to sound right. Speakers of Spanish might take to the pronunciation of Japanese well, as both languages have a similar r sound and focus on vowel sounds. Another pro for Japanese pronunciation is that the language is flat, without the complexities of tonal languages like Vietnamese or Chinese dialects.
In some ways learning Japanese may feel like an equivalent challenge to climbing Mt. Fuji, but in other ways learners will find it an interesting and engaging language. The single most important factor to learning a language though, is motivation, so don’t let these potential difficulties deter you from your goal. If you’re interested in learning Japanese online or through apps, check out Duolingo, JapanesePod101, or Easy Japanese through NHK World-Japan. Happy learning!