How Hard is it to Learn Japanese?
Learning a new language is no easy feat, especially Japanese. It can take years to even half-decently learn a language. That’s why the question, “how hard is it to learn Japanese” doesn’t have a definitive answer. It all depends on a variety of factors, such as your original language, how long you study a day, if you can travel to be immersed in the language, etc.
However, the biggest factor according to polyglot Steve Kaufmann (who learned Japanese in one year by the way) is motivation.
Anyways, how hard is it to learn Japanese? It depends, but the more motivated you are, the faster you’ll learn. Below is a quick overview of what you’ll encounter if you begin learning Japanese and a few tips to help you study better.
The first thing a learner of Japanese would notice is the different phonetics of Japanese compared to English. Some of the sounds are different. For instance, in English there are no native sounds like つ (tsu) or づ (dzu). The exact sounds of ぢ (di, but sounds more like ji) also escapes English. The r sounds are unlike the English r sounds.
Someone with a Spanish background or another language with an emphasis on vowel sounds (Spanish also has a closer r sound) would benefit when it comes to learning the sounds of the language. The easiest way to learn the sounds of Japanese is practice. After learning how the Japanese language properly sounds, practice them as you memorize the kana. Which leads me to the next topic.
In short, Japanese is one of the more difficult languages for a native English speaker to learn. It takes much dedication and time. Learning the kana and how to pronounce the syllables is relatively easy, the grammar is about in the middle between easy and difficult, and the kanji is very hard. The finer points of the language are easy to learn, but difficult to come by. The key, as in learning any language, is to put in the effort required. Don’t be discouraged, and charge forward in learning!
What’s the best way to learn Japanese?
Whether it’s Japanese, or any other language, do whatever it is to keep you motivated.
And how can you stay motivated? Well, I recommend using content you enjoy. And that’s where LingQ comes in…it lets you learn Japanese using content you love. In fact, one of the reasons why you should learn Japanese is simply because of the sheer amount of interesting content the language has to offer, such as anime, J-pop, classic literature, and much more.
Here’s a quick demonstration from one of our LingQ users, Eric, that shows why LingQ’s the best way to learn Japanese (which is available for Android and iOS). I highly recommend checking out this video so you can see why LingQ actually can make your Japanese studies feel a whole lot easier 🙂
The writing system
Aside from romaji (which is essentially just the English alphabet), the Japanese “alphabet” has three different modes of writing.
Katakana and Hiragana
The first two are hiragana and katakana. Rather than alphabets, they are more correctly called syllabraries. A way to kill two birds with one stone is to memorize each sound with the written component. Get a good hiragana chart and a good katakana chart, practice writing, and saying each of the sounds aloud.
The kana (a way to collectively refer to the hiragana and katakana together) are rather systematic. If it sounds scary, know that it is rather easy to learn this. Katakana is just a different way of writing hiragana, and they are fairly similar. The difference is that katakana is used for more foreign words or to provide emphasis for what is written. You should be able to learn this in the span of a couple weeks to maybe a month. In contrast to these rather easy writing systems is the much more difficult-to-learn third writing system.
Kanji is the writing system that is most similar to that of Chinese, and as such, it would be much easier for a native speaker of some form of Chinese or another language with a similar writing system to learn it than a native English speaker. There are thousands of kanji, and the exact number is unknown. That said, there are 2,136 常用漢字 (jouyou kanji), which are the kanji learned by Japanese students through junior high. An adult should know about a thousand more kanji to be aptly able to read commonly.
Kanji is usually more complicated than the kana and often have multiple different readings and can have various meanings. The best way to go about this is to use a website or book dedicated to jouyou or popular kanji and memorize the first couple hundreds or so. Write them down and dedicate them to memory. Then, go online with an add on like Rikaichan for firefox which helps to understand Japanese words on webpages. Keep doing this with web pages you find interesting, perhaps writing down every word you don’t know. It may take a while, but with how many kanji there are, this should be expected. It may take quite a bit of dedication in general to try to learn the kanji, but this should be expected if you want to learn any language. The kanji is a very difficult part of learning Japanese.
A test to grade someone’s Japanese proficiency is the JLPT (日本語能力試験, or nihongo nouryoku shiken). Kanji is considered by many the most difficult part of learning Japanese. If you are just visiting Japan for a short period of time, you may want to skip the time it would take to learn kanji. But, if you are really interested in learning Japanese, then it is very important that you take the time to learn the kanji. You should not just learn how to speak it, as spoken Japanese is tied very closely with the written language, which takes a mixture of hiragana, katakana, and kanji together.
The next part of learning Japanese is the grammar. The grammar of Japanese is fairly straightforward: it’s all in the verbs. There are some particles that need to be learned, but beyond this, the main part to learn in Japanese grammar would be the conjugations of verbs. This is pretty straight forward and though it may seem a little complicated, it is fairly easy with relatively few exceptions to learn. This should be learned from grammar books/websites or in a class. Some of the particles may be a tad difficult to understand and some conjugations may take some getting used to, but Japanese grammar is relatively simple.
The next thing to consider is that there are various different dialects of Japanese. Learning how to correctly put the emphasis on a syllable isn’t too difficult, but the difficulty is in finding a way to learn the dialect you wish to learn. The easiest way to go about finding a good source is finding a native speaker/taking a class, or listening to a lot of Japanese media. You can find something for any taste in the huge LingQ Japanese library. The common dialect in Japanese media is the 標準語 (hyoujungo, or the standard language), so you should catch on eventually if you don’t have access to the first couple of options before going to Japan.
Enjoyed this post? Check out polyglot and LingQ cofounder Steve Kaufmann’s YouTube video on how he learned Japanese!