Is Japanese hard to learn? A checklist of do’s and do not’s

is japanese hard to learn

 

Is Japanese hard to learn … not of all? But, If you think so, then you’d better not read this article, because you’ve got the wrong idea about this language!

Japanese is not as hard as everyone thinks: it, however, is about as distant from other languages as they come, so at the beginning you can feel as befuddled and confused as a puppy in a den of linguistic wolves.

To make matters worse, and in spite of a huge amount of learning resources, there are very few good teachers abroad, and even less non-natives who speak Japanese fluently, furthering the myth that this is an impossibly difficult language.

is japanese hard to learn

I won’t bore you with my story, but I will tell you this: I’ve covered all positions in regards to this language. I’ve learnt it in a class, as an individual, and then the tables turned and I started to teach it. I write about it constantly on my blog, The Polyglotist.

As such, I’ve been in contact with an inordinate amount of people who, in some way or another, are related to the language. In the end, I’ve noticed that since there’s a lot of misinformation about the nature of this language, it’s easy for beginners to step into very discouraging pitfalls, and worse yet, fail to recover from such mistakes. This is in this article, I’m offering you a guide of what to do and what not to do as a beginner of the language.

Shall we?

 

japanese hard to learnDO… spell out your ABCs

Or more specifically, your hiragana and/or katakana. A lot of people regard the Japanese writing systems as a foe to be avoided as much as possible. Why, if your goal is learning to speak Japanese, should you learn three different writing systems?

The third and most time consuming writing system, kanji, is a matter for a completely different article, but hiragana and katakana actually amount to exactly the same thing: they’re the written form of Japanese sound (and their only true difference is what they’re used for–hiragana is used for almost everything, while katakana is used for foreign words, biologic names, transliteration, etc).

You see, Japanese is actually a very phonetically poor language, and an incredibly regular one at that. You have five basic vowels, and then nine (or eight, depending on who you ask) consonants: your rule for Japanese is that you either have a vowel, or a consonant first and a vowel after. All the sounds you can produce in Japanese are a combination of these.

When you’re learning hiragana, do yourself a favor: find support in the form of a Youtube video, a Forvo audio bit, or a Japanese friend, and ask them to spell the hiragana out for you, and repeat them out loud whenever you’re working with hiragana or katakana (it doesn’t matter if you’re learning them individually or as words right now). Once you figure out their sounds, your pronunciation will improve drastically WHILE you’re learning to write in Japanese.

 

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DON’T... use romaji to learn

For the love of all that is linguistically good, just don’t. I’ve seen too many people corner themselves into the beginner’s stage because they thought romaji (Japanese written in our alphabet) would be a good shortcut, and then they realized that there’s close to no material for beginners (let alone intermediate and advanced levels) written in it.

The few that have been willing to get themselves out of this predicament have essentially had to start relearning Japanese from scratch, so you can see why some that make this mistake don’t bounce back.

Even if your goal is speaking and not reading/writing, don’t take the easy way out.

 

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DO… speak as soon as possible

Quite literally, speak as soon as you know how to introduce yourself. If you meet a Japanese person, Say things like “Hi. I’m _____. I don’t speak Japanese, but I’m learning.Yoroshiku onegaishimasu“. And then, ask as many questions as you humanly can.

You may wonder, “what questions?”

Fortunately, there are two questions that will magically open a world of new vocabulary to you. They are “kore wa nan desu ka?” and “kore wa nan to iu?”, which literally mean “what is this?” and “what is this called?” (Those who have already learnt about pronouns may change “kore” for “sore” and “are”.) Memorize them.

The Japanese are exceptionally aware that their language doesn’t come easy to foreigners; this, paired with a naturally gentle disposition, means that if you ask them one of these two questions they’ll be more than happy to help you understand the world around you (in Japanese, obviously).

 

DON’T… focus on isolated words

A lot of people I know seem to have an almost perverse fixation on learning their Japanese vocabulary as isolated words, through flashcards. To be honest, I’m a big fan of flashcards myself, but Japanese is an incredibly formulaic language, and this approach may only slow your learning down.

After you’ve been learning this language for a while, you realize a lot of patterns repeat themselves, and certain words are used very often in conjuntion with others.

Therefore, if you’re going to use flashcards as a method of memorizing new vocabulary, try to create or find decks that use sentences (or at the very least, conjugated verbs, adjectives, adverbs, et al).

This has the additional benefit of driving home the different nuances and contexts that Japanese has to offer (friendly, informal, formal, respectful, humble, etc.) Again, it’s not a bad idea to spell them out when you’re learning–it will also start giving you a sense of pace when speaking.

 

DO… be creative with how you express yourself

Japanese is a very descriptive language (don’t believe me? Take a look at how much poetry and literature they put out every year). I noticed this early on, when I realized that in spite of not having a particularly large vocabulary, I could still describe familiar concepts “in other words”.

To use an oversimplified example, when you realize that you don’t know the word for “soccer ball”, you can always say “the round, black and white thing 11 people play with”; in a nutshell, you use words you know to describe words you don’t.

I recommend using this trick repeatedly at the beginning of your learning, as it will supercharge your vocabulary while getting you some conversation practice. It works a bit like a stair does: the more vocabulary you acquire, the more descriptive you can be about concepts you don’t know the word for.

 

DON’T… use manga and anime to learn

I mean it. Don’t.

Why? Because manga and anime use a very particular brand of Japanese that is NOT used in real life. If you base your learning on watching and reading this type of visual media, you risk having a vocabulary that in reality doesn’t match Japanese social standards. You may actually manage to isolate some vocabulary from reading or watching it, but the context you will find it may provide very few clues as to how to speak real Japanese.

Of course, if you’re learning Japanese with the express goal of watching anime or manga (and that’s a pretty lofty goal in and of itself) and don’t really have the intention of speaking with people, there are resources that will speed you on your way there, such as the site Anime to Manga no Nihongo.

And lastly…

 

DO… be patient

As I said in the beginning, Japanese is not difficult. Among the languages I’ve learnt (and I’ve learnt quite a few by now), it has by far the easiest grammar and pronunciation, and the large amount of homophones in it make learning vocabulary piece of cake. Indeed, the one thing that makes Japanese “hard” is learning to read and write it well (but even that can be simplified with a little planning).

However, Japanese can also be said to be a multilayered language; more than the mastery of the language itself, the culture that accompanies it is so complex that you’ll find it requires some attention of its own to make sense of the language.

What this means is that while you’ll see results immediately after you start applying some of the advice I’ve given you, you need to account for mistakes, as they’re also part of your learning process. Try to take note of every mistake you’ve committed, and turn it into a lesson.

Learning this language won’t require you to have the IQ of a genius, but you WILL need the patience of a saint. Are you ready?

 

Well then, 行きましょう!

 

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  • Show Comments (11)

  • Blume

    If we should speak as soon as possible, wouldn’t romaji in the beginning be a good choice? There’s some good materials, like the 2vol set of Ultimate Japanese from Living Language, Glossika, Assimil and the Pocket Kenkyusha Dictionary.

    • Jorge Durango

      I honestly don’t see the point of using Romaji. Getting acquainted with Hiragana and Katakana it’s easier than one may think. Once you have this, you have all the sounds you need. Why use Romaji?

      • Blume

        It can be used for those making a quick or extended trip to Japan, a colloquial knowledge to speak with family and/or friends, for those times as a beginner when you might have the audio to remind you of the pronunciation, it can point out pronunciation mistakes that perhaps couldn’t be spotted at first, and is motivating since speaking, even if guided at first for beginners, can be inherently motivating and provide the learner with a sense of satisfaction while learning the katakana/hiragana.

        • Ellie

          But I literally learned hiragana in one day. What’s the point of using romaji when their syllabalaries (or whatever kana is called) are so easy/quick to learn? Your pronunciation isn’t very good using romaji either bc you associate English sounds with them even when you don’t mean to.

          • Blume

            Hi Ellie,
            I have little doubt you learned hiragana in a day, and to reiterate, serious learners should get started as soon as possible on the characters and ideally to try and associate the sounds to those characters without the use of any phonetic system (just like for any other language). However, the reasons I have posted for learning romaji, as imperfect as romaji is, are still adequate.

          • Ellie

            Why would you highly doubt it? It literally spent maybe 5 hours total on it. It really wasn’t difficult for me at all. Could I write them with perfect stroke order? No, but I can slowly sound out everything written in hiragana.

            With that being said, I don’t study Japanese, I study Korean which has an actual alphabet that took me an hour to learn (over 4 years ago). Many Koreans have praised my accent and I attribute that to the fact that I ditched romanization the moment I learned 한글 (Hangul – the Korean “alphabet”), and of course repeated after native speakers constantly.

            Obviously speaking is much better than relying on written word for accuracy, but romaji is a hindrance. If you must learn writing, get the kana down in a few days and obviously get started on kanji as quickly as possible for literacy.

            But for speaking? Kana is fine for a beginner bc you have all the sounds represented instead of trying to mold a completely separate alphabet to fit Japanese. Using romaji is just lazy unless you are literally just going to visit Japan and have no interest in actually learning the language past the necessities for your visit.

          • Ellie

            Oops my mistake! You said “little doubt.” I completely read that wrong.

          • Adam

            Nah, Romaji just slows you down. Hiragana does everything Romaji does and can be learned in a few hours

  • ConnieHinesDorothyProvine

    I took one semester of Japanese. I didn’t even learn whether or not the language has cases.

  • Julia Reed

    After reading this post, I’m not so terrified by the idea to master the Japanese language. The fact that this language is descriptive gives confidence ’cause it’s a really helpful feature. Also, I noticed that many people learn the language by using manga and anime as their learning material. Never thought that it’s not quite right if the goal is real Japanese.

    Thanks for sharing the tips and inspiration!

  • Andrelol3

    Your point about anime and manga is not correct.

    Sure, some catch phrases in manga are not often used in real life conversations… But that’s about it… Over 99% of the thinks said in anime and manga are regular words used in “real life” Japanese.

    Also, not all anime and manga are about super heroes fighting aliens or things like that.

    There are a lot of anime and manga that are realistic, for adults and shows the everyday life of regular people. So much so that almost all the doramas and a big part of movies in Japan are based in manga. These anime all have regular real life Japanese.

    Also, you need to be a really stupid person to not be able the tell when what’s being said is “regular Japanese” or “manga Japanese”.

    And even the words that are common in “real life” Japanese, are still words in Japanese and you should still know them.

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