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Is Learning Japanese Really That Difficult?

If you listen to your Japanese friends, colleagues and acquaintances, you’d think Japanese is the hardest language in the world to learn. Not so. Your linguistic background does have a lot to do with it: Koreans have a big advantage because the grammar is quite similar and the Chinese have an edge when it comes to kanji. By the same token, you’d probably be cruising past them in a French class because of all the similarities to English. Ability also has a part to play, and some people are just naturally gifted. However, by many objective measures, there are a number of areas where Japanese is actually easier than other languages you may have studied.

The Good News
The number of words necessary for daily conversation is about 250 in Japanese, compared to about 400 in English. Get the basics down and you’ll be able to string together simple sentences fairly quickly.

The phonological system (read: pronunciation) is fairly straightforward compared to English. Unlike Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai, Japanese is not a tonal language. The sounds are clear and there are very few diphthongs. Whether you’ve noticed or not, having all syllables end in a vowel makes things a lot easier!

Compared to even thirty years ago, there are a lot more English words that have become common these days. Ever heard a grandparent complain that they don’t understand what young kids are saying? Happens here all the time! Former Prime Minister Koizumi once got angry listening to a report on Japan’s technology sector and hearing foreign words he couldn’t understand (inkyuubeetaa).

Grammatically, Japanese can be very straightforward. No genders on the nouns, no articles, no cases and no verb conjugations.

The Bad News
However, there are a number of areas where Japanese does pose problems to native English speakers (and others, too).

One of the hardest areas is the word order. Japanese language has a subject-object-verb pattern, instead of subject-verb-object as in English. The sentence “Kenji ate an apple”, for example, would be “Kenji san wa ringo o tabeta” (Kenji apple ate) in Japanese. Getting used to speaking back-to-front can take years!

Another difficulty can be the language’s subject-less sentences. If you are not clear on who is doing what to whom from the start, the rest of the conversation can get very confusing! To say “I went to see a movie” in Japanese, the most natural way is Eiga o mi ni itta (Movie see went). Adding the pronoun ‘I’ (Watashi wa eiga o mi ni itta) can sound unnatural. But be careful when you make arrangements to telephone that special someone: you can get in a lot of trouble if you’re expecting a call while he or she sits angrily by the phone wondering why aren’t phoning!

Once you have mastered the basics, you will have to get your head around the different levels of politeness used in Japanese. Thought the difference between Tu and Vous was tough? Child’s play. Verbs and nouns are often constructed differently depending on the level of politeness. The ‘plain form’ is used for everyday speech with friends and equals and the ‘polite form’ – what you’ll see most often in your textbook – is used to speak to strangers and superiors. Then you get into respectful language (sonkeigo), used to ‘elevate’ the status of the listener, and humble language (kenjougo), used to ‘lower’ oneself. Both are used for speaking to older people, those in positions of authority or far above you in status. Take consolation in the fact that this ultra-polite language is extremely difficult to use for many Japanese, too.

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