If you plan to visit Japan or simply love the culture, learning Japanese can be useful. Imagine needing no subtitles in your anime or talking to locals. Imagine understanding the signs on the streets and working in Japan!
So, how hard is it to learn Japanese?
You likely heard enthusiasts trying to learn the language. Then, you discover their writing systems, how to converse, and the varying levels of politeness you need. Let’s take a good look at the Japanese language and if it truly is challenging to learn.
We’ll also share some learning tips and resources to encourage you to learn Japanese. This should give you a good boost!
Is Japanese Hard To Learn?
Let’s get it out of the way: is it hard to learn Japanese? Well, it depends.
There are a few different aspects to learning Japanese. There's the grammar, the speaking the writing system, and some minor things like politeness levels.
Some of these are actually surprisingly easy. For example, Japanese grammar is relatively straightforward - probably even easier than English! While many native speakers think English is easy, it’s actually prety hard. The difficulty comes from the inconsistencies in the rules of the language.
One thing that makes Japanese less difficult to learn is the level of consistency. Even at a basic level of Japanese, you can start conversing with a native. The consistency in the usage of words, particles, and forms makes it easy to learn.
Another reason why you can quickly learn spoken Japanese is the ease of pronunciation. Unlike English or French, Japanese uses a basic syllabary. It is also highly phonetic, meaning every syllable sounds the way it’s written.
For example, the syllable “ka” is simply pronounced “/kah/”. Every combination of these simple syllables creates a word. It doesn’t change its pronunciation at all.
So, to summarize, if you just want to learn to speak Japanese, it's not as hard as you may think. Neither the grammar nor the pronunciation are any harder than other languages. In fact they may be easier.
And once you learn the basics, you can use this foundational knowledge for the rest of your life. The advent of the internet also brings many resources you can use to learn. From anime, movies, J-POP to books, you’ll find a ton of language materials that can help.
However, when it comes to reading and writing Japanese, it's a different story.
Why Do People Think It Is Hard To Learn Japanese?
Now that we've seen that spoken Japanese is easy to learn, why do people think it’s difficult? There are some hurdles in learning the language, depending on where you live. Let’s focus on native English speakers, considering that’s as universal as it can be.
For starters, English speakers will find it easier to learn European languages. Languages like Spanish, French, and Italian have words deeply ingrained into English. These are also more similar to English in phonetics and grammar structure.
Japanese is also a high-context language, which can be hard to get used to. It has varying levels of speech, depending on the context. They have at least three levels of keigo, or polite language, that vary on the setting.
But what intimidates most Japanese learners the most is the written language. Written Japanese comprises an official script and two syllabaries known as kana. These are:
Each of these entails learning an entirely different script than the alphabets of English. We will discuss these as we go further down the article. Even without context, seeing a bunch of text you can’t understand makes it seem complicated.
The writing system is the main reason that Japanese can be a challenging language to learn. It can be intimidating. But, with enough practice, you can make real progress. Hiragana, for example, can be learned in a matter of days, given due diligence. Kanji will take longer, but plenty of foreigners have mastered it as well.
How Long Does It Take To Learn Japanese?
Learning any language takes time, but it depends on various factors. The US Department of State listed Japanese as a category IV language. This designates as much as 88 weeks or 2200 hours of learning to reach fluency.
While it does take that much time to reach true fluency, this can also be misleading. All this means is you’re not yet fluent enough in the language to reach a native level. It does not mean you can’t use the language at all.
Officially, Japanese has five proficiency levels, measured by the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. The N5 level, which can take less than a month to learn, is enough for vacations in Japan.
If you’re planning to work in Japan, most companies require N4 to N2 levels. These take anywhere between 300 hours to 600 hours. Some jobs, like teaching English in Japan, don’t require you to be proficient.
The length of time to learn varies depending on the amount of time you spare per week. If you can spare 10 hours a week, a total beginner can reach N2 within a year.
How Can You Become Fluent In Japanese?
Becoming fluent in Japanese is a matter of time and dedication. What makes languages easy to learn is you don’t need raw talent. You need a genuine interest in the language and dedication to your craft.
The basic elements of learning Japanese includes learning:
These five elements can improve your Japanese language fluency. Working on these individual elements is always a step toward better understanding the language.
The most essential element of the Japanese language is kana. Kana refers to two syllabaries that make up the phonetics used in Japanese. The two kana that the Japanese language uses are hiragana and katakana.
Hiragana represent syllables used for native Japanese words. For foreign and loan words, Katakana is used to signify their spelling and pronunciation.
When learning Japanese, learning kana is a must. Even without learning a lot of kanji, a good grasp of kana can help you get your point across. Beginner-level learners need to start learning kana to get somewhere.
There are 46 characters each in hiragana and katakana. Many can learn these within a matter of days through proper rote memorization. Once you learn these, you can even type Japanese on devices and communicate.
Like any language, you need to build on your general Japanese vocabulary. Apart from kanji, vocabulary is the element that takes the most time to build. There are hundreds upon hundreds of nouns, verbs, and adjectives that can help you with Japanese living.
Vocabulary can also be crucial if you plan on working in Japan. Why? Knowing the right terminology to label things in Japan is helpful in daily Japanese living.
Knowing how to express yourself is key to getting good work in Japan. While people can forgive you for bad Japanese grammar as a gaijin, using the correct terms is necessary.
Keigo, or polite language, for example, uses different words for the same action. Bad Keigo can be seen as rude in Japan and get you in trouble if you’re looking to work there.
Grammar is an essential part of the Japanese language. Grammar helps other people understand what you genuinely mean from your expressions.
Good Japanese grammar builds over time. What makes Japanese hard to learn for some is their confusion on where to apply details like:
- Grammar Particles
- Subject-Verb Agreement
- Sentence Structure
At the same time, grammar is what makes Japanese easy to learn. As you gain basic Japanese knowledge, you will learn a few tricks that make it simpler.
For example, as Japanese is contextual, you can use that to shorten your language. In most conversations, you can drop many words in a sentence. As long as you establish context, you can omit words and still communicate the same thought.
Many Japanese language learners struggle the most with listening. However, this is true across the board. Any learner trying to understand a language may struggle with their listening skills first.
Regardless, Japanese is unique in its position with the resources available to learners. Listening is among the first things that those who study Japanese develop. The rich variety in media, from movies, anime to music, can slowly build on this skill.
If you want to develop your Japanese listening skills, all you need is to go online. Pick a song or an anime and start listening. Subtitles can help you understand everything until you’re ready to go without it.
Among the five elements of the Japanese language, kanji is the most intimidating part of learning. Kanji are symbols used to represent daily items, originally borrowed from the Chinese language. Kanji is now vital in Japanese society and will likely be your final hurdle.
There are as many as 50,000 kanji characters in Japanese. While this number is astronomical, you need to know that not even native speakers know everything. Kanji Kentei, the official kanji aptitude test for natives, only has a 10.4% passing rate.
There are around 2,000 to 2,500 kanji characters used in daily Japanese living. You can get by learning half of these or even less.
Unless you plan on working as a professional in Japan, learning kanji can be gradual. Learning 5 to 10 characters a day can eventually help you get over the hump.
Japanese Language Learning Tips For Total Beginners
Now that you know you have a leg up on the Japanese language, what can you do to make things easier? How can you fast track your language learning and develop your skills ASAP? Here are some quick tips.
- Build Learning Habits
One of the biggest mistakes for learners that makes Japanese hard to learn is failing to build a habit. Any language requires you to put some work in. The less time you put into your Japanese language education, the longer it takes to learn.
You can’t just expect to spend a couple of hours each day and instantly be a great speaker of Japanese. It takes months, if not years, to develop your language skills.
Devote free time to it and stick to a habit. Putting in 1-2 hours a day is better than irregular, sporadic bursts of learning.
- Pick The Right Resources
As mentioned before, there are tons of resources available for learning. There are many ways to get your bearings, from ebooks to podcasts.
There are also dozens of Japanese literature that you can read while starting your studies. These can range from short stories to nonfiction. Another fantastic way to learn is through manga, offering some of the wealthiest stories available.
Short stories are best for this because they are short, easy to comprehend, and digestible. They contain bite-size information so you can digest them faster.
Another way to learn Japanese is to watch anime, J-drama, and listen to music. It should help sharpen your listening skills and give you a quick background on the culture.
- Utilize Japanese Learning Tools
The Japanese language has one of the best Japanese learning tools and resources available to its learners. Apart from the usual media, there are educational apps, books, and websites that you can use. There are even online Japanese classes that you can take for formal study of the language.
For example, books like the Genki series and the Minna no Japanese work as fantastic gateways for Japanese learning. Some apps focus on a specific area of the language. Some apps drill you with grammar learning techniques or with kanji study.
- Talk To Japanese Speakers
The best way to learn how to speak Japanese is to talk to real people. While you can learn how to write in Japanese and translate the language, speaking it takes practice. You want to get confident with kaiwa (conversation).
The core of developing your communication skills is in practice. Talking with another person, you’ll start learning how to form sentences, formulate ideas, and talk to people.
Chat with other learners. Japanese communities like Reddit’s LearnJapanese subreddit offer chat buddies. They also provide Discord servers where groups can guide each other.
If you have extra time, you can also find apps that let you chat with native Japanese speakers. Apps like Italki, HelloTalk, and Tandem help you perform language exchanges with natives.
- Read and Write Daily
Reading and writing are two of the core fundamentals of improving your skills in any foreign language. They are the foundation for building your conversation and comprehension.
As you read, you’ll get more familiar with the sentence structure. You’ll also become more familiar with how the Japanese express themselves. Writing, on the other hand, is a more hands-on approach.
Read the news in Japanese. NHK Web Easy is a fantastic current affairs website that is easy to read and offers news shorts.
For writing, practice your kana and kanji daily. Simple rote memorization and daily practice with a pen and paper should help build up your muscle memory.
- Use Japanese Learning Hacks
While the traditional way of learning Japanese is textbook-based, there are shortcuts. There are hacks and tactics that you can pick up along the way. These are simple ways to brute force the language.
For example, Spaced Repetition System (SRS) lessons can help you build your vocabulary. The flashcard system used here can give you a good recall.
Utilize mnemonics. Since learning Japanese involves much rote memorization, mnemonics are vital in building your mind palace. Try your best to associate kana and kanji to simplify the entire process.
Finally, commit some time every day regardless of how busy you are. Whether you have 15 minutes or 3 hours, spend some time every day to review what you know.
If you only have a few minutes, review what you know or areas where you’re having difficulty. Learn new things when you have more time, but don’t forget that you can test what you know too.
Also, there's this website called Self Taught Japanese. It features articles on learning Japanese, culture, and media reviews. We recommend checking out the Japanese Study Resource List and their YouTube channel for a fresh approach to learning Japanese as a foreigner.
The Bottom Line
How hard is it to learn Japanese? Spoken Japanese is easier to learn than many languages in the world. The language's simple syllabary, introductory phonetics, and immense wealth of learning resources can help you make progress faster.
The Japanese language, however, has its own set of challenges. Its writing system is one of the hardest to learn in the world for English speakers. Most of the script also involves rote memorization to build on your knowledge base.
If you plan on living in Japan, you want to learn the language as soon as possible.