With very little in common with English, learning Japanese can often be seen as an insurmountable challenge. Just like Arabic, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese, Japanese doesn’t use the Latin alphabet. It uses its own writing system made up of kana, Japanese Kanji, and romaji. These complex differences when compared to English often put people off learning Nihongo.
However, there’s an increasing number of students wanting to rise to this challenge. And luckily for them, there are now a number of ways to learn Japanese.
More and more people are becoming interested in Japanese culture and the popularity of the language is subsequently increasing. Japanese classes are getting fuller.
Thus, despite being a “difficult” language to learn, gaining a deeper understanding of Japan’s fascinating history and culture is worth the work you’ll have to put in.
Are you interested? If so, let’s have a look at why Japanese isn’t actually as difficult as it’s often made out to be.
Unlike what people often thing, Japanese actually uses plenty of English words! This is something that you’ll learn when you start taking Japanese classes in high school, or if you learn Japanese with a private tutor.
You don’t need to remember as many conjugations in the Land of the Rising Sun. (Source: negativespace.co)
As you already understand English, you’ve got an ace up your sleeve when it comes to learning the Japanese language!
Not only do we use many Japanese words in English, you’ll soon see just how many English words have been borrowed by the Japanese. Just like Japanese culture is popular in many English-speaking cultures, English-speaking cultures are also very popular among young Japanese people.
These foreign words, known as gairaigo (外来語) will give you a huge advantage over other learners who can’t speak English. Make the most of it! Before you’ve even seen any of the grammar or kanji (the characters used in the Japanese writing system), you’ll be familiar with the vocabulary for a large number of topics.
How do you say “Isn’t that just swell?” in Japanese? Let’s have a look at a few of the words that Japanese has borrowed from the English language:
Of course, every student should make sure that they adopt the Japanese pronunciation of these words when they’re speaking the language.
You should know that these words won’t be written using the Latin Alphabet, they’ll be written using a Japanese writing system, something you’ll need to master in order to read and write in Japanese.
Where would you like to live in Japan? (Source: negativespace.co)
There are three main Japanese writing systems: kanji (Japanese characters which evolved from Chinese characters) and kana (which includes the hiragana and katakana syllabaries). However, for words of foreign origin, you just need to learn the katakana writing system and familiarize yourself with the Japanese way of pronouncing these English words.
Romaji is the third part which is how Japanese is written using the Latin alphabet so that foreigners, plus any new learner just starting their Japanese learning, can understand. It is often suggested that you don’t rely on romaji alone, and that you take the time to learn kanji. This will help in your later Japanese progression as your proficiency grows.
Did you learn French or Spanish in school and get sick of masculine and feminine nouns? One of the first things you’ll learn about Japanese is that there’s none of that nonsense!
Unlike the Romance languages, which are made more difficult to learn by gendered nouns, there are no genders in the Japanese language. When you learn new Japanese vocabulary, you’ll do that! You won’t need to learn the masculine or feminine versions. That’s a whole lot of time you won’t be wasting learning several versions of all the Japanese phrases you learn.
As soon as you start studying Japanese in middle school you’ll see that there is another aspect in which Japanese is much easier to learn than languages like Spanish and French. While learning conjugations and verb tables might have been the stuff of nightmares during school, you can forget about them in Japanese. There aren’t conjugations for each personal pronoun in Japanese!
Life is quite different in Japan. (Source: pixabay.com)
In Japanese, you won’t need to change the verb when speaking about different people. In comparison to the 6 different conjugations in each tense in Spanish and French, Japanese uses one solitary conjugation for each verb tense. This can make Japanese grammar much easier.
Still think that Japanese is too difficult?
Let’s have a look at the verb “to eat” as an example. In Spanish you’d learn 6 different versions just for the present tense (not to mention all the other tenses). In Japanese, you’ll just learn the one conjugation for the present tense, saving you lots of time during your Japanese lessons to focus on learning new Japanese words, verbs, adjectives, and expressions.
It doesn’t matter who’s eating, you’ll just use the verb taberu (食べる) and you won’t have to change it.
“I eat.” → Taberu
“You eat.” → Taberu
“He / She eats.” → Taberu
“We eat” → Taberu
“You (pl., fam.) eat” → Taberu
“You (pl.) / They eat.” → Taberu
Why make things complicated when we can keep them simple? This should be the advertising slogan for Japanese in certain cases.
When you speak Japanese, you can drop subjects and objects if they’re not necessary. This makes Japanese a “pro-drop” language.
If somebody asked if you’ve already eaten, you can just use tabeta (食べた, “ate”), the past version of the verb taberu (食べる). Since both parties know who’s talking and who they’re talking about, you don’t really need to say who “ate”.
This is a huge advantage when it comes to learning the language as there’s less to think about when you’re speaking basic Japanese.
Unlike English, the Japanese language is put together using syllables rather than individual letters. This means the number of possible sounds is limited.
How do people in Japan celebrate big events? (Source: pixabay.com)
It is a syllabic language, after all!
With just 45 basic syllables, you’d think that Japanese would be harder to learn than English which has 26 letters. If you take into account that each syllable can only be pronounced in one way, you’ll see how this is much simpler.
This is sort of a linguistic blessing from the gods of languages. Especially when you consider how terrible native English speakers are at learning foreign languages…
Consider the letter “e” in English:
It has a short pronunciation like in the word “empty”.
A long pronunciation like in the word “key”.
A long pronunciation like in the word “résumé”.
It can also be pronounced as a “schwa” (/ɘ/) in words like “taken”.
Or silent at the end of certain words like “case”.
That’s quite complicated.
Japanese makes things a lot easier for us. Take any symbol from kana. It doesn’t really matter where it appears in the word. You just need to pronounce it the way you always have. For example, take the letter “e” (え in Hiragana). Pronunciation doesn’t change regardless of where you find it in Japanese sentences. This makes it much easier when it comes to learning words and phrases.
There’s a myth going around that the letter “r” in Japanese is really hard to pronounce. Superprof would like to bust said myth.
Did you know you can use video games to learn Japanese? (Source: pixabay.com)
In fact, pronouncing the letter might be easier than you think and can be done with minimal effort for anyone who’s grown up speaking English.
The Japanese “r” sounds: ra (ら), ri (り), ru (る), re (れ), and ro (ろ), for example, can be made by imagining that you’re saying the “t” words like water, letter, meter, and cutter. Your tongue will lightly touch the roof of your mouth. Practicing the sound and listening to it often will help you perfect it.
Languages like Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Thai are all tonal. Japanese, however, is not. This means that you have one less thing to worry about when learning the language. Japanese saves the day once again!
The way you speak Japanese should change depending on the situation you’re in. (Source: Ghost Presenter)
While you’ll sometimes hear Japanese people making a distinction with their voice (often called a “pitch accent” by linguistics), this isn’t really something that you’ll have to worry about.
The only thing you’ll need to remember is that you won’t need to learn several tones like you would if you were learning languages like Mandarin Chinese.
In most cases where this occurs, context will probably do most of the work for you in figuring out what they mean.
For example, the word hashi can be used to mean “chopsticks” 箸, “bridge” 橋, or end 端 depending on the intonation (high-low, low-high, and flat in this case). However, it’s unlikely you’re going to be having a conversation where the meaning isn’t obvious. If you’re in a restaurant, they’re probably talking about chopsticks rather than a bridge…
With fewer conjugations and different grammatical structures, it can be difficult to translate from English to Japanese in your head.
Japan has a rich history, culture, and cuisine. (Source: Valeria Boltneva)
Learning Japanese at university, or at home with a private tutor are just two ways that you can move away from “English mode”. By doing so, you’ll be able to learn Japanese without too much difficulty. When you go to Japan, you’ll see that speaking Japanese involved a lot of etiquette.
Japanese logic focuses on the speaker and means that you do your utmost to never offend them when speaking to them. This rule, which originated in ancient Japanese tradition, is a sign of courtesy for the Japanese.
Japanese is a very polite language, and this is why honorifics are always attached to the ends of the names of the people we’re speaking to. The most common, san, is commonly known among English speakers. You might have also heard of ones such as kun which is used for teachers and students.
One last thing: don’t forget that you can also learn Japanese through video games and chatting to people online.