The decision to begin learning Japanese can feel daunting, particularly if you aren’t sure whether conventional language learning methods will be viable for you. You might have heard that Japanese is hard to learn for it’s so different from English. Didn’t you hear somewhere that the verb comes after the object? And how do you manage to learn all of those kanji? Where is an aspiring Japanese language learner supposed to start?
Read on: we hope to answer your questions about learning Japanese and push you in the right direction to get started!
Is Japanese hard to learn by yourself?
While the traditional classroom environment or regular sessions with an online tutor can be very appealing, scheduling and financial restrictions can often eliminate these as options. Luckily, embarking on your endeavor of mastering Japanese does not necessitate a teacher and you can overcome the significant linguistic differences between English and Japanese by yourself.
Thanks to the great bounty of free or inexpensive language resources available online, it is not difficult to get started learning Japanese by yourself. There are a myriad of wonderful apps to get you started with basic grammar and vocabulary acquisition. You can watch language lectures on YouTube, download flashcard decks with built-in audio on Anki, and listen to podcasts designed for language learners. If you feel overwhelmed with the variety of resources online and don’t know where to start, you can also try LingoDeer, which has structured lessons that teach you all the way to intermediate level. You can also take advantage of platforms like HiNative where you can ask native speakers for help. All of the resources you need to get started are at your fingertips.
The only potential problems to consider are:
1) how likely are you to make this a habit?
2) is your goal passive comprehension or active language production?
The most important thing about language learning is neither how talented you are at memorizing new words nor how much money you have available to spend on subscriptions or lessons. The critical difference between someone who gives up at a lower intermediate level and someone who makes it to the point where they can read native level content comfortably is whether they made their language learning practice a habit. Twenty minutes a day is far more effective than two hours once in a while when you feel a gust of inspiration.
Finally, if your goal is to be able to speak fluently and comfortably, you will eventually need to get some active speaking practice with teachers or native speakers. However, this is no reason not to begin independently – you’ll be surprised just how much you can learn on your own.
How hard is it to learn Japanese as an English speaker?
The U.S. Foreign Service Institute ranks Japanese (along with Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean) as one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. While this certainly suggests that it will take more effort and time to master an East Asian language as opposed to Spanish or Italian, I would like to offer a word of hope: difficult does not mean that it will feel like a chore. I think that the most compelling aspects of Japanese are exactly what makes it take so long to learn: the stark difference in grammatical structure compared to English and the writing system.
Learning the three writing systems of hiragana, katakana, and kanji is arguably the most fun part of the language learning process. It feels incredible when you begin to recognize patterns in the radicals and pronunciation of certain kanji and piece the visual puzzle together. Sure, it would be easier if I didn’t have to learn a new writing system, but it wouldn’t feel nearly as intellectually satisfying.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself: you may be thinking, what the heck is a kanji? Let’s take a look below at some of the key components of Japanese:
The Japanese Writing Systems
Japanese primarily uses two syllabaries (hiragana and katakana, collectively known as kana) and Chinese characters (kanji) for its writing systems. Hiragana are used to indicate the pronunciation of the syllables that make up a word in Japanese. For example, ねこ (“neko” – cat) is made up of the hiragana ね (“ne”) and こ (“ko”). Katakana are used in the same way, but are specifically used for sound effects, onomatopoeia, loanwords, and animal names. Finally, kanji are symbolic characters that represent a meaning rather than a sound. Of course, there needs to be a way to pronounce these kanji – that’s where the kana come in.
As I mentioned before, one noteworthy feature of Japanese grammar is that the verb comes at the end of the sentence rather than in the middle. This might not mean that much to you without an example, so let’s compare two basic sentences in English and Japanese:
- I bought milk (subject + verb + object)
- 私は牛乳を買った (lit. I milk bought) (subject + object + verb)
This can take some time getting used to, but gets easier as you grow accustomed to the use of particles in Japanese (e.g. the は and を above). These short words are much like prepositions in English but are also critical for identifying the subject and object in the sentence. Practicing particles can be quite fun, and the LingoDeer+ app offers a great many fun particle review games in its game library.
While you may have heard talk of a foreboding honorific system in Japanese, it’s not as hard as it sounds. Many features of the Japanese Keigo (honorifics) system are unique, but there are consistent grammatical patterns that you can use to show humbleness about yourself and respect to others that are similar to ones you might find in English. For example, you might compare the way a polite service worker would speak to a customer as opposed to how your friend sitting at the table with you would ask you:
ご注文はお決まりですか？ – Have you decided on your order?
注文決まってるの？- Did you pick your order?
Your barista usually says “What are you thinking of having today?” or “What would you like to order today?” instead of a curt “What do you want?” right? English also has its own ways of complicating and drawing out expressions for the sake of politeness, and the Japanese system isn’t as daunting when you think about it like this.
In fact, possibly the easiest part of Japanese is the simplicity of its phonetics. Without difficult heteronyms like “close” (nearby) and “close” (shut) and other inconsistent pronunciation patterns (e.g. through, though, rough), adapting to Japanese pronunciation is a walk in the park.
Japanese only has five individual vowel sounds:
A (pronounced “ah” as in “hawk”)
I (pronounced “ee” as in “eat”)
U (pronounced “oo” as in “soon”)
E (pronounced “e” as in “check”)
O (pronounced “oh” as in “rope”)
Pretty easy, huh?
As you can see, while there are some aspects of Japanese that take getting used to, it’s not all difficult. What’s more, there are a few ways in which Japanese is far easier than English or Romance languages. Let’s take a look:
In today’s globalized world, we’re all already familiar with sushi, karate, and karaoke. But what about English loanwords in Japanese? You’d be shocked at just how common these are in everyday Japanese speech.
For example, if you walked into a Japanese supermarket right now, you’d be caught in a whirlwind of English words in katakana. You might walk by a sign that says 「スーパービッグセール！」(Super Big Sale!) at the entrance. As you make your way to the dairy products, you’ll see ブルーベリーヨーグルト (blueberry yogurt). Later, you might browse for different veggies and meats to make カレーライス (curry rice) at home. In the line to cash-out, you may hear others talking about a new レシピ (recipe) they’ve tried recently or a new レストラン (restaurant) or カフェ (cafe) they’ve been thinking of checking out. English loanwords are a pervasive presence in everyday Japanese, which can really help with the speed of your language acquisition.
Lack of Gendered Nouns, Plurals, and Articles
Some of the things we take for granted as a necessary feature of language simply do not exist in Japanese. There are no gendered nouns in Japanese, as you might see in Spanish or German (e.g. “el agua” being masculine and “la piscina” being feminine). Indefinite and definite articles (“a,” “an,” “the”) simply do not exist. As for plurals, check out the two sentences below:
I have two cats.
I have one cat.
There is no additional ending needed for 猫 to indicate that there is more than one cat. The plural is simply demonstrated by the presence of the number two. Nice and easy!
What’s more, you don’t have to worry about different subject and object pronouns in Japanese. There is no “her” vs. “she” – if the pronoun is included at all, it’s always just 彼女!
Final Verdict: Is Japanese Hard to Learn on Your Own?
We’ve taken a look at many of the features that make Japanese challenging and others that make it simple. There’s no doubt that the complex writing system means that you will be spending a lot of time working on kana recognition and kanji recall while a student of Spanish can use that time for more vocab practice. But as I said, it’s exactly these challenges that can make the process so enjoyable and your little victories that much sweeter.
Ultimately, it all comes down to your own commitment and determination when learning any language. Luckily, the LingoDeer team is here to support all language learners, be it Japanese or any of the ten other languages we offer curriculum for!
Get started learning Japanese the easier way today!