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Is Japanese Hard? Why Japanese is easier than you think!

| 64 comments | Category: guest post, particular languages

Japanese is Easier Than You Think

Of all the resources that I came across in Japanese, my favourite by far was John Fotheringham’s Master Japanese: The Beginner’s Step-by-Step Guide to Learning Nihongo the Fun Way. He takes the kind of approach that I like and is incredibly encouraging to beginner Japanese learners.

This is a breath of fresh air when most experienced learners were more interested in “putting me in my place” by “warning” me about the mountain of work ahead, and making sure I was aware that Japanese was the one true hardest language in the world.

Usually I like to write these posts myself, as I did for Chinese and Hungarian, but I’ve been so busy with my Fluent in 3 months book launch that I only had the time for two intensive months in my own Japanese project, so I made sure John came back to the blog a second time (he previously wrote How to Learn 2,000 Kanji in 3 Months: Mission Possible) to share these incredibly helpful words to those of you who are hesitant to take on Japanese. Check it out!

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“Japanese is really freaking difficult.”

“Japanese is really freaking vague.”

“Japanese is really freaking illogical.”

These statements have three things in common:

  1. They are widely believed by many would-be Japanese learners.
  2. They get in the way of learning the language.
  3. They are completely bogus.

To succeed in your Japanese mission, you must ignore the cynics, defeatists, killjoys, naysayers, party poopers, pessimists, sourpusses, and wet blankets. Japanese is not nearly as challenging as the Debby Downers would have you believe, and is in fact easier in many key ways than supposedly “easy” Romance languages like Spanish.

Why Japanese is Easier than You Think

Here are but a few of the many ways Japanese is comparatively easy, especially for native speakers of English:

There are heaps of English loan words in Japanese.

If you grew up speaking English, congratulations! You won the Linguistic Lottery! From day one in Japanese, you will have a massive pre-existing vocabulary to draw on thanks to the thousands and thousands of English words borrowed into the Japanese language to date. These “foreign loan words”, or gairaigo (外来語), offer native speakers of English a massive head start, allowing you to understand and communicate a great deal of information even with shaky Japanese grammar and zero Kanji knowledge. Here is a small taste of the Japanese arsenal English speakers already have at their disposal:

  • “mic” → maiku (マイク)
  • “table” → teeburu (テーブル)
  • “Internet” → intaanetto (インターネット)
  • “romantic” → romanchikku (ロマンチック)
  • “driveshaft” → doraibushafuto (ドライブシャフト)

Or for even more, check out the video Benny and some other learners made themselves, singing entirely in gairaigo (外来語):

You will of course need to learn the “Japanified” pronunciation of English loan words, but the phonetic patterns are highly predictable and consistent. All you need to do is learn Katakana (something you can do over the weekend), and then familiarize yourself with how English sounds are transferred into English. A few key patterns to help you get started:

English loan words adopt the consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel pattern found in Japanese. So you can be sure that any English consonant clusters, such as the ‘dr’ in “drive” will get extra vowels added in the middle. In this case, ‘d’ becomes do.

In Japanese, no words end in a consonant (with the exceptions of n), so if an English loan word has a consonant sound at the end (e.g. “mic”), you can be sure that the Japanese equivalent will have a vowel tacked on: maiku.

Once you have the phonetic patterns down, a powerful language hack is at your disposal: When in doubt about how to say a given word in Japanese, just say the English word you know using Japanese syllables. More times than not, you will be understood. Even if a given English loan word is not actually used in Japanese, chances are good that people will have “learned” (i.e. memorized but not really acquired) the English word in high school or university. Since most Japanese learners of English add little Katakana reading guides above English words to approximate their pronunciation, they will better recognize English words when wrapped in Japanese pronunciation. Or even more so when written out on paper. This habit may be bad for their English, but is at least good for your ability to communicate.

Lastly, I should point out that there are occasional differences in meaning between English loan words and their Japanese derivations. But radical semantic changes are few, and even when there are significant gaps, the comedic effect is usually enough to make the words stick on their own. Perfect example: I loved telling all my friends back home that I lived in a “mansion” while in Japan. It was the truth! What they didn’t know is that the loan word manshon (マンション, “mansion”) actually refers to an apartment, not a palatial residence.

There are no pesky noun genders in Japanese.

Unlike most Romance languages, Japanese does not have “masculine”, “feminine” or “neuter” nouns. Buddha be praised! In Japan, you can just order your dark beer instead of trying to remember whether the noun “beer” is feminine or masculine as you would have to in Spanish:

“Let’s see… I really want a dark beer. Cerveza is feminine I think… Or is it masculine? It seems masculine. Just think of all the dudes with beer bellies. But it ends with an ‘a’ so I think it should be a feminine noun. Okay, assuming it is indeed feminine, I need to use the feminine form of the adjective for “dark”… Hmm… I think it’s oscura…”

Meanwhile, the waiter has come and gone and you are left to wait in thirsty frustration. Halfway around the world, the Japanese learner is already on his second round of gender-free kuro biiru (黒ビール).

Japanese verbs don’t have to “agree” with the subject.

In Japanese, there is no need to conjugate verbs to match their respective subjects. Anyone who’s learned Spanish or French should really appreciate this advantage. Take the verb “to eat” for example. En español, you have to learn 6 different verb forms for just the present tense (one for each pronoun group), plus all the myriad tense variations. In Japanese, you only need to learn one single verb form for each tense. No matter who does the eating, the verb taberu (食べる, “eat”) stays exactly the same!

  • “I eat.” → Yo como. → Taberu.
  • “You eat.” → Tú comes. → Taberu.
  • “He / She eats.” → Él/Ella come. → Taberu.
  • “We eat” → Nosotros comemos. → Taberu.
  • “You (pl., fam.) eat” → Vosotros coméis. → Taberu.
  • “You (pl.) / They eat.” → Uds./Ellos comen. → Taberu.

You do have to learn different verb tenses in Japanese, and there are different levels of formality to consider, but hey, at least matching pronouns and verbs is one less thing to worry about when you’re starting out. Don’t look a gift linguistic horse in the mouth!

You can leave out subjects & objects if they are clear from the context.

Japanese is what linguists call a “pro-drop” language, meaning that pronouns and objects are often left unsaid if the “who” and “what” are obvious to the listener and speaker. For example, if someone asks you if you already ate dinner, you can simply say tabeta (食べた, “ate”), the past-tense of taberu (食べる). Both parties already know the subject (“I”) and the object (“dinner”), so all you need is the verb. Less really is more!

Each Japanese syllable can be pronounced only one way.

Japanese is a syllabic language, made up of 45 basic syllables. While the number 45 may sound more intimidating than the 26 letters found in English, keep in mind that each Japanese syllable can be pronounced only one way. This is in stark contrast to English, which despite having fewer letters actually contains far more sounds. Depending on the word (and where in the word it lies), most English letters can be pronounced myriad different ways. Take the letter ‘e’ for example:

  • It can be pronounced as a “short e” (ĕ or /ɛ/) like in empty.
  • It can be pronounced as a “long e” (ē or /i/) like in key.
  • It can be pronounced as a “long a” (ā or /ei/) like in resumé.
  • It can be pronounced as a “schwa” (/ɘ/) like in taken.
  • It can be silent (especially at the end of words) like in axe.

Complex stuff!

Pick any Japanese Kana on the other hand, and no matter where it’s used, it will be pronounced one—and only one—way. The Japanese ‘e’ sound for example (written え in Hiragana) is always pronounced as a “short e” (ĕ or /ɛ/). It doesn’t change if the syllable comes at the beginning, middle, or end of a word.

Japanese harbors few new sounds for English speakers.

The vast majority of Japanese sounds have direct (or at least very similar) equivalents in English. This is great news for the Japanese learner, but tough times for Japanese learners of English. Consider yourself lucky! You’ve already mastered English’s notorious ‘l’ and ‘r’ distinctions, for example, and will never have to endure the embarrassment of saying “erection” when you meant “election”!

There are only two Japanese sounds you will likely struggle with in the beginning:

  1. The Japanese ‘r’ sounds: ra (ら), ri (り), ru (る), re (れ), and ro (ろ). It sounds somewhere between an ‘r’ and ‘d’, pronounced with a quick flip of the tongue somewhat like the rolled ‘r’ in Spanish. You can find a similar sound in American English buried in the middle of the word “water”. When sandwiched between vowels, we Yanks turn the poor little ‘t’ into what’s called a “flap”, which is precisely what the Japanese ‘r’ sound is, too.
  2. The Japanese ‘tsu’ sound (つ). We actually have a similar sound in English (the ‘ts’ in words like “rats”), but the difference is that we never pronounce such a sound at the beginning of syllables in English as they do in Japanese.

But worry not! Your ears and mouth will eventually get the hang of these sounds with enough listening and speaking practice. Just do your best to imitate native speakers, and make sure to record yourself to better gauge your pronunciation and monitor your progress over time. You may even want to use software like Audacity to see how the waveform of your speech compares to that of native speakers. As Peter Drucker said, “What get’s measured gets managed.”

Japanese “recycles” lots of Kana.

As any good citizen knows, we should do our best to reduce, reuse, and recycle. To fulfill its civic duty, Japanese greatly reduces the number of potential Kana you need to learn by recycling a small set of basic symbols to represent a much larger number of sounds. The key to this linguistic efficiency is the use of little double slash marks called dakuten (濁点, “voiced marks”). As the name implies, these diacritic marks transform each of the “voiceless” sounds in Japanese into their “voiced” counterparts. Here are a few examples (note that the only difference between the Kana on the left and right is the dakuten in the upper-right corner):

  • ka = か → ga = が
  • sa = さ → za = ざ
  • ta = た → da = だ

Just think: without these little marks, you would have to learn dozens of additional Kana symbols. Thank you dakuten!

Japanese is not a “tonal” language.

Unlike Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai, etc., Japanese is not a tonal language. Hooray! The Japanese language does sometimes differentiate meaning using a high-low distinction (what linguists call “pitch accent”), but the good news is that you do not need to learn a specific tone for each and every syllable like you do in languages like Chinese.

And in the fairly infrequent cases when pitch is used to distinguish meaning, the context will almost always do the heavy lifting for you. For example: Even though the word hashi can mean “chopsticks” (箸), “bridge” (橋), or “edge” (端) depending on the pitch accent (high-low, low-high, and flat in this case), you will know that somebody wants you to pass the “chopsticks” when at a restaurant, not a “bridge” or the “edge” of the table.

Kanji can be learned extremely quickly if you use an adult-friendly method.

A lot of digital ink has spilled in the blogosphere bemoaning how difficult it is to learn Kanji. Yes, the task will certainly take you time and effort, but the journey will be far shorter if you use smart, adult-friendly “imaginative memory” techniques laid out in books like James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (RTK). Armed with the right attitude, methods, and materials, a motivated adult learner can master the meaning and writing of all standard use Kanji in a matter of months, not years or even decades as is usually the case with traditional rote approaches. Learning all the Kanji readings will take longer, but knowing just the basic meaning of all standard use Kanji (常用漢字) is a huge head start as Heisig argues in the introduction to RTK:

“When Chinese adult students come to the study of Japanese, they already know what the kanji mean and how to write them. They have only to learn how to read them. In fact, Chinese grammar and pronunciation have about as much to do with Japanese as English does. It is their knowledge of the meaning and writing of the kanji that gives the Chinese the decisive edge.”

For more about how to learn Kanji effectively, see my post: How to Learn 2,000 Kanji in 3 Months: Mission Possible.

Phonetic & semantic patterns allow you to guess the pronunciation and meaning of new Kanji.

Contrary to popular belief, most Kanji are not pictographs. The vast majority are in fact “pictophonetic” compounds comprised of two chunks: a “phonetic indicator” that points to the character’s pronunciation, and a “semantic indicator” relating to its meaning. This may sound complex, but is actually very good news for language learners!

Learning the most common phonetic and semantic chunks (or “radicals”) enables you to make educated guesses about the pronunciation and meaning of new characters. For example, all of the following Kanji share the same phonetic chunk, 工 (“craft”). It is pronounced kou (こう), and low and behold, each of the following Kanji it contains are all pronounced kou:

  • 紅 (“crimson”)
  • 空 (“empty”)
  • 虹 (“rainbow”)
  • 江 (“creek”)
  • 攻 (“aggression”)
  • 功 (“achievement”)

Chances are good that if you come across a new Kanji that includes the 工 phonetic chunk, it too will be pronounced kou.

These chunks also give you valuable story points that can be used to craft super sticky mnemonics. This is the foundation of the “imaginative memory” approach used in RTK. Let’s look at the Kanji 虹 (“rainbow”) as an example. On the left side, we have the semantic chunk 虫 (“insect”). On the right, we see 工, which we saw above means “craft”. So now all we have to do is create a mental story that combines “insect”, “craft”, and “rainbow”:

A massive cloud of multicolored insects (butterflies to be exact) are crafting a magnificent double rainbow across the entire sky.

Eat your heart out Double Rainbow YouTube Guy! [Benny's edit: I met him! :-P]

Knowing Kanji allows you to guess the meaning of new words.

Once you know the meaning of all the standard use Kanji, you can usually guess the meaning of compound words they combine to create. Know the character, guess the word. An equivalent power in English would require extensive knowledge of Latin, Greek, and a host of ancient Germanic dialects. I don’t know about you, but my West Saxon is a little rusty…

Here’s an example to show you how easy things can be:

Suppose you encounter the word 外国人 (gaikokujin) for the first time but don’t have a dictionary handy. Even the most basic knowledge of characters enables you to figure out its meaning: 外 = outside; 国 = country; 人 = person. Aha! It must mean foreigner!

The Japanese Language is Not Vague, But Japanese Etiquette Often Requires Vagueness

We can thank the Japanese themselves for helping to perpetuate the myth that Japanese is a vague language. As Dr. Jay Rubin recounts in his excellent book Making Sense of Japanese, a member the Tokyo String Quartet once shared in an NPR interview that English allowed him and other Japanese members of the ensemble to communicate more effectively than in Japanese. They had begun speaking in English once a non-Japanese member joined the group and were amazed how much easier it seemed to communicate in English despite not being native speakers. Dr. Rubin points out that the problem is a matter of culture, not linguistics:

“While he [the quartet member] no doubt believes this, he is wrong. The Japanese language can express anything it needs to, but Japanese social norms often require people to express themselves indirectly or incompletely.”

Directness in communication is usually frowned upon in Japanese culture, while it is often the primary goal in most English speaking countries (except among politicians and lawyers of course, but they’re just meat popsicles in suits). Anyone who has lived in Japan or done business with a Japanese company knows that this difference in communication style can be a major source of frustration and cross-cultural miscommunication. As things go, it’s usually the cultural—not language—barrier that causes tempers to flair, negotiations to break down, and relationships to fail…

So as you learn to speak, read, and write Japanese, make sure to give just as much attention to the “language” left out of the conversation and off the page. Realize that few Japanese people will ever say “No” outright, opting instead for statements like “It’s under consideration”, “I’ll give it some thought”, or “It’s difficult at this time”. Know that when someone says “Chotto…” (ちょっと, “a little”) and then breathes in through their teeth as they as they rub the back of their head, that they are expressing apprehension or disapproval but are culturally forbidden to say what exactly they are “a little” (or likely, “very”) unsure about.

Japanese is as Logical as Any Human Language

I have little patience for the ethnocentric belief that “Japanese is illogical”. It makes the false assumption that English is somehow more intuitive or well-structured by comparison, when in fact, no natural languages are “logical” per se. With the exception of purposefully designed languages like Esperanto, languages evolve organically over great expanses of time, inevitably leading to some strange exceptions and goofy contradictions. Look no further than English’s many fun peculiarities:

“There is no egg in eggplant, and you will find neither pine nor apple in a pineapple. Hamburgers are not made from ham, English muffins were not invented in England, and French Fries were not invented in France. Sweetmeats are confectionery, while sweetbreads, which are not sweet, are meat. And why is it that a writer writes, but fingers do not fing, humdingers do not hum, and hammers don’t ham. If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn’t the plural of booth be beeth?” ~Richard Lederer, Crazy English: The Ultimate Joy Ride through Our Language

And then there are incredibly weird English pronunciations, as Benny has read a poem about!

One could of course compile such a list for any language, including Japanese. My point is simply that Japanese is no less logical than English. Both have their quirks, but both also have a finite set of rules and exceptions easy enough for even a child to master.

Bottom line: it is perfectly natural to compare and contrast Japanese with English, but avoid making value judgements. Languages are the way they are; why they are that way is an interesting question for historical and comparative linguists, but has little to do with acquiring a language.

Conclusion: Don’t Create a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy!

If you believe Japanese is difficult, vague, and illogical, it will be for you. But if you focus on the easy, concrete, logical bits first, you will learn much faster, and have a hell of lot more fun along the way.

To be clear, I’m not saying the language won’t pose some unique challenges to the native speaker of English. It certainly will. But so does Spanish. And Pig Latin. And Klingon. All languages have their particular pros and cons, and in the early stages of a language, it’s far better to focus on silver linings than dark clouds.

This isn’t blind optimism or sugar coating; it’s an intelligent way to work with—not against—human psychology. Small wins early on help build the confidence, motivation, and fortitude you will need to carry on when the path up Japanese Mountain grows steep.

Happy hiking!

- Thanks John! Let us know your comments below, and keep in mind that this post isn’t a request to “prove” Japanese’s difficulty. As John points out, you can argue that any language is the hardest if you talk/write long enough. In my own experience, Japanese has been a very logical language and I would say it’s as much/little work as any European language, and I didn’t run into a single aspect of the language worth crying over in my intensive two months.

More on my experience in Japan and using Japanese coming next week. For now, make sure to check out John’s blog Language Mastery, thanks!

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  • Carles Llàcer

    I love that shirt!

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Thank you, Carles. It’s my fave! Probably need to get another one soon (or maybe one of Benny’s) lest it become threadbare… ; )

  • http://iwillteachyoualanguage.com/ Olly Richards

    Anything else to add? ;) Wow… what an amazing resource! This one is getting bookmarked for sure.

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Thank you very much, Olly!

  • Johnnyjohn

    Benny, why not try an ancient language next as a side project, like Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, or Classical Chinese?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      No “side-projects”. I’ve learned my lesson and am focusing 100% on whatever I’m doing. For the next month it’s book promotion, and for the rest of the year it’s improving my current projects.

      Then next year I’ll consider other languages, but ancient languages are very low on my interests, since they don’t offer any spoken or cultural integration opportunities, and are more appropriate for many people who like literature and more technical aspects of language learning than me.

      • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

        I’ve learned the same lesson, Benny. Too many irons in the fire means everything gets burnt. And I feel the same way about ancient languages. They are interesting (and perhaps I will study one someday), but they do little to enrich one’s day to day experiences abroad.

  • OracleLink

    This is really a nice encouraging article for the person who wants to learn Japanese but is too intimidated. However, I do have a little issue with the description of the Japanese “r” sound, as much of the time it’s actually realized as a lateral flap, hence why Japanese speakers have difficulty contrasting “l” and “r”. I was teaching some Spanish to one of my Japanese friends last year, and when we got to the word “siempre”, his pronunciation naturally sounded like “siemple” (which actually is a not-uncommon occurrence in Caribbean Spanish, but anyway), so I had him do a trilled “r” sound, e.g., perro, and then pronounce it with only one flap, and it ended up sounding the way it should.
    I just bring this up because I’ve heard a lot of Japanese learners pronouncing the “r” with little to no lateral quality most of the time, and it’s sometimes not noticeable because the sound isn’t always realized as such, but a lot of the time it really is noticeable and it sounds very odd. I liked to describe it when I was tutoring Japanese as more like “saying an ‘l’ sound but flipping it like a Spanish ‘r’ “, which usually helped the tutee to pronounce it correctly. The times where it isn’t realized as lateral seem to tend to phase out on their own as the learner is exposed to more Japanese, but the lateralness often doesn’t creep in naturally.

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Interesting observation and solution, Nathaniel. There are definitely many ways to crack this phonetic nut. : )

  • Kevin Richardson

    Fantastic article. I particularly applaud you for dispelling the myth that Japanese is illogical. I often think that Japanese is nothing but logical and is in fact reminiscent of programming languages!

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Thank you, Kevin. I haven’t learned any programming languages yet (other than the most basic HTML and CSS) but I can imagine there would be some interesting echoes of Japanese there.

  • Darby

    I agree that Japanese is comparatively easy. Some people may be overwhelmed by the fact that there are three writing systems (Kanji, hirogana and katagana). I think mastering these should be as easy or easier than many grammatical concepts in other languages.

    Easier still is Korean. It has an alphabet designed to be learned within 24 hours and retains many of the same grammatical concepts as Japanese. While it uses Kanji (or Hanja in Korean), it is not used as much in Korean as it is in Japanese.

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Hi Darby. Japanese’s triumvirate writing system can indeed be intimidating, but as you say, it is in many ways easier (or perhaps more rational) than grammar. And yes, the Hangul writing system is amazing! I learned the script prior to a trip to South Korea. I only knew a smattering of words in the language, but could at least “read” (or rather, “pronounce”) everything I saw. My girlfriend at the time knew a lot about Korean cooking but hadn’t learned the script, so I would read out menu items and she could tell me what they meant!

  • Miri

    Even though I agree with all the points you specified, I have to still say that for me, Japanese was and still is much harder than the other languages I had learned – much harder than English (I’m Israeli originally), French and Spanish. It’s much harder for me to remember words, much easier to forget words, and much much harder for me to build a sentence.

    In Spanish and French, even when I forget the correct conjugations and the sex of the word, it doesn’t completely ruin my ability to say what I want and be understood. With Japanese, I just completely forget how to build the sentence I want to say. Maybe I just need more time or a different method to get the language click with me…

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Hi Miri. I am sorry to hear that things have gone less smoothly in Japanese. Could the difference be due to much greater exposure to English, French, and Spanish over the years compared to Japanese? Chances are good that you’ve received a lot more passive input to these languages without even knowing it.

      Try this: for 30 days, do everything you can to immerse in Japanese 24/7: 1) Only watch Japanese programs, 2) Only listen to Japanese podcasts and radio, 3) Only read Japanese blogs and news, 4) Change your devices to Japanese, 5) Speak with a Japanese friend or tutor every single day (via Skype or one of the many online language exchange sites), and 6) Write your daily journal in Japanese (posting to Lang-8 for feedback).

      • Miri

        First, thanks for the advice.

        I suppose I can agree that I’m exposed to French and Spanish more so than Japanese. But no matter what the reasons are, Japanese is much harder for me :)

  • Sharon

    I love Japanese. The language is fascinating. I would love to visit the country someday. I know a lot of people who want to learn Japanese for the purpose of watching anime. That’s fine, but you also have to appreciate Japan’s wonderful culture. There’s so much to learn, and I’m excited to learn it!

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for the Japanese language and culture. Above all else, I believe that such passion is what really makes the difference in language learning.

  • http://japanesquest.com/ Japanesquest

    As a native Japanese speaker, I find this post very interesting.

    By the way, there is a secret method for Japanese to learn the pronunciation of “l” and “r”.
    If you ask any Japanese to say “lux super rich”, they pronounce it with perfect “l” and “r” sound :D

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      ラックススーパーリッチ! That’s a fun trick!

  • http://www.adventurerob.com/ Robert

    Question for John: Do you think it’s worth skipping the kanji initially to concentrate on other parts of the language (grammar, vocab, speaking)? Followed by some intense kanji learning later.

    I’m trying to do it all at once, and find that kanji is taking up an awful lot of my time in trying to put it to memory. I’m studying for N4 at the moment, but when an N5 kanji pops up (a test which I passed early last year) my mind goes blank some times.

    I also find the language very logical, it’s one of the best bits about it. Although it’s my first non-native language I’m aiming for fluency in, so have no other experience to compare it too.

    Great article by the way. I’ll check out the book soon :-)

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Good question, Robert. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the kanji question. In the end, I think it all comes down to your personal goals, priorities, and timeframe. In my case, I started learning characters early on and knew the meaning and writing of all standard-use kanji before I could speak very much Japanese. In some ways you could argue that this is putting the cart before the horse, but I found it to be quite beneficial as the quantity and quality of potential learning materials was far wider than relying on kana or roumaji based materials alone. But yes, learning characters does require a time and energy commitment, and if your primary goal is to understand and speak Japanese as quickly as possible, I see no problem holding off on kanji for a little while.

  • Jeremy Eckstein

    このような記事を書いてありがとうございます!

    I am an American who has been learning Japanese for about 2 years, and as it turns out I’m living here right now. When I think about what Japanese students are faced with when learning English from Japanese, I think they are in the more difficult situation.

    Whenever I tell people that I’m studying Japanese, the first reaction I almost always get is, “Why? It’s so hard!” Well, yes sometimes it is difficult. But it’s not an overwhelming task mostly because I want to be learning it. If you don’t actually want to learn a language, you just want to be fluent immediately, you’re not likely to want to put up with the required amount of work.

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Hi Jeremy. I completely agree that Japanese learners of English have a steeper road to climb than English-speaking learners of Japanese. Some of this is due to the smaller number of sounds in Japanese, but it’s also a matter of pedagogy. Though efforts have been made to improve the way languages are taught in Japan, there is still way to much focus on reading over speaking, declarative memory over procedural memory, and studying for (and teaching to) tests.

      And you are spot on about the importance of motivation. All else is secondary.

  • Emma Janusz

    I’m always surprised when people say that Japanese is really difficult, as I personally found it easier than German (and easier than I’m finding Polish now). In fact, I think the simplicity of it for me is actually because of many of the reasons listed above! Like, not having to decline verbs, and being able to work out what a word means by knowing the kanji meaning, etc. There are only a few things that I find confusing/difficult in Japanese, and off the top of my head, all I can think of is the counter system (because Japanese doesn’t have plurals, so if you need to specify a number, you have to use a specific counter, for example saying ‘three-small-animal cat’ to say three cats, which I get around by just using the general counter, and occasionally the simple counters like the floor counter), and the intransitive and transitive verbs, which only confuses me because I always forget which one is which.

    Also I remember one of the first things my teacher taught me was that if someone asks if you want to do something say today, and you can’t/don’t want to do it all you have to do is say ‘今日はちょっと。。。’ (today is a little…) and that’s it. Like, you don’t need to explain any further, the person will understand that you can’t go. I always thought that was cool.

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      The number of Japanese counters is indeed one of the less easy components of the language, but as you said, you can at least be understood in the early stages with the generic counter. But as with all things, you get the hang of them with sufficient exposure and practice. And the other good news is that many (though certainly not all) the Japanese counters cross over to Mandarin, so Chinese learners have a head start in Japanese, or vice versa.

      And I feel your pain regarding transitive/intransitive verb distinctions. The key there is to learn verbs in context, not in isolation as most flashcards tend to do. Every time you review the verbs shimeru (閉める, “to close s.th.”, transitive) and shimaru (閉まる, “s.th. closes”, intransitive) for example, make sure to also include subjects and objects to get a better feel for which is which: 1) ドアを閉めた。 → “I closed the door.” 2) ドアが閉まった。→ “The door closed.” I also suggest using past-tense examples (as I did above) so you can see how the transitive and intransitive verbs conjugate differently.

  • Owl

    Great article! Looking forward to seeing a video of Benny dominating this language soon :)
    One minor correction, 空’s onyomi reading is kuu, not kou. Oops!

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Thank you. And good catch on 空!

  • http://www.teenjazz.com/ Shannon Kennedy

    I cannot wait to start learning Japanese. Thanks for this great post. I’m definitely bookmarking it for later.

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Thank you, Shannon. Ganbatte ne!

  • ippatsuya

    This is in general a well put together article which I mostly agree with. But I’d really like to stress 2 things –

    1. The katakana Japlish approach to thinking you have a wide variety of known words should not be promoted. I’m sure your knowledge of Japanese is wider than mine but honestly I don’t know how people keep pushing this as a good point of Japanese. It is almost always annoying; I will never forget the example of アングラマネー “anguramanee” which was allegedly originally “underground money”. It is more often confusing than helpful.

    2. Knowing the kanji means you can work out the word – this is true but very unreliable. The classic example is 消火器 for fire extinguisher “extinguish / fire / device”. Let’s take another common word – 大家. “big / house”. Surely castle or palace or something right? Nope, landlord. Alright then…安定 “cheap or easy / decide”…what? It means “stability”? For every 消火器 there are 5 大家s.

    The rest of the article is great but I really don’t like the proliferation of these points.

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Thank you for your feedback. There are of course non-intuitive examples of foreign loan words (especially “Waseieigo” terms) and kanji compounds, but I disagree that they discount the advantages I shared in the article. Any strategy that allows learners to make educated guesses much of the time is worth “proliferating” in my opinion despite the exceptions.

      • ippatsuya

        That’s a fair comment but seems to go against learning Japanese in any kind of depth.

        The loan words is equivalent to speaking English words with a Spanish accent and hoping for understanding. It may be a good short term solution but I find it hinders more than it helps. There are many TV shows in Japan which try to warn native Japanese against using loan words when speaking English as they are often misunderstood (フロント for “front desk” for example). I feel the same is true both ways.

        The point I made about kanji is that you can’t make educated guesses. Other than 外国人 can you give some other examples?

        • Joshua Warhurst

          Though I never went though Heisig, let me offer a few examples. And these aren’t even from the top of my head. I’m going to go look at a book near me and just take the first 10 kanji compounds that I find.

          保護者 – protect-maintain / protect / person
          “Guardian” (as in, “To all parents and guardians”)
          町立 – town / stand
          “Established by the town”
          学校 – learning / school
          “School”

          校長 – school / long
          “Principal” (although usually things with “long” after them are the leaders of whatever)
          町民 – town / people
          “Townspeople”
          体育 – body / grow
          “Physical education”
          大会 – big / meeting
          “Convention / Tournament”
          参加 – to go-visit / add
          “To Participate”
          仲秋 – relationship / autumn
          “8th month of the lunar calender”
          健勝 – health / win
          “Good health”

          Some words that seem weird, like 立 and 長 seem a little weird if you’ve learned them in the contexts of 立つ and 長い, but the above patterns are super common. Learn two or three other examples (市立、国立、社長、部長、etc.) and they follow. Same with thinking of 安 as cheap. In Chinese, it has the meaning of “safe” or “stable”, and 安定 (like 安全 and 治安) makes a lot of sense in that regard, even if you couldn’t guess it on your first try. It’s meaning of cheap only applies to words from Japanese (which usually have other kana appended to the end of them to make them easy to recognize).

          Of the above, I hope it’s obvious that most of them make sense. 仲秋 seems to stand out as “unguessable”, but it’s a cultural thing. 体育 and 健勝 also seem difficult, but make sense after the fact. Given that these words are in context, they’re not hard to guess either. They’re harder to learn in a word list like this, but then, word lists suck.

          • ippatsuya

            Thanks for the well written response!

            I think you and I are on the same wavelength to be totally honest. I wasn’t trying to say it was impossible, more just impractical and would be better to be avoided by beginners.

            Time would be much better spent actually learning words (though as you say, not just in a word list) rather than trying to piece together what you think something means based on an idea of kanji.

            RE: 安, I agree that is the meaning but if a beginner were to look up 安 in a dictionary, they would find this definition: “relax;  cheap;  low;  quiet;  rested;  contented;  peaceful” nowhere does it even hint that safe is an option (even though that is the case). Hence again why I would advise against the kanji compound guessing method. If you were to do the same experiment again and write down what you thought the words meant at first then check them after I feel that it would show the practicality of the method more.

          • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

            Thank you for sharing those examples, @joshuawarhurst:disqus. You beat me to the punch!

            @ippatsuya:disqus,

            Thank you again for your support of most of the article, but regarding your points about loan words and kanji compounds, I must point out that you have created (perhaps unintentionally) an “either-or” straw man argument that does not reflect the intent or content of the post:

            1) I am not saying that people shouldn’t “actually learn words”. Of course they should. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t guess at kanji compound meanings or leverage English loan words when you can’t look things up at the moment.

            2) I am not saying that all English loan words are intuitive. Yes, there are plenty of examples (e.g. eakon, エアコン, “air conditioning”) that won’t be immediately obvious to new learners. But you cannot deny that are also many, MANY English loan words that are extremely intuitive. Just look at the myriad examples shown on the attached image (a page I picked at random from DK’s Japanese English Visual Dictionary). Why would you choose to take this massive day-one advantage away from learners? These words are already in their heads, so contrary to what you say, learners are not “wasting time” with them.

            3) I am not saying that all kanji compounds are “guessable”. Of course there are non-intuitive examples. But there are heaps of very logical constructions, too. In my experience, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. And again, guessing at compound meanings does not preclude you from looking things up.

            Regardless, all of this is meant to motivate new learners that may otherwise never begin their Japanese journey. It is not meant to dissuade deeper learning. On the contrary.

            Hope this clears things up and helps us lay the poor straw man down. He’s had enough. ; )

          • ippatsuya

            1 & 2) I know where you are coming from, honestly. But I don’t know why you are so adamant to stick with this point. Of course you can guess! My point is that guessing doesn’t tend to achieve much. When you state in your original article ” Even if a given English loan word is not actually used in Japanese, chances are good that people will have “learned” (i.e. memorized but not really acquired) the English word in high school or university.” Don’t you find this to be a massive generalization? It goes against the whole idea of guessing being intuitive to learners as it suggests that your lack of knowledge in Japanese will be picked up by your partners knowledge of English.

            3) I asked you to provide examples and you haven’t really given me any. I’m going to find some random compounds. Without looking them up, please guess the meaning:

            01.無地

            02.下宿

            03.手術

            04.落第

            05.万歳

            06.駐車

            07.到着

            08.強盗

            09.募集

            10.手腕

            Every one of these, without exception, came from the N2完全マスター 漢字 practice book. They are all part of the 1006 学習漢字 that Japanese children learn in Elementary school. If your theory really does work then why not try it out?

            Finally, I noticed your were linked on reddit.com/r/learnjapanese –

            http://www.reddit.com/r/LearnJapanese/comments/1yyaa9/why_japanese_is_easier_than_you_think_what_do_you/

          • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

            It’s okay, we don’t have to agree. What I’ve seen as both learner and teacher over the past decade has convinced me that guessing DOES help, especially in the early stages when trying to listen, speak, and read with little study time under your belt. But again, such educated guesses are only a springboard, not a finish line. But if one wants to study away in isolation, waiting until they’ve memorized tens of thousands of Japanese words to start communicating and enjoying authentic content, that’s their choice.

            I already know the words you listed, so I can no longer guess at their meaning as an experiment. But let’s look at each one of them from the point of view of someone who just finished Remembering the Kanji.

            1) 無: “nothingness”. 地: “ground”. One would probably guess “an empty place”. 無地 actually means “plain”, so a bit of jump on this one, yes, but once you do look up the meaning, the RTK work definitely helps you retain it more easily.

            2) 下: “below”. 宿: “inn”. One would probably guess that 下宿 then means something to do with being under the roof an inn, i.e. “staying at a hotel”. The actual meaning is “lodging”. Pretty close.

            3) 手: “hand”. 術: “art”. Okay, probably tough to guess this one (手術 means “medical operation”). But again, easy to remember once you’ve looked it up. Surgery is definitely an “art of the hands”.

            4) 落: “fall”. 第: “No.” (i.e. “Number 1″). One might guess “falling in rank”, which is not too far from the actual meaning of 落第 (“failure”, i.e. failing a grade or test).

            5) 万: “ten thousand”. 歳: “year-end”. Ten thousand years! That’s a long time. Must have something to do with eternity or long life… Sure enough. 万歳 is what people yell in Japan when they throw both arms up in the air in to honor or celebrate someone of royalty, a company, etc. (much like “Long live the king” in English).

            6) 駐: “parking”. 車: “car”. Pretty straightforward to guess that 駐車 means “(car) parking”.

            7) 到: “arrival”. 着: “don”. First part is easy enough. The second chunk would indeed be of little help in this situation unless one knew that 着 has a secondary meaning of “arrive”. But given the disparity between the two meanings, you’ll likely never forget or confuse them again.

            8) 強: “strong”. 盗: “steal”. One would probably guess either forced entry or robbery. 強盗 is a “robber” or “mugger”. Not too shabby.

            9) 募: “recruit”. 集: “gather”. Easy peasy. Not tough to guess that 募集 means “recruitment” / “recruiting”.

            10) 手: “hand”. 腕: “arm”. Like 7, this one would indeed be tricky to guess since it’s based on the secondary meaning of 腕 (“ability” or “talent”). But as before, easier to remember after the fact using your RTK muscles.

            As we can see, it’s a mixed bag. But the power of guessing worked enough of the time to help make the learner’s life a little easier in the early days. And since you need to learn the core meanings of the characters anyway, why not learn them first in a systematic, adult-friendly, non-rote way? You then have a concrete foundation you can build compounds and secondary character meanings upon.

            Thank you for sharing the Reddit thread, but I have no interest in wasting my time battling vitriol and pessimism when I can instead focus on empowering new language learners, spending time with positive people who actually create things of value instead of just arm chair criticizing the efforts of others, getting into language adventures around the world, and being the best uncle, brother, son, friend, and teacher I can be.

          • ippatsuya

            Fair enough.

            I don’t have anything more to add but I’d like to thank you for taking the time to try my examples. I think it is just something we disagree on, then. All the best to you in the future, you seem like a very decent guy.

          • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

            I appreciate that. I think civilized disagreement is a good thing; it pushes all of us all to re-evaluate our basic assumptions and expand our understanding. It’s a shame that most debates online quickly devolve into ad hominem attacks instead of well-reasoned discussions about the topic. It’s been fun debating with you. : )

          • msupp

            I’ve read this debate with quite a lot of interest (as I’m currently using RTK in conjunction with other learning methods). I think the point you made in #1 – that learning RTK will make it easier to retain the full word after looking it up – is the best argument of them all in favor of Heisig.

            I tried the rote learning, writing page, after page of words with their proper pronunciations like school children would do. I was able to memorize some very well, but I found I simply could not retain most of what I learned.

            I think Heisig should be thought of as a method for people who are in it ‘for the long haul’ – both for learning Japanese and perhaps transitioning to traditional Chinese later on. The ‘extra’ work of doing RTK at the start, I think, will make my learning of ‘real kanji’ infinitely easier, since it will then be possible to have a grasp of word construction, plus I will already recognize the individual characters and be able to write them, which is what I struggled with the most.

          • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

            Thank you for sharing your experience, @msupp:disqus . I completely agree that the Heisig approach is better suited to longer term retention and full mastery of the characters than rote learning. But even in the short term, I find (as you probably have, too) that it’s far easier to remember the meaning and writing of the characters using RTK. When I first started learning kanji, I used to get so frustrated that despite writing out a character dozens (or even hundreds) of times, I was able to reproduce it without looking a few minutes later. So even though it takes a few minutes to make a good RTK story, I argue that it takes even more time to try learning by rote.

            I also agree that it is a good strategy for those who transition to Chinese later on (or vise versa). I started learning Mandarin Chinese after Japanese, and all I had to do was update some of my stories (or make slightly different version with new characters or settings) to remember how to write the traditional and simplified versions of characters I’d already learned in Japanese.

          • msupp

            It certainly is easier to remember individual characters – I was quite sceptical going in, and have been very impressed the level of retention I have from RTK. With that said, I see this as more of a ‘necessary step’ which will make it easier that rote learning full words. But I am not under the illusion that I will be able to ‘guess’ ever word that appears; I realize I will be using the dictionary to look up a lot of words, even after Heisig.

    • Jade Cahoon

      Personally, I find English loanwords in Japanese really confusing as a native English speaker. It feels like I have to remember the “real” word (double cheeseburger) and an approximation of the word which doesn’t quite fit. It’s just more stuff to memorize. I’d rather just use Japanese words…

      • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

        I feel ya. But it’s important to remember that English loan words borrowed into Japanese ARE Japanese. Yes, there are many cases where there is a synonym of Chinese or native Japanese origin, but especially in tech related fields, English loan words are the norm.

  • http://tippingrevolution.com/ Kether1985

    Word!

  • Chris Broholm

    This is a great point about language learning, even the languages that appear the hardest (certainly for us Europeans) all have influences from known languages. I’m learning Russian at the moment and constantly being baffled at just how many words are borrowed from English.

    I think the biggest turn off or fear people have when learning these languages with non-Roman alphabets (or scripts even) is exactly that the writing alphabet or script is completely unknown.

    To an extent I guess it does make it ‘harder’ than if you were learning a language that shared your own alphabet, but still it also means that it feels a hell of a lot more rewarding once you are getting proficient in it.

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      Good points, Chris. I prefer to frame things in terms of required time on task instead of difficulty. Learning a non-Latinate script will certainly require extra hours of work, but it’s certainly not the insurmountable task many folks make it out to be. And I’m glad to hear I will have a head-start in Russian when I begin learning the language more seriously (I dabbled in it briefly a few years ago but have yet to jump in with both feet).

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    Interesting article. That’s wonderful that you’ve found Japanese to be easy.

    Living in Japan, Japanese has been my primary language for many years. I’ve spent thousands of hours watching TV, reading and writing letters, and talking with everybody and their brother. I guess I’d say it’s easy in the same way that running an ultra-marathon is easy. Or maybe soldering together a car out of paper clips. So long as you don’t worry about the result or how long it takes then, eh, yeah, it’s a piece of cake.

    By the way, you wouldn’t have any problem writing a similar article in Japanese, right? I mean, since it’s so easy and all.

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      I didn’t say “Japanese is easy”. I said that Japanese is easier in many ways than most people think. I like your ultra-marathon analogy, but not in the way you frame it. Here’s my less cynical version: No matter your level of fitness, you can start TODAY. Maybe you only walk down the block, but at least you are moving. Tomorrow, you walk 2 blocks. The next day, 3. Before you know it, you are jogging. Then running.

      Same goes for learning a language. Even if you only know 10 words, you can USE those words today. And then learn 5 more so that tomorrow you know 15. Before long, you’ll be communicating what you want to say and understanding most of what you hear and read. You don’t need native-level fluency to have a conversation, just like you don’t have to be able to run an ultra-marathon to enjoy a run through the park. Strive to hone your skills and fitness everyday, but don’t let the distance between here and your final goal intimate you out of putting in the time each day.

      Could I write this post in Japanese? Yes. But this post is for native speakers of English, not native speakers of Japanese. Either way, I have little interest in proving anything to you. I’d rather spend my time learning more languages, playing with my nephew, and watching “House of Cards”.

      • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

        Well, you and I both have websites about learning Japanese, so it’s kind of surprising how different our perspectives are.

        I agree with you about starting today, and building upon what you know every day. I think that’s great, and motivational. But you lost me when you said, “Before long, you’ll be . . . understanding most of what you hear and read” Say what? ‘Cause that’s miraculous.

        Now you know, I’m not trying to ruin your motivational speech. It’s good to be encouraging. But you shouldn’t shine people on. At five words a day, it’s going to take many years to understand most of what you hear, let alone read. People just want a realistic picture of what they’re trying to accomplish, not a bowlful of rainbows.

        • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

          To each their own. There’s plenty of space on the Interwebs for different points of view.

  • Comet Robin

    Do you think it is okay to translate phrases in my Anki Deck?

    • Manu

      Used to use Anki for many years in learning japanese. Nowadays I use it again for learning finnish. I greatly encourage you to enter phrases as well. Personally, I mark them as such with tags, so that I can in- or exclude them according to the current need (cram mode, for example). Phrases are a great way to 1) kinda “explode” my knowledge around certain words, and 2) to memorize set expressions for certain situations. Being able to recall the right phrase for the situation is not only extremely helpful, but also often quite impressive to native speakers.

  • Carlos López

    Japoness is very easy for a Spanish speaker

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      I’ve heard that. I’ve recently started learning Spanish and have found a lot of useful cross-over (e.g. use of pure vowels).

  • diaryofadocumentaryfilmmaker

    “There are only two Japanese sounds you will likely struggle with in the beginning: The Japanese ‘tsu’ sound (つ).” Perhaps it is unnatural, however I think we have all heard of a tsunami making tsu seem quite familiar.

    • http://LanguageMastery.com/ John Fotheringham

      True enough. Though I think most native English speakers (at least until they start learning Japanese!) tend to pronounce “tsunami” as “sunami”.

  • Johannes Mathiesen

    *Bookmarking immediatly!* This is just epic. I wanted to learn japanese and I have learned a bit on my own from animes, but this will help extremely much! Arigato Gozaimazu^^ ;)

  • Johannes Mathiesen

    by the way, I want to ask something, because it’s been bugging me.. I understand that “so”, “so ka” and “so desu ka” means pretty much the same and “so desu ka” is a formal way to say it”, but why and when do you use “so”? :)

    • http://fluentin3months.com/ Brandon Rivington

      More advanced learners or native speakers, please feel free to correct me but I think そう can be used informally in agreement to questions like きょうはいい天気ですね (It’s nice out today, isn’t it?) or to confirm a question like これはあなたの財布ですか (Is this your wallet?). Putting です/desu at the end just makes it a little more formal and putting か/ka at the end makes it a question. One phrase I hear all the time in Japanese is そうですね/sō desu ne meaning something like “Is that so?/Really?/You don’t say!” in a somewhat surprised manner.

      –Brandon, the Fi3M Language Encourager

  • Yvoyalaruina

    Well seems it’s time to start with Japanese :)

  • David Guevara

    Man were you been all my life! I’m a native Spanish speaker that has been studying
    English for 11 years and I’m not even close to be fluent (my teachers and
    friends tell me that I am fluent and I have a score of 910 points on TOEIC…. but still I don’t believe I can speak in English!!!!, I’ve lost very intresting job oportunities because of that! =( ). I always been attracted to learn Japanese but the “very difficult” and the “age” barriers stop me immediately (I’m 36 btw). Seeing your first video I realize now that the real thing in learning any language is simply as start learning, what other way do you want to speak in other language if you don’t simply start? I will definitely go to buy your book on Audible. Congrats on your project.

  • Nicolay

    I personally think that japanese is a very logical language, and even if someone disagrees with me, anyone whos started learning or have already mastered japanese will agree that getting your bearings is easy. I spent a whooping 4 days building my vocab and after those 4 days i held a 5 minute scripted conversation and another 55 minutes of spontaneous talk about anything and everything. i didnt understand every word, but i could hear the syllables and could therefore search for it in a dictionary as i went. I also struggeled with some words i wanted to say but had yet to learn, but regardless. i spoke 100% japanese for 1 hour after 4 days of studying. thats not something i would have gotten even remotely close to when i was learning english.