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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, and at the time, I was 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!
“Japanese is really freaking difficult.”
“Japanese is really freaking vague.”
“Japanese is really freaking illogical.”
These statements have three things in common:
- They are widely believed by many would-be Japanese learners.
- They get in the way of learning the language.
- 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 loanwords”, 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 Japanese. A few key patterns to help you get started:
English loanwords 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 loanword 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 loanword 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 loanwords 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 loanword 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 gifted 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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! 😛]
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 judgments. 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.
– 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.