Is Japanese Hard to Learn…and Does it Matter?

Posted: 18th Apr 2024

The other day, a friend of mine voiced that they were interested in learning another language, but that they weren’t sure it was a good idea as they knew it was a hard language that would take a lot more effort than something like Spanish or Dutch.

While the language in question wasn’t Japanese, this friend, as an English speaker, was absolutely right that we’re generally told it’s easier to learn languages that are closely related to the one – or ones – that we already speak.

But should we really be wary of trying to learn hard languages? And what makes a language "hard" anyway?

Is Japanese a Hard Language? Skip Ahead

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Is Japanese a Hard Language?

Not that long ago, I started writing a post detailing the ins and outs of whether Japanese is a hard language to learn. While for now it will remain in my drafts folder, there’s a lot to be said on the topic of which parts of Japanese are usually a struggle for English speakers – and which parts can be surprisingly straightforward.

To give just a little taste of this: while Japanese is notoriously challenging due to its complex writing system and many varying levels of politeness, you may not know that many of the aches and pains familiar to those who have learnt European languages are entirely absent. For example:

  • Japanese has no plural form (e.g. apple = ringo; apples = ringo)
  • Japanese verbs don’t change depending on the person you’re referring to (e.g. “I am”, “she is”, “they are” all use the same verb form: “desu”)
  • There’s no grammatical future tense in Japanese (e.g. “I drink coffee” and “I will drink coffee” both use the same verb form: “nomimasu”)

*It is possible to form the plural, but a) it’s rarely necessary and b) it’s very simple.

While anyone who has already learnt some Japanese will be well aware that there are many other parts of the languages that are unexpectedly tricky (counters, anyone?), thinking back to when I first began learning as a university student in 2012, a huge part of why my love of Japanese grew so rapidly was that feeling of excitement at discovering something so different from what I’d come across in French, German and Mandarin. Every time we covered a new part of the language in class, I could feel the cogs of my brain struggling to turn. Honestly, at times my head may as well have been full of treacle.

It really wasn’t easy. But it was fun – and incredibly rewarding. As I began to be able to make conversation with my classmates, teachers and language exchange partners in Japanese, I often marvelled at how little I cared about putting in the hours of study when I could get so much enjoyment in return. This was a world far removed from school French lessons, in which my only goal was to pass my exams and maybe be able to order a pain au chocolat on the odd occasion I found myself in France.

What Makes a Language Hard to Learn?

When organisations such as the oft-cited US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) create lists outlining which languages are considered “easier” and “harder”, the key deciding factor is how much time it takes to reach proficiency in each language. While the definition of “proficiency” is a conversation for another time, languages are in any case rated from Category I to IV.

  • Category I (600-750 class hours), e.g. Dutch, French, Romanian, Swedish
  • Category II (900 class hours), e.g. German, Malay, Swahili
  • Category III (1100 class hours), e.g. Bulgarian, Finnish, Greek, Polish, Thai
  • Category IV (2200 class hours): Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin*

*These are all of the “super-hard languages” listed in this final category.

Looking at the hours required for Category IV languages versus any of the others, it’s easy to think that to try and learn one of them would be a complete fool’s errand. However, as someone who has learnt two of the languages in that list to a relatively advanced level (Japanese far more so than Mandarin), and has also spent the last six years teaching others Japanese, I promise you it is not.

Does it take a lot of time? Yes – depending on how much you want to learn. Is there a chance you’ll hate it? Yes. Does that mean you shouldn’t even try? Not at all!

Why Motivation Matters

The fact of the matter is that despite many of us having had dozens – if not hundreds – of hours of lessons in languages like French, German or Spanish while at school, we nevertheless walk away with very little to show for it. While there are plenty of arguments to be made about this being a problem with our education systems (in the UK, but also elsewhere), I personally suspect that most of us were never going to make much progress in a language we were never that interested in in the first place.

While it’s perfectly possible that you could be completely enamoured with any of the other languages – and associated cultures – mentioned above, in my experience, learners of Japanese tend to do well because they have chosen to learn it for themselves.

If you find yourself questioning whether to learn a language that you’ve heard is hard, ask yourself: why do you want to learn it? Do you have an interest in the culture of the place the language is spoken? Do you want to travel or work there some day? Do you have friends or family you want to be able to talk to? Do you want to be able to watch some of your favourite films or shows without subtitles?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, I suspect you have one of the most essential ingredients to learning a language already nailed: motivation! You could also think of this as a connection – a reason for choosing that language.

While it’s perfectly fine to want to learn a language just for the sake of it, in my experience, this often isn’t quite enough to sustain long-term interest and motivation in the sense of being able to stick with the actual act of learning and pursuing opportunities to practise the language.

To be clear: this is not to say that everyone who learns a language needs to stick with it until they’ve reached fluency. Quite the contrary: I think that working out what your motivation is can help you establish an idea of what level you’d like to reach and which parts of the language you might want to focus on more than others (e.g. speaking vs reading).

You Can Do Hard Things!

I'm going to end this post on the same note I ended the conversation with my friend, which is with a reminder to remember: you can do hard things!

Don’t let the fear of a “difficult” language get in the way of you trying something new. While your wellbeing should always come first, the only way to find out if learning a particular language is for you is by giving it a go.

Whether you end up learning Japanese, another language, or no language at all, I wish you the very best of luck on your journey.

If you're new to Japanese and don't know where to start, check out my recommendations on 5 Steps for Total Beginners.

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