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Is It Hard To Learn Japanese?

Posted by on June 12, 2009 in Japanese words | 5 comments


It depends. Probably not the answer that you were hoping for, but bare with me for a second. It depends on whether you want to learn to speak Japanese or if you also want to learn to read and write. If you want to speak Japanese (which is the case for most people) then it is actually much easier than most people think.

The reason for this is that there are fewer possible sounds and more “solid” rules than English. Japan has a total of 5 vowels and 13 consonants, compared to English’s 12 vowels and 24 consonants. It’s true that some of the Japanese sounds are not in the English language and and can be difficult for native English speakers to pronounce. Compared to English however, pronunciations of consonants in Japanese don’t change. So while some of the sounds in the Japanese language might be difficult to pronounce, they never change.

Compared to English where there are many exceptions to grammatical rules,  Japanese grammar has very few exceptions. Verb conjugations are also very structured with few exceptions. So basically, Japanese is pretty straight forward once you learn the rules.

The one place where Japanese is more difficult than English is in the number of words used. According to a recent article in the Japan Times Online, it takes about 10,000 Japanese words to comprise 90% of all sentences in modern Japanese magazines. This is quite a bit higher compared to English which requires about 3,000 words.

But don’t panic quite yet, these statistics are a little bit misleading. First, many of the the words in modern day Japanese magazines are actually foreign words, with the biggest chunk of those coming from the English language. So with out learning any words at all you already have a decent Japanese vocabulary. Second, there are far fewer words used in common everyday speech. So if your goal is to to speak Japanese fluently, you are looking at a much smaller list of words.

If you want to read and write Japanese then the slope is a little steeper. Japanese has three distinct alphabets with the largest containing over 2,000 complex characters used in common writing. There are also various readings of the character depending on whether the word origin is Japanese or Chinese.

By now you are probably thinking that you will stick with speaking. And I will openly admit that learning to read and write Japanese does take quite a bit of time and some hard work. On the plus side, the Japanese writing system is also very structured. While some of the characters can be complex, they are also very logical.

For those who are interested in working or living in Japan, the ability to read and write in Japanese is crucial. There are a fair number of bilingual foreigners in Japan that speak Japanese. There are far fewer who can also read and write. Adding this additional skill opens up far more opportunities in Japan.

There are also far better study tools then there were a few years ago. Having spent countless hours writing characters over and over again, I can definitely say there are also far more effective methods.

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing some of these methods and discussing what I think are some great materials for learning to read and write Japanese. Japanese Words Newsletter subscribers will also receive an exclusive deal on some great products designed specifically to teach you to read Japanese. If you aren’t already a Japanese Words Newsletter subscriber, you can sign up for free here. As a member you also gain access to the members page containing additional Japanese resources and links.


  1. It’s not hard. Anyone can learn it. Not everyone does, though, because not everyone has the motivation to.

    Often, people “can’t” learn the language because they are employing the “wrong methods” (they don’t know which learner-type they are).

    Other times, people get bored with learning because they think learning has to be a boring process. They try to force themselves through it instead of finding ways to enjoy it.

  2. Alex, Great points. I completely agree. Anyone can do it. The Japanese language has been perceived for a long time as a “too difficult to learn” language, when in many aspects it is easier than English.

    Choosing the right study methods and finding ways to keep the studying fun and interesting are also too often overlooked.

  3. Simply put, you need motivation. I’m in my second Japanese class now, and I’m definately starting to move up the learning curve. The mysticism surrounding Japanese about its difficulty is egregious. What you find with Japanese, after getting most of the basic rules down, is a very logical pretty straightforward language. The sentence structure is very fluid, and the conjugating rules are honestly very predictable and pretty standard. With regards to kanji, my preferred method is to get the basic meaning (and radical) of the kanji down, and then learn the kanji with other kanji as compound words. This gives you a practical way to learn them, without wasting hours writing them out repetitively, and will give you a huge vocabulary, which you can use right away. Try to read even just a little everyday, and write creatively (using kanji of course!), and both skills will start to improve very quickly. My point is that you shouldn’t wait to go to Japan to start reading and writing, which take longer to master than speaking. You can get very good at writing with self-study or classroom study. If you can honestly tell me that writing out a kanji or hiragana, seperately or together as a compound, is harder than spelling correctly in this god awful unphonetic language we call English, then I think you’re crazy. I still struggle more with English spelling than kanji. Just a point to consider.

  4. Mitch,

    You are right. Motivation is a big part of it. For the most part Japanese is a straight forward language with mostly set rules. It is kanji and the written language that makes it more difficult. However, there is also a method to this. Though it does take some time, Kanji and reading and writing can also be learned.

  5. You are right on the money with this post, keep up the good work!