What Makes Japanese Such a Difficult Language to Learn?

  • Before coming to Japan I studied in an institution that provided 6-12 week language learning programs in over 100 different languages. There was a story commonly told of a student who was studying Spanish and was having a hard time and wanted to quit. The teachers met together to discuss how to handle this student who felt that Spanish was too hard. The president of the institution proposed an idea, “Send him to a class learning Japanese.” After 3 days trying to learn Japanese the student who formerly thought Spanish was impossible said, “Oh, I can learn Spanish.”

    Japanese is notoriously difficult to learn but why? Let’s look at a few reasons.

    The Problem is Not Grammar

    Most people who study Japanese quickly will say something like, “Japanese grammar is so DIFFICULT!” In actuality, Japanese grammar is rather simple. The rules are really clear and well defined (unlike English). The problem is that Japanese is very contextual. For example, how do you say “Hello” in Japanese? Most textbooks will tell you it’s “konnichiwa”, but that is actually “Good Afternoon.” There is no “hello” in Japanese. What you say in greeting depends on several factors; the time of day, who you are speaking to, and the relative social levels between yourself and the speaker.

    Nearly anything you say in Japanese will depend on two major factors; the level of formality, and the social status of the two speakers. For example, you want to say, “I saw our teacher, Mr. Tanaka.” If the speaker and the listener are friends then the formality will be low, but because the teacher is of higher status he could be spoken of with more polite language so you might say, “Tanaka sensei ni o me ni kakatta” (My eyes respectively fell upon Mr. Tanaka). Now, “o me ni kakaru” is a respectful way to say “I saw” because of the relative status of Mr. Tanaka. But ending a verb with “ta” is the informal form of the past tense, because you are with friends. Getting how complex it is yet? The grammar is rather simple, but navigating the layers of formality is the difficult part.

    The Writing System Might be the Most Complex in the World

    Japan did not have a writing system until it adopted and adapted Chinese characters. Similar to English and the alphabet, the language and the writing system do not match. Furthermore, the Chinese reading of each kanji was also brought over along with the native Japanese word. For example, “tonkotsu” (豚骨) the first kanji “ton” 豚 is pork, but we don’t say “ton” to talk about a pig, we say “buta”. “Ton” is the Chinese reading and “buta” is the Japanese reading.

    Furthermore, because so much of Japanese grammar depends on suffixes (add-ons to the end of words), Japanese scholars had to create a new system to show these suffixes. Thus was born hiragana and later katakana. So if you want to learn Japanese, you have to learn 3 independent writing systems.

    Gaijin Power

    While I just laid out how difficult Japanese can be, if you are a foreigner learning Japanese you have a special skill, “gaijin power”. Most Japanese people are going to cut you a lot of slack. You don’t need to worry about the formalities as much. Japanese people are relentlessly forgiving of gaijin making Japanese mistakes (to the possible detriment of one’s Japanese skill). So try your best, but don’t worry too much.