Why Japanese is difficult language to learn and master?

Do you love watching anime? Do you want to learn Japanese? Let’s take a brief look at this beautiful language and see if you can do it.

Japan, love, know, difficult
Japanese – Know it, love it and master it.

As writing this article, I am listening to “Splash free” – a Japanese song from my favorite anime. The language is so beautiful but Japanese is also the language I love to hate. I often say that while my relationship with English is stable and long term, mine with Japanese is love at first sight but complex and exhausting.

If you want to learn Japanese, you should read this article first. Japanese is not the language for light heart people and for fun. Assuming that you are coming from Western countries or countries where use Roman characters, Japanese appears to be challenging with many weird symbols with curves, details and stuffs. Compared to other languages, it takes great effort and devotion to start learning Japanese and remember the characters. However, it is quite easy for beginners to get used to simple grammars and use it in daily basis.

On the other hand, to master it at business level and make a living with Japanese, it takes longer time than any language. I have learned English and German and I still find Japanese is the hardest thing ever I have encountered in my life although I got N1 (advanced level) at JLPT test (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), studied abroad in University of Tokyo with an honor scholarship and have two years working experience as Japanese translator. 5 years learning English, I have no trouble scanning through English academic books or essays, picking some keywords and get the brief view of the documents. 5 years learning Japanese, I find myself hesitate to buy literature books and hardly get through the first chapter with loads of Kanji (Chinese characters) without using dictionary and thinking of giving up.

Let’s see how difficult Japanese is.

Characters

Japanese adopted Chinese characters thousands years ago as China was a center of culture and economic at that time. After Chine showed declination, Japanese emperor decided to stop trading with China and that was when Japanese isolation period started. The geographical isolation of Japan influenced the development of the country significantly. Imaging Japan as a shy, introvert boy in the classroom who refused to talked to anyone and insisted on playing by himself for long period of time, you would get an idea how Japan is so weird. They started to mix everything up and created characters system that suitable for their purpose in their own ways.

Japanese has three different character systems that have complex rules of where and when they would show up in the sentence. Just take a look at them.

Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji

Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji

Can you tell three different types of characters apart?

First is Hiragana which is called “soft” characters since they have many curves.

The second is Katakana which is called “hard” characters and they are used to for foreign words. In particular circumstances, some words would be written in Katakana instead of Hiragana to attract attention or indicate something “strange” about that word.

For example:

Katakana usage

The sentence is “The teacher was arrested by the police”.

In the first sentence, “sensei” is written in Kanji.

In the second one, “sensei” is written in Katakana.

Sensei” means teacher and normally expresses respect toward the teacher. However, in the above sample, they would write “sensei” in Katakana to highlight it.

The third one is Kanji which is taken straight from Chinese language. There are many words with same pronounce so you need to use Kanji to identify their meanings. Take the word “Kanji” for example. With different words combination, it will have different meanings.

In addition, one Kanji would have several different pronunciations. Sometimes there are 5, 6, 7 and more different pronunciations. You can see clearly with following example.

There are multiple ways to pronounce every single Kanji out there
There are multiple ways to pronounce every single Kanji out there

There is nearly no rule and it is hard to remember in my opinion. In reading test, you may not remember pronounce of one word but you can guess its meaning. It may appear hard at first but once you practice often enough, you will remember a handful of Kanji words.

You will have to remember 300 Kanji to pass beginner level test (N5-N4) and over 2000 of them to reach advanced level (N1).

Roman alphabet or romaji is added for the convenience of foreigner and they are not commonly used in written language.

Grammar : proper use of honorific and humble forms

Japanese can be roughly separated into three levels of politeness: casual, polite, and honorific/humble. You will often hear this type of language in any customer/consumer type situations such as fast food counters, restaurants or convenient stores. When talking to superior, clients, people from higher social class or elders, you need to learn to place yourself at lowest level in the conversation and place your listener as the highest place as possible.

In honorific and humble form, verb is the star of the sentence and it changes a lot to longer and complex version. Nouns also undergo substitution to express respect.

The system of honorifics in Japan is extensive and even the native speakers need to take classed to learn them properly. If you work for a Japanese company, it is imperative to learn how to use honorific and humble forms correctly to use in mails and daily conversation. The first impression is critical in doing business with Japanese. If you fail to impress them with accurate humble form and writing styles in the first time you contact them, you will be judged as unprofessional and untrustworthy.

Listening

I list listening as one of most difficult aspects of learning Japanese based on my experience. In daily conversation, Japanese often omit subject of the sentence so that without context, it is possible that you cannot get the idea of the whole conversation. It is the same for reading. It is not unusual that you know all the words, the grammar but the meaning of paragraph is still arbitrary and nonsense. Japanese native speakers have the same problem. I once asked my Japanese teacher about one part in Japanese history book I was studying that I could not understand. She did not understand it at first glance and had to read the whole chapter to able to get what the author was mentioning.

Verb in normal communication would be shortened compared to what you learn from textbooks and sometimes they change a little.

For instance:

In the second one both subject “I” “that program” is thrown away, only the verb “see” is remained.

Have you felt discouraged yet?

Japanese can be easy if seeing from another aspect. Japanese has no genders, the grammars are easy to remember in short time, the number is quite tricky too but it is as simple as English. If you love it enough, you will see yourself improve remarkably. The journey is long and requires perseverance. If you feel like quitting, then take a break, enjoy some awesome anime, remember back why you study it in the first place and start it again. I once hated Japanese because I had to ace for exams, put on myself great pressure to force me learning every day. Then I gave up. It took me months to recover my motivation. After that I used anime as my learning sources. I focused on what I enjoyed most and started to love Japanese again. I remembered how I love this language when I was in elementary school, how I love Japanese culture.

If you want to learn Japanese or need advice to get JLPT certification, feel free to contact me any time.

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