You are ready to embark on a fantastic quest that is learning Japanese language! We all have our reasons: work, communicating with loved one, maybe watching anime without subtitles?
You’ve registered for classes, hired a private tutor, or are taking a self-learning route with apps – cool! But, did you know that your mother tongue may make it more difficult to learn other languages?
Why Japanese is the Hardest Language to Learn
Did you know that Japanese and other Asian languages have a high learning curve for English speakers? English is a Germanic language with heavy Romantic and Latinate influences, meaning that it’s easier to learn German and French due to their similarities.
Japanese developed free from those influences, which can be difficult to grasp if you aren’t familiar with the Japonic system. The most difficult thing to grasp is the Japanese alphabet, which consists of over 85,000 different characters! You’ll also have to learn the three writing systems – kanji, katakana, and hiragana.
An English speaker learning French or Spanish will constantly be reminded of other words he knows: fiesta or fête = feast, libro or livre = library, papel or papier = paper, etc.
With Japanese, you first hear a bunch of equal-sounding syllables that mean nothing to you and that seem impossible to remember. If you’re adventurous, you’ll also want to learn how to read and write the and of course, you’ll be met with kanji characters that first look like a meaningless bunch of lines that can have 2, 3 or more distinct readings depending on the other words used with it.
Academic research shows it takes 2,200 classroom hours or 88 weeks to achieve language proficiency, which is the ability to use about 3,000 words in normal conversation.
Japanese is very contextual. The language spoken at home, by close friends, by women, by men, by children, to your seniors at work is quite different so depending on the situation you have to choose your words carefully to avoid being unintentionally rude or appearing childlike or overtly feminine or masculine.
Also from the cultural point of view. Even if you learnt the language perfectly, you need to know HOW to express yourself. In English the onus is on the speaker to make himself understood by providing all the information.
In Japanese, the onus is on the listener to pick up what the speaker is talking about. So in Japanese if you speak too directly and explicitly it will be appear clumsy or strange. e.g you don’t have to mention who is going somewhere as it will be assumed to be you if not explicitly stated.
When it comes to speaking, yes, I’ll agree the pronunciation is quite simple compared to English. But you still have to deal with the pitch accent, and like English’s stress, there are no rules so you have to memorize which syllable has high pitch and which has low pitch. Also, many words are differentiated by their pitch.
Diving into a new language with non-stop studying can be setting yourself up for failure since you can be consumed by frustration. Instead, try to segment your study time, use fun apps that utilize games, flashcards, and build your vocabulary by talking to a native speaker. Learning these languages is a marathon, not a sprint.
With enough dedication and hard work, those 88 weeks will go by in a flash.
However. some of the hardest aspects for me were:
—Sentences are often left dangling and incomplete, with the meaning inferred from the context. The Japanese have no trouble with this, but it is often confusing for an English-speaker who is not fully familiar with the culture.
—The verb-last structure is strange for English-speakers. It’s actually not hard to produce sentences in this way, but comprehension can be difficult, as the listener has to wait to the very end of the sentence to learn what the verb is, and whether it is positive or negative.
—Mastering polite speech is tricky. You have to select the right words and verb forms based on where someone else stands relative to you on a social scale, or if they are in your in-group or out-group in a certain situation. If speaking Japanese only involved using the plain forms, it would be a VERY easy language.
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