Is Japanese hard to learn? – Ranking the Level of Difficulty

You might ask yourself, “Is Japanese hard to learn?” and wonder whether or not the burden of learning a language is really worth the journey. And we get that!

Learning Japanese takes real-time, tenacity, and practical application to make a language your own. Not to mention, some languages are just downright tough!

Girl Asking if Japanese is Hard to Learn

Japanese is amongst the most trendy cultures of our generation, lending strange customs, iconic films, and legendary video games for many ears and eyes to adore–and that’s just scratching the surface. That’s why we’ve dedicated an entire article to debunking the myths and showing you what it takes to learn Japanese!

We will answer all your questions about the Japanese alphabet, grammar, writing system, politeness, and everything else! We’ve even included our ranking of how difficult (or easy) each component of the language is. Let’s get to it!

Is Japanese Hard to Learn?

To put it plainly, the global interest in all things Japanese has given rise to an unprecedented desire to learn Japanese. It is a cool language, after all!

Yet and still, such a desire does beggar the question, “is Japanese hard to learn?”. It’s a valid concern for anyone considering the realistic hurdles to Japanese language learning.

It goes without saying that the difficulty of learning Japanese or any language will vary depending on the native tongue of the student. However, before anything else, keep in mind that this article is in an English context since we represent the journey of native English speakers.

How hard is Japanese to learn for English speakers?

Here’s a word from linguistic professionals on learning Japanese: The SLS, or the Foreign Service Institute’s School of Language, is a U.S. government institution that ranks languages. The ranking is based on the time required for a native English speaker to reach “Professional Working Proficiency.” They rank Japanese as a Category IV language, which is the hardest category.

The FSI, or Foreign Service Institute, considers Japanese amongst the hardest world languages, along with Mandarin, Cantonese, and a couple of others. The folks in this Institute train members of the U.S. foreign affairs community, by the way.

That’s some really compelling evidence, we know… but we beg to differ! Sure, Japanese is tough if you’re aiming to compete at the highest professional or official level. But 90% of us aren’t aiming that high! Not to mention, these ratings are an accumulation of about seven decades of research and previous ratings.

With the relatively new advent of comprehensive technology and exposure to Japanese culture as a whole, learning Japanese is easier than it’s ever been.

Not to mention that all of the languages listed by the FSI have rather complex writing systems (which we will speak more about later). For the sake of speaking, listening, and general communication, we’d vouch that Japanese even surpasses English in simplicity!

Japanese is easier than you think!

Here’s a little bit on why Japanese is not the tough language you think it is!

  1. Japanese has a bunch of recycled English words that you won’t have to relearn. These words even have a specific name – がいらいご (gairaigo | 外来語). Here are a few common examples:

タクシー (takushii) = taxi

カード (kaado) = card

ドア (doa) = door

ピザ (piza) = pizza

The pronunciation is a bit different from English, but the transformations will become clearer as you train your ears to Japanese words.

  1. Verbs don’t agree with the subject in the Japanese language. In English, we say, “I go. She goes. They swim. He swims”. This doesn’t exist in Japanese – no matter what the subject is, the verb will never be modified by it!
  2. As crazy as it sounds, you can leave out many words when making a Japanese sentence. That’s because Japanese is such a context-heavy language. Whenever the subject or object can be implicated thru context, it usually is.
  3. Japanese is non-tonal, meaning that the tone of one’s voice does not play a role in the signification of words. On the other hand, Mandarin is extremely tonal, which greatly accounts for the difficulty of the language.

How hard is it to Learn Japanese? (from a scale of 1 – 5)

These are some of the easier bits of the Japanese language, which make it simpler than English. “But what about the other things,” you ask? From here on, we break down the essential components of Japanese and rank them from easiest to hardest and explain why.

The scale will range from 1 to 5, or from easy to difficult. Let’s get right into it!

Japanese Grammar [3]

That’s a lower score than we’d grant English grammar! Fortunately, Japanese grammar is pretty regular and steady. There are no case declensions or inflections of nouns (like in German or Russian). There’s also no future tense in Japanese, which removes an entire conjugation segment you’d have to remember otherwise.

Gender [1]

We didn’t know whether to give this a score of 1 or 0. That’s because Japanese is not a romance language, so therefore the nouns have no gender. If gender in the language is to be discerned at all, it is in the slight nuance of cadence in speech between men and women, but that’s outside of grammar.

Pluralization [1]

Pluralization is another great exception the Japanese language makes for its speakers. There isn’t any way to pluralize most Japanese words – it borders on being absent within the language.

There are a few exceptions that use a special symbol (々), usually referred to as ノマ (noma), in casual conversation. It comes right after a kanji character and represents a repetition of that character. On rare occasions, it can follow a combination of characters. Here are some quick examples:

人々 (hitobito) = Many people

日々 (hibi) = Many days

島々 (shimajima) = Many islands

For the record, such specifications almost never need to be made when speaking Japanese.

Vowels [1]

Japanese vowels are as simple as a language’s vowels get. There are only five vowels in Japanese, and they always make the same distinct sound (unlike English, whose letter “a” alone makes almost ten sounds). For anyone familiar with the Spanish language, you’ll have already learned Japanese vowels, as the vowel sounds and representations are practically identical to those in Spanish.

Consonants [2]

There are 19 consonants in the Japanese language, and just like the vowels, Japanese consonants have familiar sounds to English speakers. Two characters are a little different from what we’re familiar with.

One is つ (tsu), which combines the sounds of “T” and “S.” The other is the Japanese letter ん (n). Although most easily referred to as the letter “N,” this character technically makes a closed-mouth sound distinct from Japanese. In truth, neither are a big deal for native English speakers to pronounce seamlessly.

Sentence Structure [3]

Japanese sentences are pretty much backward in comparison to English sentences – that means backward thinking. It’s a bigger hurdle to climb and takes some getting used to, but it’s not difficult. Namely, the object comes before the verb in the sentence in the Japanese language.

Even though that’s true, the placement of components within a sentence doesn’t really change, so once you get the structure down pat, you’ve got it for good!

Writing Systems [5]

Next is the Japanese writing system. A phonetic alphabet is used in Japanese writing, which means the Japanese alphabet is spoken exactly how it’s written. It’s also syllabic, so all sounds (minus ん) are a combination of a consonant with a vowel. There are three writing systems in total – 2 native to Japan (Hiragana and Katakana) and one almost completely borrowed from China. Kana is used across the systems, basically, the characters that make sounds.

ひらがな Hiragana [3]

This writing system is used only for native Japanese words. Hiragana possesses an alphabet of 46 characters (71 when including diacritics), and each sound corresponds to a character. The alphabet is entirely different from English and can be wonky for newbies.

カタカナ Katakana [3.5]

Katakana is just like Hiragana, except for a few differences. For one, the alphabet itself is almost completely different. For two, it was created to distinguish Japanese words from foreign words. Lastly, since it has to mimic foreign sounds, it technically has more sounds than Hiragana does.

But still, it’s a fixed system with no tricks.

Recycling kana

Japanese writing becomes easier with the recycling of kana. The same symbols take on the addition of まる(maru|゜) and てんてん (ten|〃) to create subtly different sounds. That means less kana to remember for folks like you and us!

漢字 Kanji [5]

Here’s the main reason why Japanese writing and reading become so difficult. Kanji are characters that were borrowed and adopted from China. They’re pictographic symbols or pieces of symbols that stand for a concept rather than a sound.

There are thousands of Kanji every Japanese learner must know to consider themselves proficient, including the 2,136 じょうようかんじ (jouyou kanji | 常用漢字). On top of that, there are often several sounds for the same character or several characters with the same meaning but different sounds.

While it does take real dedication to master, it’s a lot easier to learn Kanji now due to modern technology. No one writes Kanji anymore – even modern-day natives have forgotten the technique. So the burden is easier to bear these days.

炉マジ Romaji [1]

Japanese Romaji is simply the use of the Latin alphabet to transcribe Japanese words and sounds. It’s the phonetic rendition made comprehensible for English speakers – it’s pretty easy.

Speaking [3]

The critics all agree that spoken Japanese is not so difficult to learn. There are only five vowels and 19 consonants, after all. And language exposure is at an all-time high. Let’s break it down!

Pronunciation and Phonology [2]

Japanese pronunciation tends to be really easy for native English speakers. There are only really a handful of tricky sounds, but nothing to blow you out of the water. Plus, Japanese is a rather monotone language with some high-low pitch distinction to signify questions or emphasis, just like English.

On rare occasions, a word will change meaning depending on intonation. For example, the word あめ (ame) can mean either rain or candy, depending on which vowel is stressed more when speaking. Usually, the context will do the heavy lifting for you, so that won’t be getting in your way.

Casual and Informal Conversation [2]

Communicating at a casual level is a piece of cake once you develop a basic vocabulary and grammar level. One of the greatest conveniences here is that little trick of omission we mentioned earlier; once the context has been established, clear exchange proceeds in the simplest form. Plus, Japanese listeners are really forgiving and patient from what we’ve seen. You have to go for it!

Dialects [3]

There are quite a few dialects in Japan, depending on the region – and they can be different. It takes practice and exposure to get familiar with each. Sure, you’ll be able to understand what the other person is saying, but it’ll take some extra mental gymnastics.

けいご (Keigo | 敬語) [5]

We’ve put Keigo in this section since you’ll probably never have to write in Keigo, let alone speak it. It’s one of those things that’s difficult even for Japanese speakers, and almost no one masters it. It’s so hard that even though its use is imperative for Japanese natives in certain contexts, foreigners are given a pass from using it.

This movement for foreign Japanese speakers is called やさしいにほんご (yasashii nihongo | 易しい日本語), which literally translates as “easy Japanese.” Keigo is tough, but you don’t need it.

For the record, there are three forms of Keigo:

ていねいご (Teineigo | 丁寧語) – The well-known ます (masu) form, or polite form.

そんけいご  (Songkeig | 尊敬語 ) – A much stronger form of Keigo used to address higher-ups, usually in professional environments

けんじょうご (Kenjougo | 謙譲語 ) –  A form of Keigo where one honors another by putting themselves down. It’s seen as the strongest and highest form of Keigo.

Japanese Words [2]

Okay, so we’ve covered the bulk of what builds up a language. But what about the words themselves? One cool thing about Chinese characters is their more or less static meanings.

Once you learn what a character signifies and how it’s pronounced, you’ll have those clues every time you come across that character. This way, learning new words won’t always feel like actually learning a new word, just a new combination. Awesome.

Moreover, those steeped in Japanese studies will find that the vocabulary is never unreasonably lengthy (like German is infamous for). And if there are ever multiple pronunciations, it’s only to be found in the intonation, as we stated.

Last but not least, honestly speaking, the English language full of words that don’t make sense! Some English words just outright break pronunciation rules or are extremely hard to pronounce, especially since we borrow so many words from other European languages.

How does learning Japanese compare to learning Korean?

Trying to get a frame of reference for the vigor of the Japanese language by comparing it to Korean? Well, the two match up quite swimmingly. For the most part, Japanese and Korean share more in common with one another than probably any other language.

Between the two, the grammar is quite similar overall. Japan has a more complex writing system due to the abundance of Chinese characters. While some Chinese characters are used in Korean compound words, you’ll only need Hangeul (the Korean alphabet) to proceed within the language.

Learning Japanese is easier than Korean for most English speakers as far as pronunciation.

What’s the best way to learn Japanese?

As for all language learners, starting with the very basics usually works out best. Sometimes anime fans pick up some cool fantasy jargon before their studies, but that doesn’t help you ask for the time!

First, take some time to familiarize yourself with both the Japanese alphabet and how to write Japanese characters with confidence. Naturally, you’ll learn some basic vocabulary as you practice combining sounds and characters.

We’d also recommend beginning your kanji practice early on. Even without a goal to become a completely proficient reader or writer of Japanese, some kanji are super simple, and knowing them will make basic reading much easier.

Next, focus on immersion – this is perhaps the most important distinction in the rate of learning when studying Japanese. Try to get into the habit of thinking in Japanese at least a bit every day. Try utilizing all the major tools of study like flashcards, conversational practice with a partner, radio stations, and podcasts with Japanese news or discussion, et cetera.

Above all, the biggest factors for learning anything are motivation and determination! Anyone can learn. How well you learn is a measure of your drive to succeed. Practice your Japanese skills bit by bit every day, take it slowly, and believe in your own process!

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