Is Japanese Language difficult to learn?

The answer is “yes” and “no”. Yes, because, first of all, the Japanese language has a few sounds with five standard vowels and simple pronunciation scheme; syllables are formed by a single vowel or a consonant-vowel combination. For the grammar, there are few exceptions to its rules, and restrictions on sentence structure are not severe.

The Japanese language is considered difficult by many due to the mixture of different types of characters, namely, kanji characters, hiragana characters, katakana characters and Roman letters; the most difficult one is kanji. There are about 3,000 commonly used kanji characters including the 1,945 “daily use characters”, and 46 hiragana and katakana characters each.

One aspect of the language that makes it difficult for foreigners to grasp quickly is the presence of many words which are pronounced the same but have different meanings. For example; hana can be “flower” or “nose”, ame for “rain” or “candy”. Knowing kanji helps in this aspect of learning as each of these words can be easily recognized by kanji.

Cultural Considerations

Another feature which makes the learning of Japanese difficult yet interesting is the fact that the way Japanese is spoken differs depending on whether the speaker is a man or a woman, and adult or a child. Can you imagine, for instance, how strange a male foreign speaker, especially a big macho-looking man, sounds, if he speaks Japanese which he has picked up informally from Japanese lady’s speaking?

What is even more troublesome is that the speaker must choose his words considering the relationship between himself and the person he is speaking to or speaking about. The barriers between the speaker and the listener/person in the topic are mostly created by familiarity between two people, age and position in society. The more unfamiliar you are to the listener, and the younger you are, and the lower your social status is, the more your speech becomes formal. The reverse is the informal speech. One example is that there are numerous words meaning “I” and each speaker refers to himself using the one what is most appropriate for his situation. Besides, these situational differences can be accentuated by the body language; custom of bowing (45 degree in general), space between two speakers, eye contact, etc., which projects the cultural aspect of the Japanese society.

In general, the Japanese are notorious for being a poor speaker of foreign language. Therefore, they appreciate the foreigners’ learning Japanese. Their typical response to foreigners’ speaking even a little Japanese is “Joozu desu ne!”; “Your Japanese is good!” Thus, knowing a little Japanese can go a long way, not only in communication, but captivating the heart of Japanese.

Ganbatte! (Hang in there!)

Read more about Yumiko Lee’s cross-cultural teaching experiences at Japan hiWays