The first time you open a Japanese book, it can be a bit of a shock. Maybe you just wanted to learn a few simple phrases for traveling, but now apparently you have to learn a whole new alphabet?
Japanese is a tough language to learn, there’s no doubt about it. For English speakers, many of the grammatical concepts are foreign, and the pronunciation is difficult. Plus, a history of isolation has made Japanese a unique language with a complicated writing system. Despite all this, there are ways to learn Japanese that not only make it easier but more fun too. Regardless of how you do it, learning such a beautiful and important language is a rewarding accomplishment you can be proud of forever.
Once you understand what makes Japanese difficult, you’re better equipped to tackle it. This extensive overview of the Japanese language includes what you should know and the resources you should use to get started.
The History of Japanese
With about 128 million native speakers, modern Japanese is the primary living language of the Japanese-Ryukyuan language family. For the most part, this language family is very isolated. Besides Japanese, there are a few other languages in the family spoken on the Ryukyu Islands like Okinawa, but they have relatively few speakers and are slowly being replaced by Japanese.
Some scientists have tried to link Japanese to nearby language families, especially Korean, but so far they can’t find any relationship. That means that the Japanese-Ryukyuan languages have been isolated for at least several thousand years.
Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages like Okinawan both came from the same theoretical language that scientists call Proto-Japonic. No one actually knows what that language sounded like, but linguists can reconstruct it using comparative methods.
Later, Japanese separated from the Ryukyuan languages sometime before the 7th Century. Old Japanese is the oldest written form of the language. It was written using the Chinese writing system that came to Japan via Buddhism.
Middle Japanese evolved at the end of the 8th Century and featured a lot of influence from Chinese. Modern Japanese did not evolve until the Edo period, which started at the beginning of the 17th Century. It’s more like the Edo dialect of Japanese, which comes from Tokyo, than Middle Japanese, which was closer to the Kyoto dialect.
Where do people speak Japanese?
The vast majority of Japanese speakers live in Japan, but there are minority communities around the world.
During its Imperial period, many people in Japanese territories like Korea, Manchuria and the Philippines learned Japanese either because they had to or in hopes of a better future. As a result, a lot of elderly people in these areas still speak Japanese.
There are also large immigrant communities. The largest is in Brazil with around 1.5 million people. The US also has a large population of about 1.2 million, with about 12% of Hawaii residents speaking Japanese.
How hard is Japanese to learn?
The bad news is, for English speakers, Japanese is a pretty difficult language to learn. English is an Indo-European language, so it’s not related to Japanese in any way. As a result, everything is totally different.
When you learn another European language, the vocabulary and some grammar might be a little different, but for the most part, the concepts are the same. With Japanese, you’ll have to learn a totally different way of viewing the world and how the things in it are connected.
To understand how difficult it is, take a look at the US State Department’s language classification system. They divide languages into four categories based on how hard they are to learn and how much time someone will need to achieve proficiency.
Category I languages are the easiest and include languages closely related to English like French and Swedish. These take 24-30 weeks to learn, or 600-750 class hours. Japanese, on the other hand, is classified as a Category IV language, reserved for the most difficult “super-hard languages.” This means it takes around 88 weeks or 2200 class hours to gain proficiency.
The Writing System
One of the biggest obstacles to overcome when learning Japan is the writing system. For one thing, there are four different ones:
Kanji is the Japanese adaptation of Chinese characters. Chinese characters do not represent full words like many people think, but they do represent morphemes, words or parts of words that contain meaning. As a result, they’re very easy to adapt to other languages. For example, 学校 refers to xuéxiào in Chinese but gakkō in Japanese. Both words mean school.
Hiragana is a native Japanese phonetic script. Unlike true phonetic alphabets descended from the ancient Phonecian writing system such as the Latin alphabet, hiragana is a “syllabary.” Each letter represents a full syllable, a consonant and a vowel. As a result, there are 46 basic characters.
Katakana is another Japanese phonetic script that contains 48 basic characters. They also represent full syllables. Katakana and hiragana are together called kana.
Rōmaji is simply the Latin alphabet used to write Japanese.
Other than a Romanization of Japanese through rōmaji, the easiest script to learn is hiragana. That’s why it’s the primary script used in children’s books. Young kids usually learn hiragana first and don’t know the numerous kanji characters.
However, anything made for adults is written in a mixture of kanji and kana. Japanese adults write most words in kanji and use kana for grammatical prefixes and suffixes that don’t exist in Chinese or words that don’t otherwise have a kanji form.
When it comes to kana, hiragana is the most common form. Katakana is more like italics or cursive in the Latin script. It’s used for stylistic purposes, like writing foreign loanwords or brand names.
It’s hard enough to learn a language that’s outside of your native language family, but on top of that, Japanese is grammar-intensive. There’s a lot of grammar to learn, but it’s completely different from the grammar you’re used to in English or other closely related languages.
Certain grammatical concepts are different from English, but at least easy to understand. For example, the verb always goes at the end of the sentence in Japanese. In English, verb placement is more flexible but normally goes after the verb. You might say I am American in English, but in Japanese, you would say Watashi wa amerika jin desu (I American am).
However, many grammatical concepts are just completely foreign. Consider that Japanese places a lot of emphasis on the “topic” of a sentence. Just like in European languages, Japanese has subjects, objects and verbs, but unlike European languages, it also has a topic and a comment. These might coincide with the subject and object, but they might not.
Here’s an example: We can translate the sentence Zō wa hana ga nagai as The elephant’s nose is long. Like in the English sentence, hana means nose and is the subject. However, zō means elephant, and it’s the topic of the sentence. Sometimes people translate this as “As for the elephant, the nose is long,” but there’s no true literal translation.
Japanese also features a lot of particles, something English doesn’t really have. Particles are short words that have no literal translation but rather signal other words’ grammatical functions, something done in English with word order, declination and prepositions. If you look in the above example, you’ll see the word wa just after zō (elephant). Wa shows that zō is the topic of the sentence.
Since most people start learning via translation from their native language, a language filled with grammatical concepts and particles difficult to literally translate can be a real uphill battle.
Is learning Japanese worth it?
Learning a foreign language is always worth it. In the case of Japanese, you’re learning the eighth most common language on Earth and second most common outside of the Indo-European language family. That means it will open up communication with a lot of people. In this case, 128 million of them.
Learning Japanese will make communication much smoother with any Japanese person. Most Japanese people don’t know much English, and even if they do, knowing their language can help fill in the gaps and find common ground. This lets you meet new people and have new experiences you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
Besides the human aspect, learning a foreign language gives you new ways to see and think about the world. Most people have an internal monologue. They think and process information using language. You probably speak to yourself, even if not out loud.
Giving your brain a new language to work with lets it process information in new ways and from different perspectives. Japanese is one of the best languages to learn in this regard because it’s so different. You can begin to see the world from a different angle.
Finally, learning Japanese is an all-around rewarding experience. It’s a lot of work, but it’s an accomplishment to be proud of when you’re finished. Like running a marathon might be a good, measurable goal for your physical exercise, learning Japanese can be a good, measurable goal for your mental exercise.
How to Learn Japanese
These days, it’s easier than ever to get started with Japanese. The internet has connected the whole world and made language learning that much simpler. Of course, you can always take classes at your local college, university or language academy, but if you want to sit at home in your sweat pants, here are five effective options.
Duolingo has become famous as a free language-learning platform. The website offers courses in tons of languages, Japanese being one of their best.
You work your way through short, basic lessons that give you experience points when completed. When you finish a lesson, you can move on to more material or a harder lesson over the same material. Experience points and rewards let you compete with friends or other users.
One of the best aspects of Duolingo is its speaking practice, something difficult to find in online courses. You can speak into a mic, and the lesson will correct your pronunciation.
You can use Duolingo as a website on your desktop, and there’s also an app for your phone.
Marugoto is great because it’s Japanese-specific. In fact, Marugoto is designed to teach you Japanese in a professional manner based on the European classification system of A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 levels.
You can choose from a variety of courses that fit your needs. There are casual self-study courses as well as intensive tutor-assisted courses. You can take a test to see which level you’re at and start there.
For anyone serious about learning Japanese, we highly recommend this site. Just keep in mind that the courses have formal start and end dates, and you have to register online.
FluentU is another website devoted to language learning. They have paid monthly courses for a number of languages, including Japanese. The basic study platform includes quizzes similar to Duolingo paired with real-world videos that show the concepts used in everyday situations.
On top of the lessons and quizzes, there are videos and audios with explanatory subtitles to help you learn the language while having fun.
EdX is a place you can go for courses on everything, not just languages. In fact, while you study the language, you can do a course on Japanese architecture if you’d like. The courses are designed by real university professors, but they’re free and self-paced, letting you study and work through assignments when you have time.
You can also pay for a verified certificate. In addition to the self-paced course, this gets you access to help from the course designers.
NHK is actually a Japanese TV station, but they feature a number of different Japanese courses on their website. The courses are all based around what you want to do, whether it’s Japanese for travel, work or fluency. There are courses that start at both the beginner and elementary levels and go to intermediate.
The courses feature lessons on grammar as well as conversations in everyday situations. It’s a fun way to get started with Japanese.
The Best Way to Learn Japanese
Online courses and resources are great. They’re especially good for learning the basics of grammar and common expressions before traveling. However, even in our modern, technological age, there’s just no substitute for immersion.
Immersion is by far the best way to learn Japanese. There are some Japanese immigrant communities around the world, but the best place to experience Japanese immersion is Japan itself.
When you’re in Japan, you’ll feel the social pressure necessary to make your brain adapt and absorb the language. Plus, you’ll get cultural context for everything that you’re learning, and you’ll have to hear and speak the language on a regular basis.
If you want to be truly fluent in Japanese, make plans to visit the country. Then, once you’re there, get out and speak to as many people as you can.