The 5 Hardest Things about Learning Japanese

Due to Japan’s influence in international business and culture, there are plenty of native English speakers who have learned to speak Japanese with proficiency. If you ask them if their journey to fluency was easy, however, they’ll likely respond with a resounding “no”. Indeed, for a variety of reasons, Japanese is challenging for English speakers. From its confusing writing system to the sheer speed at which it’s spoken, here are some of the most difficult aspects of learning Japanese.

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Image via JurriaanH / Wikipedia

1. Complex writing system

Speaking Japanese is hard enough, but writing is even trickier. Japanese has three writing systems: two syllabaries (alphabets in which each character represents an entire syllable), and kanji, which are Chinese characters that represent entire words. In total, there are many thousands of kanji characters that must be memorized in order to successfully read the newspaper or understand signage. Further, a single kanji can represent several different words, and can have several different pronunciations. It’s no wonder that memorizing kanji is one of the biggest hurdles reported by Japanese language learners!

2. Politeness is a grammatical feature

The Japanese language features dozens of honorifics, which are suffixes added to words in order to convey varying degrees of respect and familiarity. Thus, a key part of Japanese grammar involves learning which suffixes are used for peers, children, coworkers, teachers, and elders, to name just a few.

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3. Dropping pronouns

Japanese is a “pro-drop” language, which means that subject and object pronouns can be omitted from sentences if there is enough context for the listener to deduce on their own what the pronouns would refer to. Therefore, instead of saying “They see you”, a Japanese speaker might simply say “see”, relying on you to fill in the blanks. This keeps you on your feet, and requires that you pay close attention during conversations — which is pretty hard when you’re already using all your brainpower just to speak a foreign language!

4. Particles abound

Sure, Japanese doesn’t have any kind of verb conjugations, but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. To indicate grammatical relationships between the components of a given sentence, Japanese uses particles — short words that come after nouns, verbs, adjectives, or sentences. There are 188 particles in total, so memorizing their form and function is a time-consuming process.

5. It’s spoken really fast

A recent study compared the average rate of speech (in syllables per second) of speakers in various languages including Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and English, amongst others. Of the languages they tested, Japanese was the fastest, with an average speed of 7.84 syllables per second. Quickly following behind, Spanish came in at an average speed of 7.82 syllables per second. English, on the other hand, was spoken at just 6.19 syllables per second, and Chinese at a mere 5.18. So, comparatively, Japanese speech is significantly faster than what average English speakers are used to.

But that’s no reason to give up before you even start! Despite the language’s complexity — and how rip-roaringly fast Japanese speakers talk — you don’t have to get left in the dust. With tailor-made courses from a qualified Japanese teacher, you’ll learn to master kanji, honorifics, and particles in no time. Send us a quick inquiry to learn about our flexible Japanese course and package options.