If you are like most native English speakers, you might have the idea in your head that a language like Japanese is complex and intimidating. Unlike some of our near-relative languages like French, Spanish, Italian, Latin and German, you may feel completely unable to discern common root words, or similar prefixes. It can seem like you are completely out of your element when listening, and therefore, many people conclude Japanese is too hard to learn. Luckily, that’s not true at all.
You may be surprised to hear that Japanese is one of the easier languages to pick up for native English speakers. Really! After a few quick introductory Japanese lessons, you will have some basic terms and phrases down without any trouble, and you can begin building on that foundation more and more. I have assembled a few examples to hopefully help dispel your fears, and get you started on the basics of speaking Japanese right away.
Why Does Everyone Think Japanese is So Hard?
There are a few reasons, actually. The first, and most often cited reason for people shying away from learning Japanese is the writing system. Unlike English, Japanese makes use of a character-based system of writing. Seeing it on paper, or on signs posted around can make some people think “I have to learn an entirely different way of writing! I can’t do that!”.
In reality, Japanese uses three different writing systems. The first two are phonetic, and they are called the hiragana and katakana. Those two systems have 46 characters each, and can be memorized with a little practice. Kanji, on the other hand, is the writing system that seems to have everyone nervous. Kanji are derived from Chinese characters, and it is estimated that there are over 50,000 of them. Now, before that scares you off, you should know that even native Japanese speakers don’t have all 50,000 memorized. It’s closer to 1,000, and even then, if you forget a certain kanji, you can always fall back to hiragana and katakana to spell it out phonetically.
Another reason people may think Japanese is hard is simply not hearing it spoken enough. If you have no Japanese neighbors or coworkers, and you don’t watch Japanese films or animation, it may be possible that you are just unfamiliar with the sounds. The language doesn’t show up in movies as frequently as French or Italian, so it’s not surprising that some people think it’s harder to learn than it is.
It is worth pointing out that the grammar of Japanese is inherently different from English. The sentence order is a bit reversed. In English, we go with a Subject – Verb – Object structure. So for example: “Dan gave Sue the bicycle”. Whereas in Japanese, the order goes Subject – Object – Verb. In that case the same sentence would read more like “Dan Sue the bicycle gave”. It is an entirely different way of thinking about things which does require practice to remember.
What Makes it Easy to Learn?
Japanese shares many of its vowel and consonant sounds with English. For example, let’s look at the greeting “Konnichiwa“. That is pronounced exactly like it’s spelled “Koh – NEE – chee – wah”. For comparison’s sake, let’s look at the French greeting “Bonjour”. Now, you probably know how that is pronounced thanks to hearing it on TV, or in class, but let’s look at how it sounds out in English: “Bonn – JORR”. Woops! If you didn’t know that the “N” is all but silent, and that the “J” is more of a sliding, “zsh” sound, you would absolutely be pronouncing that wrong, if you read it phonetically. With very few exceptions, Japanese and English share an intuitive phonetic set of vowel and consonant sounds. There is virtually no “accent” you need to apply to get the sounds right. Also, once you learn the rules for Japanese, you are set, because there are very few exceptions.
Think about it this way: if you speak English, you have already mastered a language which is nearly twice as demanding, phonetically, as Japanese is. The Japanese language has only five vowel sounds, and thirteen sounds for consonants. English on the other hand, has twelve vowel sounds and 24 sounds for consonants. Speaking objectively, English is harder that way.
Another advantage of Japanese is that objects are not given a gender, unlike other languages. For instance, in Spanish, you need to remember that a library is female, therefore making it “la biblioteca”. Now, a book in that library is male (el libro), but a magazine in that same library is female (la revista). Confused yet? With Japanese, you do not have to memorize any of that. Objects are without gender, just like they are in English.
Also, remember those oh-so-scary kanji I mentioned earlier? Welcome to 2014! Thanks to any number of smartphone apps, you can quickly look up the kanji you need to complete a thought. With helpful typing programs, you are also off the hook for memorizing the stroke order for writing kanji properly – the program will do it for you. You no longer have to haul translation dictionaries around when everything you need is right there on your phone. As always, if you get stuck on a kanji, remember that sounding it our in hiragana or katakana is also a perfectly acceptable means of getting your point across.
I’m Still Not Sure How to Begin.
Try a beginner’s language course and see how you feel about it afterwards. Once you get a few key words and phrases down, you may find your confidence boosted, and that you want to continue. Remember this if nothing else, when you travel to a foreign country, even just putting forth the effort to speak their language can go very far. If someone approached you at a bus stop and said “Excuse me… bus… time?” that should be more than enough for you to get the idea, right? Just give it a try, and don’t stress.
Try these classes to get you started: