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In The Know About Nihongo – Just How Difficult is Japanese?

If only there was a chip that one could have implanted into their brain to gain instant mastery of a foreign language. I’ve been studying Japanese on and off for a long time now and although I can hold my own in most daily situations, protracted conversations or providing elaborate details in discussions remains a challenge.

Talking on the phone is tricky too. No matter how many times I ask “Please use simple Japanese and speak slowly,” those call centre types love nothing better than firing off at you in their fastest, and most verbose Keigo (honorific Japanese).

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For all my studies, I realize I still have an awful lot to learn in this country when it comes to getting my point across in Japanese.

It raises an important question for us all to ponder though. Just how difficult is it to learn Japanese, when compared with other languages? After all, Japanese is spoken by more than 130 million people and one of the most popular second languages on Earth.

Photo by Vassil on Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by Noisefloriblu on Wikimedia Commons.

I briefly studied Cantonese and Putonghua while living in Hong Kong. For those who don’t know, the correlation between Putonghua and Cantonese is in some ways akin to the relationship between English and French. Grammar and structure are the same, as is the writing system. Many Traditional Chinese characters, used by people in Hong Kong and Taiwan, are also used in Japanese.

One major advantage that Japanese has over these languages is the issue of tone. 

Putonghua has 4 different tones and, I believe, Cantonese has 9. This makes it undoubtedly one of the world’s most complex languages. Japanese is monotone, meaning that at least pronunciation is easier. From an English speaker’s viewpoint, the presence of Hiragana and Katakana phonetic symbols in Japanese makes it a lot easier to learn correct pronunciation than most languages. These symbols could be likened to an alphabet of sorts, and at least in the beginning, allow foreigners to gain a certain level of literacy fairly quickly. Certainly, I managed to learn to read katakana in a couple of weeks and it was amazing how much of what was going on around me I was suddenly able to understand. 

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

So I think it’s fair to say that Japanese is easier to learn for a native English speaker than the Chinese languages, but what about European languages?

Although their exact origins vary considerably, most of the European languages are descended from a mix of Latin, Germanic and Slavic dialects. These 3 language groups share a lot of common grammar traits as well as utilizing the same Romanized writing system.

In terms of intonation and the types of sounds that speakers make, I have heard some of my friends remark before that, in a certain way, Japanese sometimes reminds them of Italian. The speaker makes similar sounds and the language seems to have a similar flow. I’m not sure how exactly this pertains to the overall difficulty of the language but it is an interesting point to consider nonetheless. 

Photo by Wutzofant on Wikimedia Commons.

One of the big limitations on Japanese actually, in terms of its difficulty is that the language has a far narrower scope and vocabulary base than most European languages. Whilst English speakers typically have a known vocabulary of up to 75,000 words that they can recognize, recall and use on a regular basis, Japanese is much lower, at around 45,000 words on average. This is probably due to the limitations of the language itself. Most words in Japanese are compounds of 2 or 4 kanji characters. Whilst there are more than 20,000 of these unique characters in existence, only around 8,000 of these are recognized for daily use, and the average, university educated Japanese person probably has a daily usage vocabulary of around 4 or 5,000 kanji. To put that into perspective, an elementary first grade student will learn around 80 kanji in their first year, whereas to read a newspaper comfortably, something that the average high school freshman student would be expected to do, requires a vocabulary of around 2,500 kanji.

As English modernizes and simplifies its structures in keeping with modern trends, so too have younger native Japanese adapted too. These days when you read an email or a text from a Japanese person, there is a noticeable increase in younger people using more hiragana phonetics and a lot less kanji. 

Photo by Asoer, Oppashi on Wikimedia Commons.

However, I will comfortably say that English is a far, far more difficult language for non-natives to learn than Japanese. Most linguists seem to agree these days that despite its widespread popularity, English may actually be, it could be argued, the world’s most difficult language. 

Firstly, English has more words than any other language, at more than 500,000. Additionally, English grammar and pronunciation is decidedly more complicated than in Japanese, with similarly spelled words causing pronunciation headaches galore for the non-native speaker. Take this as an example. How would you pronounce each of these words:

Rough, bough, through.

Though the ending of each word is spelled the same, pronunciation for each is somewhat different. Since Japanese is a phonetic based language, this kind of issue rarely happens.

However, ultimately, grammar is what sets English aside as a language far tougher than Japanese. 

They say rules were made to be broken and nowhere is this truer than in English grammar. The amount of exceptions and exemptions from even the most rudimentary grammar rules adds a huge level of depth and complexity to an already staggeringly difficult language to learn.

As for me, I’m going to stick with Japanese because after all, it’s easier than learning English. Just don’t tell that to any of my students!

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