Thinking about learning Japanese?
While the majority of our readers are native to either Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian) or Germanic languages (English, German or Scandinavian languages), consider that Japanese has an entirely different root.
Japanese is a member of the Japonic language family, which includes both Japanese and Ryukyuan languages (spoken on the Ryukyu Islands) and a number of Japanese dialects.
It is spoken by over 130 million people worldwide, which is roughly 1.75% of the world’s population. It’s most commonly spoken in Japan, but there are also pockets of native speakers and learners all over the world.
For example, did you know there are over 1.5 million native Japanese speakers in Brazil? The second largest community of Japanese ex-pats is in the US, where over 1.2 million people speak Japanese as their mother-tongue (it’s estimated that 1.2% of the population of California have Japanese ancestors and around 5% of Hawaiians.)
So why should you learn and how hard is it to learn Japanese? Well, here’s what our language learners had to say about it:
Why Learning Japanese is Awesome
Japanese culture is rich and stretches back thousands and thousands of years. The first recorded culture post the dinosaurs was the Jomon period, which lasted from 14,000-300 BC. Being able to connect with this culture through the language opens you up to new people, music, books, films, TV shows – the works!
But it’s not just that. Every language has its own subtleties that allow the speaker to express themselves in a way they can’t in their first (or even second!) language.
Sami, whose native language is English, put this beautifully when talking about what it’s like to learn Japanese:
“Status and relationships are super important in Japanese: communicating the same idea to a friend versus say a teacher or your boss will result in quite different sentences. Your language changes to reflect what sort of relationship you think you have with the person you’re talking about, and these changes are very concrete ones — words/phrases, the subject of a sentence, and even grammar changes from register to register.
It’s also important to be ambiguous about some things in Japanese; a friend told me that “to communicate without saying what you’re really feeling/thinking is a definition of beauty”; there’s a famous phrase from Natsume Shoseki (basically THE Japanese author) who, when asked how to translate “I love you” into Japanese, responded with “the moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”
The way that communication in Japanese is viewed is so different than in English/Spanish (my other languages) that when I speak Japanese, I have a different personality and am much more sensitive to my conversation partner’s feelings. It makes the whole world more fascinating to me because I get to look at everyday situations with new eyes.
I feel that it is possible to frame requests in Japanese very tenderly because of these features, such to an extent that I use Japanese to communicate with my partner sometimes even it’s not one of our native languages for either of us.
Japanese has enabled me to see a part of communication and life that I wasn’t aware of before, and for this reason, especially I love it.”
Thanks for your wonderful input Sami!
What’s Hard about Japanese?
Learning any language is difficult, but a lot of people view Japanese to be particularly hard. This may be because it comes from its own root, or because of its difficult writing system. Here’s what our learners found hardest about Japanese:
Japanese Writing System
The system of writing that Japanese employs is thought to be one of the most complicated in the world. Written Japanese is made up of two different character types: characters adopted from Chinese called Kanji, and the symbolic Kana. The Kana script is made up of the cursive Hiragana (mainly used for the grammatical elements of sentences), the angular Katakana (often used for foreign words and emphasis) and historical variants of the modern standards.
Almost all written sentences in Japanese include a combination of Kanji and Kana.
Sounds complicated, right?
Well, perhaps a little bit.
This is why Japanese is able to be read both vertically (which is traditional) and horizontally (more common for online publications and headings.)
What’s more, there can be multiple readings of different Kanji. So the same symbol can mean multiple things.
When you think about it, this is the same with English. The words ‘lead’ and ‘lead’ are spelled exactly the same way (although pronounced differently) and you know which one to use based on the context of the sentence:
I’ll lead the way
This pencil is made of lead
You apply the same rules to Japanese, looking at the context around the word in other to get the meaning. For example, 本 means both ‘real’ and ‘book’, but it will be paired with different words based on whether you want to say ‘bookshelf’ or ‘truth’.
Honorifics in Japanese
Honorifics are a crucial part of the Japanese language. They’re generally used when referring to the person you’re talking to and they attach as a suffix to either the person’s first name or their surname.
Which honorific you use (or don’t use!) and which portion of the name you attach it to depends on a few different factors that get a bit more complicated in business settings.
For new language learners, it’s easier to think of them as the Japanese equivalent of ‘Mr,’ ‘Miss,’ ‘Mrs,’ that you’ll use all the time when addressing other people. (You don’t tend to attach it to your own name unless you’re being sarcastic or aggrandizing!)
Getting to grips with the honorifics can be tricky for those coming from languages that don’t use honorifics regularly (English uses them more than you think! Professor, Doctor, Captain, Your Honor are all honorifics!) But as with everything in languages, practice makes perfect!
When it comes to grammar, certain elements of Japanese make it relatively straightforward:
Japanese only has two tenses, doesn’t use male/female gendered nouns, doesn’t use determiners (e.g. ‘a’, ‘the’) and doesn’t pluralize.
But for English speakers, the sentence structure can feel bit awkward.
English uses the structure of ‘subject, verb, object’ for example: I go to school. Japanese uses the structure of ‘subject, object, verb’ which is the equivalent of: ‘I to school go.’
It might feel clunky at first, but once you’ve got the hang of sticking verbs at the end of your sentence, you’re in for a much easier ride.
Tips for learning Japanese
Here are some tips and best ways to learn Japanese from current learners to get you on your way: