If you want to live in Japan, you should learn Japanese.
But have you ever wondered “Is it difficult to learn Japanese” and if it is “What can you do to learn Japanese”?
As I am Japanese and an English learner for most of my 20s, I would like to introduce you to some advice regarding Japanese learning.
- Is It Difficult to Learn Japanese?
- How to Study Japanese then?
- Conclusion (No One Speaks Perfect Japanese)
Is It Difficult to Learn Japanese?
I have heard that the Japanese language is one of the most difficult languages to master.
Is that true? My answer is maybe.
As I explained in this article Learning Kanji is a Waste of Time? – I Will Explain Why that the reason why learning Japanese is considered difficult is because of Kanji.
If the goal of your Japanese learning is to be able to watch anime or enjoy speaking Japanese, I don’t think Japanese is that hard to learn. However, there are some factors that may be hindering the progress of your Japanese learning.
I will explain the possible reasons why the Japanese language may be one of the most difficult languages to learn and how you can manage to master them.
Japanese Sentence Structure & Word Order
Unlike English sentence structure, the verb (V) comes after the subject (S) and the object (O). (SOV)
For example, the English sentence “I like coffee” is S (I) V (like) O (coffee), while the Japanese sentence「私はコーヒーが好きです」(watashi wa kohi ga sukidesu) is S (私は) O (コーヒーが) V (好きです).
This sentence structure and word order confuse many Japanese learners since they have different sentence structures. And probably that is why Korean people are good at speaking Japanese.
Japanese People Use a Lot of Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia is words that represent the sound, the condition, or the state that has no sound.
I explained deeply about Onomatopeia in this post Let’s Learn Onomatopoeia With ONEPIECE, so please check this out as well.
Briefly, onomatopoeia mimics the sound and the condition of something.
For example,「シャカシャカ」(shakashaka) is the sound of shaking something or the sound of something being rubbed. 「バーテンダーがカクテルをシャカシャカと作っている」(Batenda ga kakuteru wo shakashaka to tsukutteiru) means “A bartender is shaking a cocktail”. 「シャカシャカ」represent the sound of shaking the cocktail in this sentence.
If we omit the word「シャカシャカ」which is「バーテンダーがカクテルを作っている」, it still makes sense that we understand the gist of it. But we don’t know “how” the bartender is making the cocktail.
「ドキドキ」(dokidoki) is the condition of the heart beating. 「胸がドキドキする」(Mune ga dokidoki suru) means “My heart is beating so fast (because of someone he/she likes or just simply nervous)”.
Japanese people use these onomatopoeia words a lot in their everyday conversation, unlike English. This makes it harder to deal with Japanese learning.
Japanese Culture and Respect – Japanese Honorifics
Language and culture are deeply connected and develop together. If you know a little bit about Japanese culture, you can probably tell that it’s all about respect.
Japanese people use honorifics (Keigo) in verbal and written communication to show respect towards other people (especially older people and strangers).
The most commonly used Japanese honorifics are “san”, “chan”, and “kun”. “san” is used in a formal conversation, and “chan” and “kun” are used among family and friends.
There are three types of Keigo which are Teineigo (polite language), Sonkeigo (honorific language), and Kenjougo (humble language). However, I am not even sure if I could distinguish those three types, so just remember them as Keigo (polite, honorific, and humble language) for now. I may make a blog post about this in the future.
Keigo is actually what you have been learning via textbooks or from Japanese teachers in your high school such as finishing the sentence with the words “desu” or “masu”. But if you learn Japanese from anime, you may not learn them, so please be careful.
For example, 「私はコーヒーが好きです」(watashi wa cohi ga sukidesu) is Keigo and sounds very polite. On the other hand,「コーヒーが好きだよ」(kohi ga sukidayo) is not Keigo and sounds very friendly.
I would use the first sentence if I talked to someone older than me or someone I had never met.
I will not dive into these specifics today but let me give you another example.
If I spoke with someone who is superior to me like a boss or had an interview for a new job, I would probably say「私はコーヒーを好みます」(wata(ku)shi wa kohi wo konomimasu). This sentence sounds a bit weird but I would say this if they asked me what kind of beverage I like to drink.
All these three types of Keigo and informal speech are used flexibly in different situations by different people. Young generations, in particular, are losing this respectful culture and creating their own New Keigo such as「あざっす」(azassu) which is short for「ありがとうございます」(arigatou gozaimasu). Therefore, Japanese is such a complex language to learn.
Japanese Sentence Structure is very Flexible
One big difference between Japanese and English is flexibility.
English words, what I assume, are very flexible in that one word can be used as a verb, noun, and adjective. However, English grammar does not have many case system compared to Japanese grammar, which in turn, has less flexibility.
For example, in the sentence “I went to a restaurant with my friends yesterday”, the words can be placed in different orders but are quite limited.
“Yesterday, I went to a restaurant with my friends”
“I went to a restaurant yesterday with my friends”
“Yesterday, my friends and I went to a restaurant”
“My friends and I went to a restaurant yesterday”.
However, the same sentence in Japanese 「私は昨日友達とレストランに行きました」(watashi wa kinou tomodachi to resutoran ni ikimashita) the words can be placed in more variable orders.
I can keep going but I think you get my point.
Japan has many dialects as there are 47 prefectures. If you have been learning Japanese for a while, you might have noticed there is more than one Japanese dialect.
There are 4 major Japanese dialects. The first one is standard Japanese which you may be learning right now from textbooks or Japanese anime. The standard Japanese is spoken in Tokyo and used on television and official communication such as media, movies, and radios.
I was born in Tokyo but grew up in a prefecture called Saitama, which is located just northwest of Tokyo. Saitama has its dialect but I don’t, but my uncle has. People who live near Tokyo usually speak standard Japanese.
The second most popular Japanese dialect is Kansai dialects (aka Osaka-ben). If you love watching Japanese anime or movies, you may be familiar with Osaka-ben since Kansai city is the heart of Japanese comedy. Most Japanese comedy movies and tv shows are created with Kansai actors and comedians.
What makes me think that the Japanese dialects are one of the reasons why Japanese learners struggle is the fact that I cannot even understand them.
My dad is from Aomori prefecture which is the northernmost prefecture on Japan’s mainland. My dad doesn’t have the Aomori dialect since he has lived in Tokyo and Saitama for over 40 years but my relatives in Aomori have a very thick Aomori dialect and I understand only half of what they say. If the conversation is on the phone, it’s even worse.
There are even stronger dialects in the regional areas of Japan that I need subtitles to understand and these dialects recently have been spotted as a new trend and used in many movies and anime.
How to Study Japanese then?
Regardless of how hard it is to learn Japanese, it would be a lot easier if you have a clear goal with Japanese learning. What do you want to do with it? Do you want to work in Japan?
If your goal is to work or go to university in Japan, you will need to work hard on remembering professional vocabulary and how to use Keigo. As well as you must understand our respectful culture.
If your goal is to make friends, you can skip so many processes.
There is a reason why schools still use textbooks and language dictionaries to teach languages. It is, indeed, one of the best ways to teach and learn a new language by making the most of your ability to use your native language.
Unless you are still a child under the age of 8 and be able to absorb new information as you listen and mimic people around you, it is more effective to learn using your native language at “the beginning stages”.
Although I explained the importance of learning Japanese in Japanese: How to Think in a Foreign Language (If you want to be fluent), I still think beginners should start learning from textbooks.
The basics can be learned by translating from Japanese to your first language. Then, as you progress and be able to think in Japanese, switch to learning and thinking in Japanese.
Learn Japanese History (If your goal is to work)
Learning Japanese history will definitely help you understand the Japanese language better. You will develop a deeper understanding of how Japanese people speak and the difference in our perspectives.
I watch a lot of Australian movies and subscribe to many Australian YouTubers since I speak English in their country and their English is a lot different from American and British English.
Even sometimes the information is exaggerated, it helps me get along with Australian people.
Although it sounds like it, I don’t mean you should study Japanese history. What I mean is to learn history along the way. Watch a lot of Japanese dramas and movies. These films overemphasize the traditional aspects of Japanese culture to attract foreigners to come to visit Japan, but It’s also a great way to learn them at the same time you learn Japanese.
Of course, you can read books about Japan if you like.
I made the post about Japanese movies if you like to explore more: 7 Best Japanese Movies You Will Love (chosen by Japanese)
Learn Japanese music (Karaoke)
Learning Japanese from Japanese music is one of the best methods that I apply to my English learning.
Sometimes, words used in songs are difficult to understand or simply do not make any sense. But that is also fun to learn about them and know the culture of Japan.
Enjoy listening and singing Japanese songs and you will improve your listening and speaking skills at the same time. It is by far the most enjoyable method to practice both input and output.
One day, I will make a post about my favorite Japanese songs.
Make Japanese Speaking buddies
Find friends who speak Japanese with you. They do not have to be native Japanese, they can be anyone as long as they speak Japanese.
I have lived in Australia for almost 4 years combined. I have made many Australian friends along the way, but I have made more non-native English speakers who speak English.
There are some who speak way better English than me. Some speak just as well as I do, and the rest speak not as well as I do. But it doesn’t matter how well English they speak. As long as I keep speaking English, my English kept improving. And so can you.
You can meet anyone right now right where you are if you want to. Use apps, get a tutor, take online lessons. It may sound weird but I talk to myself quite often when I’m alone. I talk about the weather, my future, my job, anything.
If you live in Japan, you should observe people. How they interact with each other, whether they are speaking Keigo or not, and if they have different dialects from standard Japanese.
You can also ask your friends to correct your Japanese if you make mistakes. They may say “No” at first but if you keep asking, they will do that for you. We are kind people, my friend.
Conclusion (No One Speaks Perfect Japanese)
What really confuses Japanese learners and native Japanese is the confusion of Japanglish.
I have made a post about Japanglish: Japanglish Words That Japanese Think are English.
There are so many words that sound like English but are Japanese, and vice versa. For example, it is very typical but the pronunciation of McDonald’s is way different from yours. We pronounce it “Makudonarudo”.
The problem is that sometimes you think we understand some English words that are used in Japanese such as “table”, “ticket”, and “Atlanta”, but we don’t understand because of the pronunciation. But Japanese people do not really tell you that they don’t understand even though they have no idea what you are talking about.
For instance, you want to say “I am from Atlanta” in Japanese and you know that there are no Japanese words for “Atlanta”, you may sound like「私はAtlanta出身です」（Watashi wa Atlanta shussindesu）. Some understand you come from Atlanta but some do not because we say “Atoranta” not “Atlanta”, same as McDonald’s is pronounced “Makudonarudo”.
However, the most confusing fact about the Japanese language, in my opinion, is particles.
Japanese particles are those small words such as “wa”, “ga”, and “wo” that connect more than two sentences. For example, 「私はコーヒーが好きです」(Watashi “wa” cohi “ga” sukidesu), In this sentence, “wa” and “ga” are the particles.
I have met so many non-native Japanese speakers in Australia (mostly Taiwanese and Korean) and they do speak really well Japanese. However, almost none of them could place the right particles in the right place.
I will not explain the particle in this blog (maybe I will one day), because it is absolutely not necessary for you to be perfect.
Even I make mistakes in my Japanese writing once in a while. I have been writing a lot since I started this Unagi Blog. This blog had been only written in Japanese at the beginning until I started writing in both Japanese and English.
Of course, it is easier for me to write in Japanese, so I write one blog post relatively quickly compared to the English one. Before I publish, I always double-check a post twice because I know I make mistakes. When I do the double-check, I always find myself using the wrong particles or weird expressions and correcting them so many times.
What I am really trying to say here is to take it easy. Don’t even think about speaking perfect Japanese. It’s not gonna happen.
Here is something you can do
- Try to speak slowly and clearly
- Do not be afraid to make mistakes
- Go outside and talk
- Know your weakness
- Ask for feedback
Lastly, the most important thing in language learning is to enjoy the process.
There you have it! I hope you enjoyed today’s post.
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