Is Japanese a difficult language to learn?
Japanese is an East Asian language spoken by about 128 million people. It is the national language of Japan. Chinese had considerable influence on the vocabulary and phonology of Old Japanese. Japanese has no clear genealogical relationship with Chinese even though it makes prevalent use of Chinese characters or kanji in its writing system, and a large portion of its vocabulary is borrowed from Chinese. Along with kanji, the Japanese writing system primarily uses two syllabic (or moraic) scripts, hiragana and katakana. The language is also considered to be a member of the Japonic (or Japanese-Ryukyuan) language family, and its relation to other languages, such as Korean, is debated. Not much is known of the language’s prehistory or when it first appeared in Japan. Late Middle Japanese included changes in features that brought it closer to the modern language and the first appearance of European loanwords. Following the end of Japan’s self-imposed isolation in 1853, the flow of loanwords from European languages increased significantly. Latin script is used in a limited fashion, such as for imported acronyms, and the numeral system uses mostly Arabic numerals alongside traditional Chinese numerals.
Japanese is an agglutinative, mora-timed language with simple phonotactics, a pure vowel system, phonemic vowel and consonant length, and a lexically significant pitch-accent. Word order is normally subject–object–verb with particles marking the grammatical function of words, and sentence structure is a topic–comment. Sentence-final particles are used to add emotional or emphatic impact, or make questions. Nouns have no grammatical number or gender, and there are no articles. Verbs are conjugated, primarily for tense and voice, but not the person. Japanese equivalents of adjectives are also conjugated.
Let's now see how difficult or easy, is Japanese to learn, and what can be done to get a grip over the language
Japanese could seem intimidating because it has a complex system of honorifics with verb forms and vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and the individuals mentioned. But in order to truly understand its difficulty, it is important to understand where you stand.
According to FSI or Foreign Service Institute of languages, all the languages around the world are divided into 5 groups, based on the level of difficulty for a native English speaker. These groups are:
- Group 1: Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish [Languages closely related to English.]
- Group 2: German [Languages similar to English.]
- Group 3: Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili [Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English]
- Group 4: Albanian, Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Burmese, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Finnish, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Khmer, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Mongolian, Nepal, Pashto, Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik), Polish, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovenian, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Xhosa, Zulu [Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.]
- Group 5: Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese [Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.]
Once you have successfully established your starting point, you can start to build abase and understand what exactly troubles you the most.
A difficulty most learners face is the alphabets and grammar. Japanese has three types of alphabets:
- Hiragana Alphabet
Hiragana is used to represent native Japanese words. It expresses the grammatical relationship between endings of adjectives and verbs. It is a phonetic alphabet that contains 48 syllables.
- Katakana Alphabet
Used specifically for foreign names and words of foreign origin. It is also a syllabic alphabet with 48 symbols that have similar sounds to Hiragana. They both represent exactly the same sounds.
- Kanji Alphabet
The toughest to master and by far the most intimidating of the three, Kanji was borrowed from Chinese writing at a time when there was no written Japanese language. There are over 8000 Kanji and a Japanese speaker must know at least 2000 by heart.
With that said, Japanese is not as intimidating as it sounds. That is if you learn it using the right method and enjoy the process while you do so. Japanese is an ancient language, influenced by the cultures of China, Korea and India. Therefore, for a native Chinese, Korean or Hindi speaker, the language might be slightly easier to master. It definitely wouldn’t be a cakewalk but the process will be smoother.
It is important to understand that no language is truly difficult to master. That being said, the process doesn’t necessarily have to be the easiest either. A language like Japanese requires pure dedication and true motivation, with the application of right methods. The difficulty of mastering any language completely depends on the learner. Therefore, if you are capable of providing that dedication, time and effort then you can definitely master Japanese in no time.