The 5 Hardest Things About Japanese
Learning a new writing system, context, counting, speed
Japanese is difficult. 日本語は難しいです。 Nihongo wa muzakashi desu.
When I first started learning Japanese, it felt like trying to understand an alien language from another planet. It did not come naturally to me, nothing was familiar, and I struggled to understand even the most basic phrases. While I’ve certainty made progress over time, it is still challenging. From the complex writing system and opposite sentence structure, to the similar sounds and sheer speed at which the language is spoken, there are quite a few things about learning Japanese that are tricky, especially for a native English speaker. Here are five of the most difficult things about learning Japanese.
1. The Writing System
The Japanese writing system is incredibly complex. It took me a while just for me to wrap my head around how the writing system works, let alone actually use it. It’s not just one writing system like in English, but three: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana is used for Japanese words, katakana is used for foreign, scientific, or emphasized words, and kanji, the more complicated Chinese characters, are used very often. In everyday usage, all three different writing systems are mixed up and used together. So you will find hiragana, katakana, and kanji all used together in the same sentence.
Hiragana and katakana are easy enough. They are phonetic syllabaries, where each character, or kana, represents a sound. Unlike the English alphabet, where it’s one sound per letter, a kana can represent a combination of sounds. For example, か (ka) is just one character, where in English it is two different letters (k-a). The good thing about hiragana and katakana is that they’re completely phonetic, so there are no silent letters or tricky consonant combinations, like in English. The kana are also fairly simple shapes.
Kanji is where it gets really confusing. Kanji characters came to Japan from China, sometime around 500 AD, when Japan didn’t yet have it’s own writing system. The system stuck, and the characters have been adapted in to usage in modern Japanese. A kanji represents both a sound and a meaning. For example, 中 represents both the sound “na,” and the meaning of “middle,” or “during.” Some kanji are incredibly intricate. Take, for example 護 (mamoru), meaning “protection,” which written with 20 different strokes. The most strokes you need to write an English letter is two.
There’s no definitive count of the total number of kanji in existence, but there are a lot. Some estimates are as high as 5,000, but it’s safe to say that about 2,000-3,000 kanji are commonly used in Japanese. So, to be fully literate, you need to know at least 2,000 different characters! That’s crazy! Compare that to English, where it will only ever be different combinations of the same 26 letters. You learn to read in kindergarten, and you’re set. In Japan, students continue learning new kanji into high school, college and adulthood. So, suffice it to say, I’m not expecting to ever master, or even really begin to grasp kanji. I’ve heard it takes at least 9 years of serious studying to become literate in Japanese.
Japanese is a very high context language, and coming from English, a very low context language, this can be quite tricky. High context means that certain information is left out of sentences, because it is assumed that both the speaker and the listener already understand this information from the context of the situation. For example, it is very common to drop subjects in Japanese. So instead of saying, “I go to Tokyo,” like you would in English, you would just say, “go to Tokyo,” leaving out the subject, “I”. If Tokyo has previously been mentioned, you might just say, “go to,” and, “I go to Tokyo” is meant to be understood. But for those of us just starting to learn Japanese, it’s not always so easy to understand the context. This makes it difficult to follow conversations and comprehend the meaning of what’s being said, and unsaid.
3. Counting Words
In English you say “one, two, three…” for everything you count. One glass of water, three soccer balls, five stories on a building, ten pencils. Easy, right? It’s not so simple in Japanese. Counting words are exceptionally complicated in Japanese. First, you’ve got your regular numbers: “ichi, ni, san…” Then you’ve got your “general” counting words: “hitotsu, futatsu, mitsu…” Then you’ve got a bunch of different sets of counting words, depending on what you’re counting. So, you have to use different words if you’re counting drinks versus floors on a building, versus minutes, versus paper and flat things, versus sticks/long items.
I want to know who in Japan’s history was so bored that they decided to come up with this system. Why do we need a whole different set of words to count flat things versus stick-shaped things? It’s almost comical to me. The good news is, you can get by using regular numbers and general counter words for everything. People will still understand what you mean.
Every language sounds like it’s being spoken fast to non-speakers. But when I hear Japanese people speaking back and forth in rapid fire, I am completely baffled at the speed - it’s just so fast! It has to be faster than I speak, right? Turns out, it’s not just my perception; Japanese really is spoken faster than other languages.
Université de Lyon did a study comparing the speeds of various languages, using syllables per second as the measure. Of the eight languages surveyed, Japanese was the fastest, clocking in with an average speed of 7.84 syllables per second. English, on the other hand, was spoken at the rate of 6.19 syllables per second. And Chinese measured only 5.18 syllables per second. So, yes, Japanese actually is spoken faster than English speakers are used to.
Interestingly, Japanese had the fastest syllabic rate, but the slowest information density. What does that mean? It means that to get your point across in Japanese, you have to say a lot more words than you would in English. And to get in all those extra words, you say it a lot faster!
5. Fewer Possible Sound Combinations
Japanese has fewer possible sound combinations than English, because certain sounds (such as “L”) don’t exist in Japanese. The total number of possible single-syllable sounds in Japanese is around 100. The number of possible single-syllable sound combinations in English, on the other hand, is somewhere upwards of 10,000. That’s a huge difference!
This is actually good news for learning to speak. Because there are fewer possible sounds, they are all fairly easy to pronounce. I may struggle with putting them all together, but it’s easy to say the individual sounds of Japanese. It’s not, however, easy to listen and distinguish these sounds from each other when used in words. Many words in Japanese sound very similar, and it’s hard for non-native speakers to tell them apart. For example, the word for “no” isいいえ (iie), and the word for house is いえ(ie). The only difference in pronunciation is the long versus short “i” sound, which to me sounds basically identical. English has words like this too, but there are a lot more in Japanese, since there are fewer possible sounds in the first place.
Even though there are many things about Japanese that I find difficult, I’m really enjoying studying it. I think foreign languages are fascinating, and Japanese is extra interesting because of how different from English it is. I’ll probably never master Japanese, but at least I’m having fun trying!