Japanese is hard. Ask a Japanese person if Japanese is a hard language, and they’ll probably say yes. What’s even harder is a native English speaker learning Japanese, something considered to be one of the hardest challenges in language learning. If you’re a native English speaker learning Japanese you definitely deserve to be commended, and even more so if this is the first language you’re learning. But even for English speakers who have mastered another language, Japanese is an entirely different challenge for even the most polygloated among us to master. So why is it so hard for English speakers to learn, and what makes it harder than other eastern languages like Mandarin?
There are a few general big points we can make about Japanese and difficulty. The first point is how dissimilar it is to English; when comparing languages, nothing is further off than translating English to Japanese. Everything is different: alphabet, grammar forms, etiquette, and even all the way down to how the simple bones of the language are formed. English is a SVO language, meaning Subject, Verb, Object language, with a simple English sentence reading ‘I sat on the chair’ for example. Japanese however operates on a SOV system, meaning Subject, Object, Verb, and with a simple Japanese sentence reading 私は椅子に座りました, which would translate directly into English: ‘I chair on sat’. So you can see on a base level how different the languages are, but it continues all the way through the higher levels of both languages. Speaking respectfully in English is based on tone and word selection, while in Japanese there are specific forms used to speak respectfully, 丁寧語 (polite form) and 尊敬語 (honorific form) for example. These concepts can be especially hard for English speakers to wrap their heads around, so it’s no surprise why Japanese is one of the hardest languages for non-native speakers to learn, especially when these major differences are apparent no matter what element of Japanese you study.
But what is it that makes Japanese harder than other difficult languages? It is often argued whether Japanese or Mandarin is more difficult for native English speakers to learn, but in my opinion I’d certainly say that Japanese is a considerably more difficult language to learn. This is of course subjective, but speaking generally most people will struggle more with Japanese than with Mandarin. There are lots of elements that supply each language with their own different challenges but they differ on a couple key elements that make Japanese harder. One of these elements is that Kanji can carry multiple meanings and translations when compared to the Mandarin writing of words which generally have one translation. Japanese grammar is also much more difficult to learn, Japanese having tonnes of conjugations for verbs and adjectives, and with things like casual, polite, and honourific speech in Japanese the amount needed to learn can double or triple. While a lot of these elements are not present in Mandarin it presents its own set of challenges and is also wildly different from English. But ultimately I have found through my studies that Japanese has proven a more difficult language to learn than Mandarin.
If you’re learning Japanese then you should give yourself a big pat on the back, because it’s a hard language. Due to how dissimilar it is to English and the crazy amount of things you’ll need to learn to master Japanese, in my opinion, it is the hardest language to learn. So be proud of yourself, and don’t feel daunted by Japanese. Because if you can learn the hardest language possible, there’s no other language you won’t be able to master with ease!