Is Japanese the hardest language to learn?

9 Sep

water lily (640x360)Is Japanese the hardest language to learn?  The answer depends on your native language.  If English is your native language, then Japanese may be one of the hardest languages for you to learn, because English and Japanese are very different in terms of pronunciations, grammars, and writing systems.  On the other hand, if you’re Korean, learning Japanese is probably much easier than learning English because of similarities in our languages.

Once my American friend said English was the hardest language to learn.  That’s not true, either.  If your native language is French, for example, English isn’t such a difficult language to learn, because they share number of similar words.  When I studied French a few years ago, I was shocked to learn that nearly 30% of all English had a French origin.  This made it easy for me to learn French vocabularies.  So there is no such a thing as “the hardest language” to learn.  It all depends on how different the language is from the language(s) you’re fluent in.

When considering the difficulty of mastering a foreign language, one must also consider cultural differences.  Learning a language from a culture significantly different from your own is challenging, because one can’t properly use the language without understanding its cultural background.  For instance, Japanese language consists of complicated use of polite forms and impolite forms.  We use different forms depending on number of factors, such as the age of the person we’re speaking to in relation to our own age, how well we know the person, what our relationship is with the person, and so on.   This adds to the difficulty of learning Japanese especially to those from the Western countries where such a concept doesn’t exist.  Because of the close relationship between language and culture, one may not be able to truly master a foreign language unless one immerse oneself in the culture.

Japanese begin learning English in middle school, but the focus is on writing and reading, not speaking or listening.  So when I came to the U.S to attend college, I could read and write in English but spoke very little of it.  I understood the meanings of many English words by then, but I didn’t know how to properly use them.  The word “love” is a good example. Americans use “love” quit differently from how Japanese use the word “ai (meaning “love”).  In America people may use “love” toward people, animals, and inanimate objects (i.e I love this movie).  In contrast, Japanese use “ai” only toward people.  We use a different word “suki (meaning “like”) to express similar feelings toward inanimate objects and animals.  So instead of saying, “Kono eiga aishiteru (I love this movie),” we say, “Kono eiga suki (I like this movie).”

What also makes “ai” different from “love” is the frequency of its usage.  You’d hardly hear Japanese say “aishiteru (verb of ai).  In fact I’ve never heard my parents say it to each other.  Perhaps it’s because saying such a word too often would cheapen the meaning of it or because Japanese find beauty in understanding another’s feelings without being said.  In any event Japanese don’t express their feelings openly; thus we don’t say “ai” as often as Americans say “love.”  That doesn’t mean that Japanese don’t have deep feelings.  I have never doubted my parents’ love for each other, because they show that in their actions. Love and ai describe the same feelings, but they’re used differently in its cultural contexts.  Without understanding its cultural background, it’s hard to speak the language.  So the more different the culture is from your own, the harder it is to acquire its language.

English and Japanese are so different, and the cultures in which they’re used are contrasting.  Needless to say, it took me a long time to learn English and took even longer to be able to use it appropriately.   So I understand the challenges you may be facing if you’re one of those brave souls who are trying to learn Japanese or any foreign language for that matter.  In this blog I’ll write about Japanese language and offer some tips of learning it.  In the meantime please feel free to contact me if you have any question on the language or Japanese culture in general.

19 Responses to “Is Japanese the hardest language to learn?”

  1. Month Hacker September 10, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    I can understand the importance cultural difference. The example of ‘love’ is exactly what happens in India too. I think Japanese and Indian cultures are more similar than the opposites – Japanese and english.
    May be this is the reason I’m finding it easier to pick up the language.
    How long will I take? I learnt writing and reading Hiragana and Katakana in 1.5 weeks.

    • Yumi September 10, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

      Hello. Thank you for your message. First of all, congratulations on learning hiragana and katakana in 1.5 weeks! You’re a first learner. Are you learning it by yourself? That’s hard to do, but I think it’s possible. I tried to learn French by myself and did okay, but the difficulty was to find a person to practice speaking with. To master a language you’ll need to practice speaking and listening with an actual person, you know? I hope you’re getting that opportunity. What is your native language?

      • Month Hacker September 11, 2013 at 12:23 am #

        I’m a bilingual who knows english and hindi. Apart from that I know enough of tamil and telugu also. I’m learning completely on my own. Also I don’t have someone to practice it with. I have to find someone, at least someone on a forum or facebook group.

        • Yumi September 12, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

          That’s great that you know so many languages. Have you tried a language exchange site ( When I was studying French, I found a native French speaker who was learning Japanese on this site. We helped each other practice the language by talking via skype.

          How’s your studying going so far? What part of Japanese language do you find difficult/easy to learn?

  2. Month Hacker September 12, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    Oh! nice, languageexchange sounds like a good idea. I’ll try that right away.
    So far I’ve been able to complete Hiragana and Katakana. Yesterday I started doing kanji seriously. I’m following ‘remembering the Kanji’ for it. It is a pretty good book. Since I cover my progress in posts on my blog, my readers were pretty amazed with my progress on day 12. Thanks to the awesome book, I must say.

    • Yumi September 14, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

      Good luck with learning Kanji! I”m glad you found a useful book. Kanji is very difficult, but I think it’s interesting to learn it.

  3. Teal Ashes December 5, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    This topic is intriguing. I’m currently listening to “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” an audiobook by Maryanne Wolf. Earlier today I was listening to a chapter detailing how the brain uses different areas to learn the kanji characters and the kana syllabaries. If I recall correctly, the area that processes recognition of the kana symbols overlaps the area which interprets English (and other Romance) alphabetic symbols.

    Language acquisition can be an exciting process! I speak and read Spanish, I have studied Hebrew (though I have not used it in years), and I speak Portuguese about as well as a very, very young child. This year I began listening to French language CDs, too.

    (I also wish to say I think this line in your post is beautiful in what it expresses: “I have never doubted my parents’ love for each other, because they show that in their actions.” That is one of the greatest gifts parents can offer their children. Thank you for sharing it here.)

    • Yumi December 5, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

      That’s very interesting how the different part of the brain processes kanji, kana, and alphabetic symbols. Further research on this topic may help people learn foreign languages. Wow, you’re multilingual! I think learning a new language is a very good brain exercise.

      You’re right about the gift from parents. The older I get, the more I appreciate the fact that they’re happy together.

  4. ikalwewe December 5, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    I’ve been trying to learn Japanese for ages now. And these are some observations (was write a whole blog post about it later)
    1) Japanese and Latin grammar similarities : You can think of the particles as way to decline certain words, as in Latin declension (Nominative: ha/ga; Accusative:wo;Genetive:no;Dative:ni/notameni;Ablative:de/to;Locative:de etc)

    2)I’m also really amused at how many similar negative words exist in Japanese and my language, Filipino, that will take several English words to capture,as if the concept is foreign in English (like burikko)

    3) Correct me if I am wrong but love seems to be used only in a romantic sense in Japan. Romantic love, never mind the tons of movie or songs to overrate it, does not justify our concept of love.It’s only one among many. But I never hear children say to their parents “Aishiteru”.

    • Yumi December 5, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

      Hi, thank you for sharing your observations. I don’t know Latin grammar at all, but it’s interesting that you’ve found similarities in these languages. That’s funny about “burikko.” I don’t hear this word being used much any more. As for “ai,” a Japanese word for love, it means more than romantic love. Actually there is another word for romantic love, “koi.” But you’re right in that the sentence “aishiteru” is used only between a couple. It’s complicated, isn’t it? Do Filipino say “I love you” often?

  5. lealena2000 March 26, 2014 at 4:51 am #

    I think Arabic is the hardest language for Native English speakers to learn. There are so many dialects and variations. And arabic grammar is no joke
    That being said Japanese grammar is quite difficult also sometimes, maybe a lot of times, it’s difficult to translate directly to English from Japanese. I find that one thing can have so many different interpretations depending upon each person.
    But I guess that’s the charm of Japanese.

    • Yumi April 1, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

      Thank you for the comment. I don’t know anything about Arabic, but I can imagine that it’ll be very difficult for native English speakers (or Japanese speakers for that matter), because it is such a different language in many ways.

  6. Toya June 26, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    Hello Yumi,

    I just located your blog today for the first time and I love it! It’s exactly the type of candid insight that I have been searching for regarding Japanese culture. I am an American who currently lives in Japan. I’ve recently started teaching English to Japanese students which has encouraged me to learn the Japanese language. What tips can you provide me to assist my students with advancing their English profiency? My students are older teenagers and adult beginners ( conversational). Also, what tips can you provide to help me learn Japanese? I am a true beginner. Any assistance is appreciated. Thanks in advance!

    • Yumi June 27, 2014 at 10:54 am #

      Hello! Thank you for your comment and your question! I’ve been meaning to write a post about this matter, but I haven’t had a chance to do that. Your questions reminded me to write it, so I’ll post it sometime soon. Hopefully I can answer your question then!

      • Toya June 27, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

        Thanks for your response! I look forward to reading your thoughts!


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