Is Learning Japanese Harder Than Learning English?

I’ve covered before why Japanese isn’t impossible to learn and isn’t the monstrosity of a language that people try to make it out to be.  However, I would like to briefly mention what makes it so difficult, and how to overcome this.  How many times have you heard Japanese people say the following irritating phrase:

“Japanese is harder to learn for a native English speaker than English is to learn for a native Japanese speaker.”

Now this is usually one of those phrases that annoys Japanese learners everywhere when they hear it.  I know it always made my stomach churn.  Why is there such a strong desire to mystify Japanese and other Asian languages as impossible for foreigners to learn.

But I am going to flip sides, and say what I never thought I would.  I agree with the above statement.  I take back my claim of “ignorance” upon those who utter this horrible phrase.

However!  The reasoning behind my change of heart is quite different than that which causes Japanese people to chant this.  No, it’s not the kanji, levels of politeness, grammar, pronunciation, or genetics (?) that makes Japanese harder than English.  Yeah, Japanese has its peculiarities and unique features that can be a handful at times, but trust me, so does English.

I think you may already know the real reason:

The world is obsessed with learning English.

Of course its harder to learn Japanese than English.  It’s always a challenge to find Japanese people to speak Japanese with you.  You’re in America: you speak Japanese, they answer in English.  You’re in Japan: you speak Japanese, they answer in English.  Something is wrong, right?

Sometimes it makes me think about this news article I read recently off the Huffington Post titled “Last 2 Speakers Of Dying Language Won’t Speak To Each Other.

Learning a language when no one speaks it to you no matter where you are can act like a giant roadblock on your journey.  Not to mention the frustration that inevitably befalls you when you get into the Japanese-English conversation tango with a Japanese person.

Don’t let this get you down.

Complaining is not productive, and the purpose of this post isn’t too preach to what you already know, but to make you realize this important fact, and figure out how you will overcome it.

First, I want you to remember this.  Since learning Japanese is harder than learning English for the above stated reason, consider learning Japanese that much more of an accomplishment.  You have worked so much harder than any Japanese person studying English.  You mastering Japanese is special.  You have a skill that you have to obtain through painstaking trials.

Second, use methods to get around this:
Prove yourself as quick as possible when you speak.
Find people to talk to on Mixi who have no interest/ability to speak English.
– If you are in Japan, tell people you are from Russia and don’t speak English.

Finally, keep in mind the one advantage that you do have.  Because you have less opportunities to speak in Japanese, you are less likely to build up bad speaking habits.  If you focus mostly on reading and listening, your speaking skills will naturally improve.  Without forcing output too fast, like must English-studiers do, you are much more likely to eventually end up with better sounding Japanese.

And when nothing works I resort to the following thought process.  Your Japanese is awesome but you aren’t showing it off.  Real masters don’t show off abilities.  You can’t just suddenly pull out your legendary Japanese to any random person.  You know that the most badass character of any TV show/video game/anime/manga is always the one that has the incredible powers, but doesn’t reveal them until the appropriate moment.

People have mentioned before in comments that this isn’t always the case.  Yes, there are exceptions.  Some people don’t mind this issue.  Some people sympathize that Japanese are just trying to learn English as well and are really excited to use it.  But this doesn’t change the general situation, and to those who face this problem the way I always did, hopefully this post will resonate with you.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Is Learning Japanese Harder Than Learning English? — 12 Comments

  1. I haven’t read the post yet, but when I saw the picture, holy ef!
    I was helping out at an 秋祭り in my town last night, and that picture you used is definitely from it. That’s crazy!

      • It was a lot of fun. Really good turnout, especially the Japanese community. Lots of chances to practice speaking Japanese. Even more chances to listen.
        I talked with an awesome おばあさん. As soon as I told her I knew some Japanese, that’s all she used. Score! We even talked about 北野武. ww
        Good stuff.

        • 伯母さんare the best conversation partners. They don’t care for english and are always excited to chat with anyone.

  2. My husband was the first person I spoke Japanese with, back when I first met him. But it was only a few sentences, and then we reverted back to English. Later, I found out that he feels uncomfortable with speaking Japanese to foreigners, because he feels self conscious about saying something that the foreigner won’t understand in Japanese. His English is really good, so it’s not because he wants to practice.

    Now that my Japanese is better, we converse in the language from time to time. But knowing it’s not necessary for communication, we mostly use English. Though I’ve had my complaints, I’ve gotten used to it. I love him for him, not his nationality.

    So, sometimes the reason a Japanese person speaks English to you isn’t because he wants to practice the language more than help you practice Japanese.

    Also, I think Japanese was the easiest language to learn out of all I’ve attempted. I’m seriously confused when people honor me for choosing such a “difficult” language just because it’s from a non-European country. English is a lot harder to learn.

  3. My coworkers at my job (Japanese) tell me English is harder to “speak” correctly and Japanese should be easier for me. And they are English teachers mind you! I agree with them but I agree with your post too. I have faced many times with Japanese people outside of my home and job speaking to me in broken stuttering English. They ask me “日本語、分かりました?” of course I answer “ちょっとだけ” because I can’t say I understand everything but then they stammer with English sentences. When really if they just spoke Japanese I’d prob understand more of what they are saying than their struggling English. Not all do this of course but I have encountered many to the point I stopped trying to speak for a week because they annoyed me to no end. I got over that phase though. I happily found a friend (although miles away in Chiba while I’m in Osaka) who is willing to help me with my Jpn over skype while I help him with English. And we happily practice our lang equally…and often. Until I get more confidence to speak with others for now I will speak to my friend who understands completely my troubles.

    Great post.

  4. I used to have the same problem of Japanese people not wanting to speak Japanese to me, until I realize that, ironically, I was responsible for that. How so? Since I didn’t speak much Japanese I got my Japanese friends through English-related contexts. So, how did I fix the problem? Simple: I found new friends who couldn’t speak English purely through Japanese language related contexts. If they can’t speak English the problem cannot arise. I stay away from language exchanges and go instead for other common interests.

  5. Yep, I have learnt my lesson.
    When I was in Japan I had 3 language exchange friends and sadly, with all of them I ended up talking 95% in English.
    Next time I’m in Japan, I definitely would NOT know English :)

  6. “If you are in Japan, tell people you are from Russia and don’t speak English.”

    sir, you’re a genius

  7. Hey great point, and by this logic all languages are more difficult than English.

    I’m trying to teach myself a high level of conversational Japanese in these next 3 months here in Milan before I go in January… I’ve found some language exchange friends who seem to have no actual interest in learning English which is great…

    I have to say I would argue that reading and listening doesn’t increase your speaking that much. Or at least I’d say the thing that increases your speaking a lot more is just speaking. The best way towards perfect grammar use and a fantastic accent is speaking the language a lot no?

    You can check out my site to see how I progress in Japanese in 3 months. I’m 2 weeks in and am now having conversations only in Japanese, though saying that, I don’t understand much…

    • While I agree that the only way to improve your confidence in speaking is speaking, I don’t think you can get very far in knowing how to speak without at least learning listening. I’ve taught ESL before, and noticed there’s a big movement for getting the students to gain confidence in speaking as early as possible, which means the majority of the time they are practicing speaking what they just learned in class and not listening to the language. While I agree this has produced a fluency for the language, those students rarely learn how to speak without an accent and without making mistakes. In fact, it leads them to creating their own pidgin language.

      Good luck with your studies! Have a lot of fun in Japan when you get there!

  8. Call me crazy, but when I speak Japanese or Italian for 3 hours there’s usually a Japanese or Italian that I am speaking with.

    Obviously I agree that you should be practicing listening too, but this has a tendency of coming naturally with hanging out and chatting with natives in their language…

    When I can’t do that, I do watch stuff in Japanese though of course. And you are right, you should be listening… otherwise it will just be your own version of their language.

    Thanks for the good luck wishing.

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