There is a trend to raise Japanese’s difficulty status to a magical language of eternal struggle. So extreme a language that even the people born into the language can’t fathom it. I first heard this comment from a Japanese person many years ago, who was telling me why it was cute that I was studying Japanese, but why I didn’t stand a chance. No matter how many normal and nice Japanese people you run into, you will eventually run into someone else who will say something like this.
Besides being discouraging and belittling, it’s a troubling statement. Because it uses global language truths to create one big myth. Let’s see why.
Myth: It takes 12+ years for even Japanese people to learn all the kanji!
Can you imagine if it took you 12 years to learn the alphabet. You can’t even read a newspaper until you are in college. Kanji is so intense that it can only be learned at a pace of 100-200 a year?!
This is wrong in so many places.
Technically school kanji learning is spread out over a Japanese child’s education (until they enter high school, so it’s not actually even 12 years). But it’s silly to think that Japanese people don’t come across kanji if they didn’t learn it officially in school.
You like manga? Do you think Japanese children might like it too? You know what it has in it? A never ending supply of complex kanji. Now take a kid in second grade. He only officially knows between 80-240 kanji. Think he isn’t going to read manga because it has kanji he doesn’t know? And when that kanji is vital to understanding a scene, what do you think he might do?
Just like many people read over their designated “grade level” in English, the same, if not more, occurs in Japan. People are way ahead of the kanji rate schools set. Also, comparing kanji to the English alphabet in order to establish the difference in difficulty between languages is just wrong and misleading. It’s not like once you understand the alphabet you are done learning English.
Myth: Japanese people have trouble reading and writing kanji even as adults
A partial truth that shouldn’t be misinterpreted. People forget the readings of kanji and how to write them. You know who else does this? Everyone in every other language. Are you telling me you don’t forget the spellings of words? Use the wrong grammar? Make the wrong word choice? Pronounce a word that you thought was right your entire life, but were just recently told that you’ve been wrong all this time?
Kanji word creations can feel illogical making it hard to remember the readings and meanings. Things make sense until they don’t because of various factors that influenced the creation of kanji and words. However, that’s nothing compared to English, which is one giant mess of borrowed and original rules, that sometimes have no rhyme or reason.
Myth: Japanese is so hard to understand that TV shows need subtitles
Most variety shows have giant Japanese subtitles exploding across every screen. Subtitles are for people who can’t hear or understand, right?
Japanese variety shows have decided to create a viewing experience that utilizes subtitles for emphasis, comedy, education and more. I’m not sure of the history of how subtitles became popular in Japanese TV, but it wasn’t because of the public not understanding Japanese without them. If that were the case, then movies and every other kind of TV would also have them (which they don’t).
There may be a rare example where the audio quality is bad (ex. a street interview in a noisy area) or the speaker is talking in a hard to comprehend voice (low, heavily accented, etc.) In this case, yes maybe the subtitles are actually needed to understand what someone is saying. But 99% of the time this is not what Japanese subtitles are about.
Myth: Japanese people have trouble understanding each other when they are from different areas
Take someone from a remote region of Japan and put him in the same room with someone born and raised in Tokyo, and have them talk. Utter chaos?
Japan has a lot of dialects and some are painfully difficult to understand if you are not familiar with them. This may seem like a major blockage in countrywide communication, but most people who speak a strong dialect also learn to speak standard (and polite) Japanese. It would be an unlikely situation where you took two people from Japan and they wouldn’t be able to understand each other.
Myth: Japanese is just naturally tough
Yes, it is. But that’s only because languages are naturally tough. How much of the English language do you actually know? If I threw a medical, legal, science or financial book at you, how much would you have trouble with?
How much of the same language do you use/encounter on a daily basis, and if you were to go outside of your comfort zone, might you hesitate a bit? Maybe you read a lot, which helps you absorb more language. Maybe you don’t.
Japanese actually has a huge advantage over English with kanji. If you come across a new word in English that you don’t know, you’d probably try to compare parts of the word with other words that you are familiar with. The futile nature of this becomes apparent with illness related words.
Let’s say you didn’t know what “diabetes” actually was.
A disease in which the body’s ability to produce or respond to the hormone insulin is impaired, resulting in abnormal metabolism of carbohydrates and elevated levels of glucose in the blood and urine.
Unless you are a Greek/Latin expert, you have no idea how this word is formed. Here is the word origin:
Mid 16th century: via Latin from Greek, literally ‘siphon,’ from diabainein ‘go through’; mellitus is from Latin mellitus ‘sweet.’
Now let’s look at the Japanese word for diabetes 糖尿病 (Tounyoubyou). Here is the word origin.
Sugar + Urine + Illness
Which feels easier?
Do Japanese people have difficulty understanding Japanese?
No more than you do with English. This isn’t saying that learning Japanese is easy for you as a foreigner. But if you ever hear a comment that tries to discourage you why you can’t learn Japanese, you can rest assured that it just isn’t true.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.