Is Learning Japanese Hard or Easy? The Truth…
All over the internet is the phrase “learning Japanese is easy! You can do it too!” Then all over the rest of the internet is “learning Japanese is hard. Be ready for a long trip through hell!”
I’ve talked about the benefits of taking both sides of this argument. One pushes you into the positive mindset, keeping you optimistic as you move forward. The other keeps you realistic and grounded, so you don’t overestimate and set goals you can’t achieve.
Why is it so hard to get a simple answer to this seemingly obvious question? There should be one. Is Japanese hard or easy? The amount that goes into a language is quantifiable. We all have to learn the same thing.
It’s easy to escape to the:
“It’s hard for some people and easy for others.”
“It depends on how bad you want it.”
“If you give it your all, you will get it.”
These are cliches, and they don’t give an answer. Of course who you are makes a difference on how difficult things are. You will have natural talents, a unique environment, resources, discipline, and self-awareness that all come into play. But this is still running away from the question.
Is Japanese hard?
I’m going to answer it. For real. No flip-flopping between easy and hard depending on X circumstance. However, you need to know first that this question is slightly wrong. Japanese is a field just like any other. Is science hard? Is math hard? Is literature hard? There’s no real good answer to these.
“Is learning Japanese hard?”
“Is becoming fluent in Japanese hard?”
That’s the question.
To start, let’s refer to fluency as “achieving the ability to do what you want with the Japanese language.” And let’s cover a few basics before I answer this question.
Is learning Japanese hard?
Anyone can learn Japanese. You are learning Japanese from day 1, everyday, till the day you quit or the day you die. Is it hard to learn it? No.
Is learning the basics of Japanese hard?
The ability to read and write kana.
The ability to have some form of conversations.
The ability to read some kanji.
The ability to listen to something and understand it.
These are not hard to do. Anyone can get them, and they are enjoyable skills to have. Learning beginner Japanese is not hard and is mostly enjoyable. Some people think of the above skills as the end-goal. The websites that try to convince you that you’ll be fluent easily in months is referring to the above.
This covers all the way up to the transition from beginner to intermediate.
Is learning proficient/advanced/fluent Japanese hard?
The only people who are qualified to tell you it isn’t hard are those that have reached this level. But the qualified higher levels that say it wasn’t/isn’t hard are warping their answer. It doesn’t feel hard to them, because they were able to do it. They often forget, or unconsciously choose not to remember the hardship.
Those that made it, and say it was easy, usually say 1 of 4 things:
“Just put in the time”
1. Fluency will take a long time.
2. You have a lot of time in your life.
3. All you have to do is use that time.
4. Using time to do something isn’t hard.
This ignores the simple principle that continuously and habitually using time to accomplish any specific goal is where most people stumble.
“Japanese language is simple at its core”
1. Every small, individual part of the language is easy
2. At any moment you can learn an individual piece of the language without much trouble
All the parts are easy, so the whole is easy. This statement is wrong. Putting it together is where the challenge lies.
“You have so many powerful tools at your disposal”
1. The billion modern tools and methods make learning easy.
2. I didn’t have these tools, but you do. You should have an even easier time than I did!
It’s true. New tools make it easier. Not easy, though. Just less hard. If Easy is 1, and hard is 100, with all the new tools available, you are at 80.
“Look at all the people online that talk about being successful in short periods of time”
Websites and anecdotal stories are problematic. People who have quick success like to talk about it. People who failed or went super slow don’t. This creates a false image. If every person who had trouble wrote about it, the Japanese language learning landscape would look quite different.
Hard. Not Impossible. Challenging. Not Painful.
Follow this statement and you’ll be more mentally prepared. Don’t approach it like it should be easy, and you won’t get burned. Play it like the deserving game it is. If you do, while nothing will change the fact that it is hard and will take a lot time, it won’t be painful. It won’t be impossible.
People look at hard as a bad word. It shouldn’t be. Hard is rewarding. Hard can be fun. Hard can make your life worth living. Hard can bring you happiness.
Any of you find Japanese hard?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
I have vivid memories of sitting in Japanese 101 class years ago and being unable to wrap my head around sentences like 「11時半に図書館に行きます」. The concept of に was uttery strange to me, and Japanese was difficult as a beginner.
The first time I went to Japan, I bought exactly two volumes of manga. They sat on my self unread for more than a year until I could understand them, and Japanese was difficult as an intermediate learner.
There are a few Japanese novels on my shelf which I have not yet read because they are too high level for me. Guess what—Japanese is still difficult as a seasoned learner. The lesson to be had, though, is that in any goal you pursue, there will always be challenges waiting for you to take on no matter your level of ability. It is possible, however, to overcome those challenges. I can do things in Japanese today that I couldn’t do six months ago. Or a year ago. (How far I’ve come in Japanese is especially apparent to me when I contrast my Japanese skills with my current Korean ability, haha)
I’ve found personally that the best way to beat obstacles is to stick with it while knowing how to pick your battles, and also to keep in mind that time and exposure is often an effective solution.
That’s the perfect attitude.
Challenges are meant to be overcome. You just have to accept that they are challenges first.
Great post! Or, as my wise grandpa once said when I told him how hard calculus was and I wanted to give up,”There are no hard subjects. However, some subjects take more time to master than others.”
Yes, wise words.
So true. I wish there were more articles like this. Writing about the grey area is so much harder than writing about black or white.
And sometimes it’s the black and white that matters!
“This ignores the simple principle that continuously and habitually using time to accomplish any specific goal is where most people stumble.”
this is it for me. it’s not hard in the sense that learning it is beyond one’s intelligence. it’s hard in the sense that you have to consistently put in effort over a long period of time. currently on a plateau in my studies but i will get back into it soon enough.
great article, adam. have fun in your studies, everyone.
You’ll get over that plateau. We all have them.
For me, Japanese study feels hardest when I can understand every word in a sentence, but I can’t quite put the whole thing together into a coherent thought. That happened a lot in the first year or so of studying, but not so much lately.
Immersion started to feel hard after about a year because anime was basically the only thing that I had to watch. Once I found ways of renting or streaming dramas, variety shows, and NHK programs, immersion started to feel easy and fun again.
Regarding immersion with anime – I was the same. Once I swapped from anime to podcasts, I found it way easier. Maybe it’s because I was never into anime prior to learning Japanese, or just because I’d rather listen to “normal” people speaking I’m not sure.
Yeah, everyone goes through that feeling. But you have finally moved past that.
Years ago I tried learning Japanese and thought it was too hard, so I quit. A couple of weeks ago, I started on JalupNext, not really thinking I’d like it.
I love it! Hard or easy? It’s just pure fun! And relaxing. And a much needed escape from the present-day world.
Just trying to make Japanese learning a little easier, one step at a time.
I have learned japanese 10 years ago only to forget them as I don’t really use them that often but now I’m back on learning them again. I stumbled upon JALUP today! Can’t wait to go home from work and try it! :D