Everything you wanted to know about Japanese but were afraid to ask

So you want to learn Japanese. Or maybe you’re just curious about it. This post will attempt to questions I am often asked about learning to speak Japanese and about the language in general.

How difficult is Japanese?

I would break down the difficulty of Japanese into two parts: the spoken and written language. Perhaps surprisingly to many people, Japanese conversation is fairly straightforward.

As a sound-poor language, pronunciation isn’t a big challenge. Unlike many languages (I’m looking at you, French!), people will usually understand you the first time you try out a new word you just learned. This is definitely a big plus when you’re just starting out.

The written language is another story. While the syllabary (referred to as Hiragana and Katakana) can be mastered within a few weeks, Japanese uses kanji characters, which are based on Chinese. There are 1,000s of these characters in use (with around 2,000 quoted as the minimum for literacy). This makes reading a real challenge.

Let’s put it this way. I’ve met many foreigners who learned to speak Japanese well in just a year or two in Japan. By contrast, I’ve never met anyone for whom it didn’t take at least four years to become fully literate. And four years is fast!

The late, great Barry Farber advised learners of Japanese (and Chinese) to make speaking their hare and reading their tortoise. I couldn’t agree more. Focus on conversation first and slowly soak up the kanji. Japanese writing is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s no need to burn out.

What’s Japanese grammar like?

Japanese grammar is…different. Word order is basically the opposite to English, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Some of the grammar concepts you will come across simply don’t exist in English. That’s not to say it is impossible or even particularly difficult. I found the rules of German grammar, for example, to be harder to fully master.

So expect it to be different (it’s not a European language!). And don’t keep asking why like I did for years on end. Accept that the language just is this way. Trust me, this approach will save you a lot of pain. Eventually, with sufficient exposure, it just clicks.

Is Japanese similar to Korean?

Despite a lack of shared vocabulary, Japanese grammar is actually quite similar to its Korean counterpart. Both languages also use highly complicated forms of politeness and honorary forms.

Overall then, yes there are definitely some similarities between the two. Unsurprisingly, Koreans can get to an advanced level of proficiency in Japanese really quickly.

Is Japanese similar to Chinese?

Not really. The two languages are totally different. The only real similarity is the characters, which originate from China. This leads to some shared vocabulary, although the pronunciation of these words is completely different.

Is Japanese a tonal language?

No. Unlike some other Asian languages like Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai, Japanese doesn’t have any tones.

In fact, Japanese is a pretty “flat” language. The challenge for many English speakers is actually keeping the intonation this way (Americans in particular seem to add more emphasis to syllables than is necessary).

How long does it take to become conversation in Japanese?

I would say you can get the basics down in 3 months, and become conversational within about 6-12 months if you really commit to learning and practicing the language. In my own case, I could speak with friends (making lots of mistakes) and send basic text messages after six months or so.

How long does it take to get fluent in Japanese?

First of all, that depends on what “fluent” means. If we are talking about getting to a level where you understand most of what’s going on and you can talk about pretty much any subject, then I’d say three years is a nice, ambitious target. Like anything though, your rate of improvement will depend on how much time and effort you put in.

How do Japanese people learn the kanji?

Japanese learn the kanji at school. The method is mostly rote learning, writing the characters over and over until they stick.

However, it’s been my personal experience that many adults forget how to read and write some of the harder characters they learned in high school. This trend has been exacerbated by smartphones and PCs, which make it much easier to write the language.

How should foreigners learn the kanji?

It’s clear that the rote learning approach doesn’t work well for us non-Japanese. After all, most of us don’t have 11+ years to burn.

Many swear by the Heisig approach, which involves using mnemonics. I personally used these books early on and they definitely helped make the characters more familiar.

However, I’ve yet to meet anyone in Japan who successfully used those books to become fully literate. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they exist somewhere, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way for most people.

A better approach, in my opinion, involves learning the kanji in a more natural order. This approach should reflect the frequency of the kanji so you’re not wasting your time trying to remember the character for “cedar tree” in week two. If you’re interested, I recommend checking out the Kanji in Context series.

Is it hard to write the kanji?

Yes, I’d say that writing the kanji is very challenging. Even Japanese people struggle to do this well!

That being said, I don’t believe that you necessarily need to write all of the characters unless you enjoy that side of things. PC and smartphone input is a surprisingly easy alternative.

In fact, it’s a running joke among Japanese translators I know that many of us can’t even write our own addresses without consulting our mobile phones! Take from that what you will!

Phew! Learning all these characters sounds impossible. Should I just give up on the kanji then?

No, not at all. My advice would be to learn to READ them passively. That means mastering words within sentences that happen to use kanji. In other words, focus on the language, not the characters.

I’m sure some purists will disagree, but in the 2020s, there’s no real need to dedicate huge amounts of time to writing characters.

In other words, spend less time writing and more time getting exposure to the language.

I am a total beginner. How should I get started with Japanese?

I recommend using a mix of audiobooks and books. You can check out some of my recommended resources here.

Is is better to take Japanese classes?

No, quite the opposite. Classes are an inefficient and less fun way of learning a language. Self-study is far superior.

I have never taken any Japanese classes. I started self-studying Japanese in 2005. Today, I translate Japanese to English for a living. No teachers were required.

If you must take classes then at least commit to studying on your own too. Just showing up to a class or two every week will just give you the illusion of learning. For many, this unfortunately ends up convincing them that they don’t have the talent to master a language.

Just remember that you are the only one who can learn Japanese. A teacher cannot do it for you.

What is the most important part of mastering Japanese?

Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary. Japanese is the same as any other language. It is made from words. Lots of them.

If you know the words, the grammar will sort itself out. Vocabulary fuels comprehension of input (reading and listening), which eventually turns into output (speaking and writing).

Do you need to live in Japan to get fluent at Japanese?

It certainly helps, but it’s not vital. The internet gives you more sources of natural Japanese than you could ever use. YouTube alone has a ridiculous amount of content!

Wonderful sites like italki give you access to native speakers who can correct your mistakes.

Moving to Japan would definitely help of course. It would allow you to make Japanese friends and soak up more language naturally. However, if you’re unable to move just yet then keep learning. With enough commitment, you can get to a solid level before even stepping foot in the country.

Is Japanese useful to know?

Japanese is useful to know….if you’re in Japan. Obviously, it’s not a widely spoken language outside of the country itself and the population is shrinking. I therefore recommend only learning Japanese out of love for the culture or some aspect of the country. This is an irrational pursuit by its very nature, but that also makes it more fun.

Yes, there are some interesting career paths for bilinguals, but doing something for utility alone rarely leads to long-term results anyway. Maybe you’re simply attracted to Japanese women or men and want to date them. That’s a good enough reason in my book!

Is Japanese translation highly paid?

This is a question I get from people who know some Japanese already, but are curious about careers in translation and other areas. The simple answer is that Japanese translation is one of the best paid areas in the translation industry. There is a low supply of translators and the work is quite difficult, which results on higher rates.

There are a couple of caveats though. First, you need some kind of specialist area in combination with Japanese. This might be pharma, IT, patents, or finance, among others. Being a generalist is a good way to earn very little. Second, AI is slowly but surely getting better and better. While there’s little danger of robots taking away translation work for now, this situation might change in a decade or two.

Is it possible to learn Japanese with anime?

Of course! If you actively pay attention to language and learn new words, anime is as good as a Japanese source as any other. After all, kids pick up the language by watching it daily, as shown by the screams of “kisamaaaa” in playgrounds around the country!

Sometimes, the language used in anime can be a bit weird but that’s not such a big deal. If you use a strange word such as oresama (俺様) that you picked up from Bleach, your Japanese friends will probably just laugh and tell you that sounds like, super weird.

Is Japanese worth learning?

Only you can answer this question. However, I’d only learn a foreign language if I was interested in some aspect of the country or culture of the language. Does that apply to you? If so, then I’d say that it’s “worth learning”. If not, why are you kidding yourself?

Can you learn Japanese while you sleep?

No. This is BS. Well, let’s put it this way. Your brain does consolidate knowledge by forming neural connections while you sleep. But this requires exposing yourself to the language through study while you’re awake. There are no shortcuts.

Is an hour a day enough to learn Japanese?

That is a very solid amount. If you can actually commit to studying Japanese for one hour a day, you WILL make progress.

However, even 30 minutes a day would be fine in the beginning. The important thing is consistency. 30 minutes a day every day is much better than 3 hours today followed by nothing for a week.

30 minutes a day adds up to 10,950 minutes in a year, or 182.5 hours a year! It would be hard NOT to learn if you’re putting in that much time.

This stuff isn’t magic, it’s just regularly spending time with the language in order to get your brain comfortable with it.

I sucked at Spanish/French/German at school. Can I really expect to be able to learn Japanese?

All humans are capable of learning additional languages. Japanese is no exception. It just takes time and effort and the correct approach. But everyone can do it. Beyond maybe imitating accents (some people are natural mimics), which is a different skill entirely, I’ve not seen much evidence for “talent” making much difference with language learning.