Advice for understanding/learning Japanese when you've only ever learned Romance languages?

I’m a native English speaker. In high school and college, I took Spanish and absolutely loved it. Now I’m learning Japanese, and I have a horrible professor. But I also think it’s because it’s difficult for me to approach a language without relating it to English (like I did with Spanish, which of course was easy to do, e.g. cognates galore and extremely similar grammar). I’m not sure I’m making any sense, but does anyone have any tips on approaching a language that’s so different from English?

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Carefully. Assume nothing. Keep an open mind. Practice as much as possible, because otherwise nothing will stick. Read multiple explanations when you’re confused. Accept that you’ll be feeling frustrated very often.


If it matters, I’m also a native English speaker, but I have never (seriously) studied another language besides Japanese. I think that the more Japanese you learn, the easier it is to learn more Japanese, because you can relate the new Japanese stuff to things you already know about Japanese. But in the beginning, there will be a lot of rote memorization, and progress will be slow, so it’s best just to accept that. Also, I think some people have a tendency to overthink grammar; but, in reality, in order to start using a grammar pattern, you don’t have to understand why it is the way that it is, you just have to know how to construct it. As time goes by, you might start to understand it more.

Also, everything that konekush said, although that makes it sound like no fun. Try to find something in Japanese culture or media that you enjoy, even if you don’t completely understand it, that will help keep you motivated.


I’m not sure I can give tips, but I’ll try. In high school, I learned Latin. When in college, I studied Japanese (and some German). I found Latin to be far more similar grammatically to Japanese than to English.

I’m not sure what exactly you struggle in specifically (syntax, conjugation, etc.) but I suggest trying to just translate sentences on your own. Start with simple ones, and notice the patterns. If you are more advanced, try reading sentences and see how a word is used.

You will naturally relate the language to your own (you have to make sense of it), so I think it’s okay to compare to English to make sense.
After a while, you will no longer think English words or relate to English. You will just see it and understand, as I’m sure you do with Spanish.
I think with practice you will be understanding it in no time! Just read it a lot, listen to it a bunch and speak it when you can. Make up sentences in your commutes.


I have found Spanish and Japanese are similar in some ways. The vowels are pronounced the same way, and the r is rolled. Some words in Japanese came from the Portugese hundreds of years ago, like pan is bread and tobako is tobacco. Adjectives are placed before the noun, like in English, but quantities of items can go before the noun or after the subject clause.

Also, it helps to know that the verb is always at the end of a Japanese sentence, and the conjugatioin of the verb is at the end of the verb and is done with hiragana always. Verbs always have an u sound, such as u, ru, ku, mu, su, etc.

In addition, the first thing usually said is the subject, when it’s not implied, and it is set off by “ha” pronounced wa. I find that if I can get the subject and verb of a sentence then filling in the middle parts is easier.

I hope that helps at least a little. Good luck with your studies!

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I learnt Spanish first and currently I’m getting towards the end of mid-advanced Japanese. Things you learn in one are often surprisingly applicable in the other: for example, I had to learn about transitivity in verbs to master indirect and direct object pronouns in Spanish (lo/la/le). This then gave me a big leg up when it came to figuring out transitivity in Japanese verbs (for example 始める/始まる).
Don’t be afraid to look, think hard and make connections to things you already know! There will be a surprisingly large amount of transferable knowledge.


I’m not trying to nitpick, but it might be clearer to say at the end of a clause, since you can have a sentence with many clauses and many verbs sprinkled throughout.


You could learn to stop relating it to English? There is not always a convenient shortcut available.

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The biggest thing, in my opinion, is to take all your assumptions you’ve developed through learning Romance languages, and burn them. All. Of. Them. Japanese has a great way of repeatedly smacking you across the face until you do it.
I think it is safe to say that Japanese learners who learn to disconnect from their source language when learning Japanese feel less of a plateau near the intermediate level. Naturally, you will need translations as a crutch for a while, but sooner, rather than later, all consumption should ideally be purely in Japanese, including dictionaries.

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Native English speaker here. Learned Latin (up to Latin VI), Spanish (to III), French (to II), and ASL (to II) in middle school and high school. While I understand the sentiments of acm2010, it is ultimately impossible not to relate a new language back to one’s native language (unless you are under the age of 12).

The simplest way to pick up Japanese is to first reinforce your language concepts. A lot of people, no matter what language they speak, tend to USE grammar points without actually remembering them (for example, transitive/intransitive words). Vocabulary, especially kana, will just be raw rote learning for a while. Japanese, unlike English, has a very nice stacking component due to its pictographic nature, so it will get easier as you go along.

My recommendation for working out the differences outside of your class is to find parallels within grammar points. A generic example would be transitive/intransitive verbs. Japanese verbs usually use the same kanji for verbs while changing the hiragana ending in order to conjugate (similar to English and Spanish). Two examples of these pairs that are quite common in everyday Japanese are kaesu/kaeru and hajimeru/hajimaru. Transitive/intransitive verb pairs will often follow this policy: Transitive verbs ending in -su will change to -ru (intransitive) and transitive verbs ending in -eru will change to -aru (intransitive). Putting this into kana, you would see 返す・返る and 始める・始まる.

While Japanese requires a large amount of memorization in order to gain vocabulary, its grammar points are very persistent with few irregulars. Differentiating -ru conjugation verbs with -u conjugation verbs ending in -ru can be confusing, but once you can see the difference, you will always know how they conjugate.

While it seems like a very different language, the consistency that (textbook) Japanese has makes it very easy to related to English when comparing by grammar rules. Yes, a ton of those rules are different between the two languages, but, if you directly compare and memorize how those specific systems work, you’ll find yourself understanding the language much faster.

The biggest hurdle you’ll probably encounter regarding both word usage and grammar is the contrasting natures of the purpose of words between the languages. English is a fairly objective, detail-oriented language. It’s not an eloquent, poetic language by nature, especially when spoken normally. Japanese, however, is very subjective and concept oriented. The same idea can be spoken many different ways depending on the speaker, the person receiving the speech, the circumstances in which the words are being spoken, and how the words being spoken relate to both individuals. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to learn those concepts in a classroom, or any situation where regular exposure to natives isn’t present.

As konekush said, keep an open mind. JapanExchange and (lesser so) WaniKani forums have both questions and answers for almost anything you need to know, and taking the extra time to research any small things that come to mind will add miles to your progress in the language. If you have a question or thought, no matter how small, look it up! Language uses many different parts of our brain, so even the smallest realization can lead to a chain reaction of understanding.

One of the biggest caveats I can mention to NOT do when relating English to Japanese. DO NOT RELY ON ROMAJI. Learning hiragana/katakana is probably the most important first task. Since you’re on WaniKani, it’s safe to assume you’ve already at least started that process. You’ll learn fairly quickly into your kanji studies that Japanese is filled to the brim with homonyms due to its implementation of Chinese without tonal inflection. If you rely on spelling of words in romaji (especially with the differences in romaji schools [Example: Kyōtō vs Kyoutou vs Kohtoh vs Kyootoo]), you’ll have a lot of trouble attempting to type in Japanese and differentiating verbs (Example: Tsukeru - 付ける: to attach、点ける: to turn on、漬ける: to soak、就ける: to appoint). It would be bad if you told someone you wanted to soak a public official or to soak your cell phone!


Omg thank you for such a fleshed out response! It was hard forming a question because I don’t know what I don’t know?? :pensive: I wasn’t sure if anyone would understand. ありがとうございます!

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I agree. One should understand that Japanese is totally different from their mother tongue. Therefore, starting with 0 assumptions is the smartest move to do. However, finding similarities during your Japanese study between Japanese and a language that you’re fluent in is okay in my opinion. They won’t be 100% right, I’m sure… but I think it’s better to make an assumption and getting it right 6 times out of 10 then not doing any assumption at all and getting 0/10. With time, one starts understanding the mechanics of Japanese and predictions start happening. They won’t be 100% right, but they’ll probably be right more than wrong :slight_smile:

I think it was koichi the creator of this site has a blog where you can learn hiragana and katakana (the two alphabets) in a day. I managed to learn Hiragana fully in 2 hours. I recommend you learning the alphabet because what use is learning a language if you don’t know it’s alphabet. From a personal experience, I found spanish, french and german easier to learn because I didn’t have to learn the alphabet.

Anyone who doesn’t know the syllabaries (sorry to be nitpicky, but they’re not alphabets), tends to run into a wall in level 1 when they don’t understand how to read or input things. I can’t imagine someone would get to level 5 without having learned them.


Unless you’re some super manly guy talking about how manly you are all the time you probably shouldn’t be rolling your Rs in Japanese.

It’s also fairly ridiculous here that people think you can simply “disconnect” your native language here. Unless one has some kind of new brain implanted into their head, you can only learn a second language as it relates to your first. What you need to do is not make assumptions and make conscious choices here to figure things out on their own as best you can.

However, you do not need to simply throw out every single thing about language you know, that is ridiculous. Japanese is not some non-human alien language you have no hope of ever figuring it out. There are a number of parallels that you can make to English (as well as other languages), that will in fact make life easier when you realize that some parallels make life easier.


Ramón and ramen are definitely not pronounced in the same way.


They are not, but they come from the same “place”. I would say that the Japanese /r/ is something between the Spanish and Portuguese one. It’s definitely not the same as any of them though.

The Japanese R is a tap, not a trill, and it’s pronounced the way the ‘t’ sounds in the word ‘water’ in standard (US)American dialect.

Tap/flap [ɾ]:

Trill [r]:


Realization of the liquid phoneme /r/ varies greatly depending on environment and dialect. The prototypical and most common pronunciation is the apico-alveolar or postalveolar tap [ɾ].[4][5][3] Initially and after /N/, the tap is typically articulated in such a way that the tip of the tongue is at first momentarily in light contact with the alveolar ridge before being released rapidly by airflow.[6][5] This sound is described variably as a tap, a “variant of [ɾ]”, “a kind of weak plosive”,[6] and “an affricate with short friction”.[3] The apico-alveolar or postalveolar lateral approximant [l] is a common variant in all conditions,[3] particularly utterance-initially[6] and before /i, j/.[4] According to Akamatsu (1997), utterance-initially and intervocalically (that is, except after /N/), the lateral variant is better described as a tap [ɺ] rather than an approximant.[6][7] The retroflex lateral approximant [ɭ] is also found before /i, j/.[4] In Tokyo’s Shitamachi dialect, the alveolar trill [r] is a variant marked with vulgarity.[4] Other reported variants include the alveolar approximant [ɹ],[3] the alveolar stop [d], the retroflex flap [ɽ], the lateral fricative [ɮ],[4] and the retroflex stop [ɖ].[8]

TLDR; So, it looks like the trill does exist, but only



I was in the conbini the other night when a drunk guy barged in and yelled こら! with the long rolled r and it was hilarious.