How do you explain Japanese to people?

Back in December, my in laws casually asked about my New Year’s resolutions. I don’t do those, since I almost always have some continuous goal, so I kind of just mentioned some of my Japanese language goals. Eventually the discussion led to my explaining that Japanese was particularly difficult as a language, to which my FIL replied that “all languages are pretty hard.” I already know German, and, while a bit odd, it is, in comparison to Japanese, a breeze for a native English speaker to learn. I didn’t really feel like expanding on this, though, so I just kind of went with it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve utterly failed to convey a concept about Japanese. I once complained to my cousin that Japanese was similar to English in having a lot of exceptions and idioms and although she knows some Japanese, she seems to think it IS basically just English anyway just because it has a lot of English loan words.

This all got me thinking. I’ve often had a lot of difficulty explaining the oddities of Japanese to people. Things like particles, topic vs. subject (which I’m pretty sure no one actually fully understands), kanji and kanji readings, how much information is carried by adjective conjugation, counters, the list goes on. I have a Chinese friend who initially thought Japanese would be easy because he knows hanzi, but even he mentioned it was a bear for him to attempt Japanese.

So my question is, how do you explain just how esoteric Japanese is for native English speakers? Have you ever been frustrated trying to explain a Japanese language concept in English? What are some examples of misunderstandings you’ve encountered by non-Japanese learners about the language or the process of learning it? How do you attempt to explain some of these things to people who don’t study it?


Confusing Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean or thinking they are similar sounding or similar looking in writing. >_>

I mean, they do all have scripts that are unreadable to lots of Westerners. As for sound…well, people aren’t that good with recognizing the dissimilarity between foreign languages.

I still find it amusing though. :sweat_smile: To me Chinese and Japanese sound nothing alike!


I’d probably focus on kanji and the fact that many sentence structures are reversed compared to English. There are other things I find more painful to learn (such as all the onomatopoeia), but those are probably the two most worth mentioning to people who aren’t learning the language I think.


A lot of people still think English is the hardest language. I tell them about all the こうs and they tell me about all the theres…lol


Oh my gosh, my MIL did this! She once described an Asian market and said everything was in “Asian writing.” I didn’t really know how to reply to that one.


Well I guess she isn’t wrong!

I don’t think people who aren’t studying Japanese will ever understand the difficulties but I think that a lot of the difficulties are also overstated.


I think using the concept of language families is an understandable way to explain this to people, because people are already used to the concept of family. You can explain that when the language you are learning is closely related to your own native language, they share many aspects. When the language you are learning is distantly related, or not related at all to your own language, you don’t have so many shared aspects to lean on, and that means it takes more work, there’s much more stuff you need to learn.


This is my usual go to explaination:

Japanese has 3 different writing systems. They also have formal, casual, and polite ways of speaking.

Short and easy

It’s more complicated of course


Well, for this one you can go with studies that repeatedly point to Japanese in the hardest category of languages to learn from the perspective of an English native. I can’t link to one right now, sorry.


If it were easy to explain, all language teachers would be unemployed


This is a great way to explain it. I think most people would understand the differences in difficulty from that analogy. :slight_smile:


Many people are already rightfully shocked that you can’t just read out lout a sentence full of Kanji, which you haven’t learned yet.

I guess they assume one symbol is always pronounced the same way and carries exactly one meaning.


Which is of course odd, because all you need to do is show them the word “object” and ask how it is read.


I’m talking about people who don’t know anything about Japanese.

They don’t think about Kanji compounds either. They think for every “vocabulary” there is one “symbol”.


Recently, I had a skype with my parents and they were curious about Japanese, so I talked a bit about it. The three things that surprised them the most seems to be:

  • Lack of pronoun. They thought it was impossible to make any clear sentences without pronouns
  • The idea to have two “alphabet” (hiragana and katakana) with one entirely just to write foreign words.
  • Of course Kanji. I was sharing my screen so I could show them some. Told them we need to learn about 2000/3000 of them to be really proficient. Ended up with the kanji for depression 憂鬱, showing the stroke order diagram on jisho and its glorious 29 strokes. The point was well carried across :grin:

As for the kanji, somewhere (here on WK?) I saw an explanation that went more or less along those lines (I’ve expanded on it a little).

Imagine that a $ sign expresses ideas related to money. When separated, $ is read “dollar”. But when part of a word, it can be read in different ways and it have different/specific meanings, for example:

  • $inances (finances)
  • $inancial (financial)
  • $nomy (economy)
  • $nomical (economical)

Similarly, © expresses ideas related to intellectual property. On its own it reads “copyright”, but when part of a word:

  • ©tent (patent)
  • ©cense (license)
  • ©censing (licensing)

And, finally, we end up with:

  • ©$ies (royalties)

It’s a simplification (doesn’t include jukugo words, rendaku, how kanji are built, radicals, sound marks etc.), but reflects how it all works well enough.


That’s a great way of explaining it!

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I would say that English and Japanese have very little overlap in terms of vocabulary, grammar, sounds and writing system, so it is very difficult for a native person of either language to be fluent in the other one.


Most of my irl are also part of our small jpn-br community, so for them, the difficulty of japanese is well known. I’m the only one who decided to stick with learning it haha.

I do have to say, quite a few of the things that people state as difficulties aren’t a bother to me. I guess that since I view even my own mother language as annoying and stupid, I’ve accepted early on that every language has hard and easy parts lol


Here’s my sales pitch that I often use.

“You know how english has 26 letters in its alphabet? Yea ok, Japanese people also need to know the english alphabet, but they actually have two more alphabets on top of that each of which are like 40 letters. Yea, pretty confusing huh, well they also have this third alphabet too. In that one you need to know at least 2,000 more letters to be able to read and write, but realistically, you should probably know more like 3,000 of them. Oh yea and most of those 3,000 letters have multiple pronunciations associated and can sometimes even mean two completely different things depending on context. Oh and to top it all off, some of those letters look almost identical except for say, the length of a couple of the strokes.”

Edit. They usually tune out by about half way through, but they tend to get the problem regardless.