"Is Japanese really a difficult language?"

This morning a Japanese friend sent me this article about whether Japanese is really a difficult language to learn:

日本語は本当に難しい言語だろうか

I thought it made some good points about relative difficulty but - having previously studied German for 8 years - I did slightly lose it when they tried to insist that Japanese grammar was simple in comparison through a very convenient example!

I did however pick up some good phrases to use about language learning from the article, like:
日本語の語彙をめぐる複雑さはそれに決して負けないものです。which we can probably all agree with.

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Japanese grammar is simple in some ways when compared to other languages (it has no grammatical genders, quite minimal inflection, and particles make the roles of words very clear rather than relying on strict word order rules).

The problem is that for some people, certain things like the SOV sentence structure are quite different from anything they’ve encountered, and that takes a long time to adjust to. For people coming from SOV languages, it would be pretty quick to adjust to.

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Agreed, and that was some of what the article said. But I still think picking 象は鼻が長い to illustrate the simplicity of Japanese grammar is being a bit selective with your examples.

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I’d say japanese grammar is definitely pretty simple compared to English grammar. Feels pretty straightforward. It just takes getting used to because it’s so different like leebo said.

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I find it pretty easy once you just go with the flow of the language instead of fighting agaisnt it. Though I also found english super easy to learn, when it’s apparently a “hard second language” (which I don’t agree. A messy language =/= a hard language)

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I also think Japanese has a simple grammar. The difficulty one might find is what the article calls 相対的. They find it hard because it’s different from their native languages, not because it’s inherently hard.

No genders, no plural, verbs and adjectives that behave grammatically the same…

It’s definitely simpler than the endless verb conjugations of Latin languages, declensions of Russian or multiple plural patterns of German, to give a few examples.

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Things aren’t hard, just time consuming. Calling things hard is a convoluted excuse not to do anything. Same thing with kanji, you don’t need to be a special breed to learn it, you just need interest and time. Japanese just happens to be one of the more time consuming pursuits for english speakers to learn when it comes to languages. But at the end of the day it’s a human language with many similarities to other languages.

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Leebo already mentioned SOV structure, which is a big one. And there’s stuff like how much a language leaves implicit vs how much is made explicit, politeness levels which may or may not exist, ways of referring to people, cultural foundations, and a whole host of other things.

I’d say in the end the difficulty of any language just boils down to what you’re used to. German is easy for me to learn because I know Dutch - the vocabulary is similar, the basic culture it’s based on is similar, the grammar is similar (nearly identical, even, cases notwithstanding)… But for a Japanese speaker German would be a lot harder.

In turn, Japanese is a fairly hard language for me to learn. Not necessarily because of the grammar - I think that’s more of an initial hurdle and it really is relatively simple - but because the language as a whole is so different from what I’m used to.

It may be, but it does cover the basic idea of why Japanese grammar is fairly simple, IMO.

Sure, longer sentences look more complex, but I’d say in most cases they’re not actually more complex, just longer. And because you’re translating them in your head to something you’re familiar with, with an entirely different structure, that feels complex because you have to juggle a lot of information at once. The structure itself, however, is quite simple.

Even if I say something like 昨日は忙しかったからなかなか疲れていて今日も忙しいからよく休めないけど、明日は全然忙しくなくてきたから何もしないと思う is that really more complex than 象は鼻が長い or is it just more of the same? It’s a bunch of clauses connected together in honestly very clear ways by particles. What makes it harder to parse is not that it’s complex, just that it’s unfamiliar. But if you’re familiar enough with the grammar, you can spot the relationships between clauses even before you’ve parsed the clauses themselves.

It takes time to reach that point, and I’m nowhere near it myself. But it’s how you read English too - sentence structure and certain signal words tell you how to connect the meaning of words together, and you end up with an understanding of what a sentence said even if it’s very long. You’re just used to the way English does that, and not to the way Japanese does it. Having looked at both German and Japanese from a language learner’s perspective… yeah, I really do feel Japanese has simpler grammar between the two.

Eh, I’d say hard has more to do with effort than time. It’s just that people tend to conflate the two :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: Learning Japanese takes both time and effort, so in that sense, sure it’s hard. But that’s no reason not to do it unless you don’t have enough of an interest to (which is also fine).

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Fun fact, English is a really easy language to learn if you already know Dutch. Though, the reverse is not necessarly as easy.

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Learning a new language is only hard when that new language is different compared to your own language. If I learn Japanese, I don’t think back to my Enlgish or my Dutch or my French for reference. I think back to my Turkish, cause Turkish is the most familiar to Japanese compared to the other 3. It helps me understand phrases better and also helps me pronounce word easier.

My Japanese teacher, which is just a friend of mine btw, keeps refering to Turkish when he explains Japanese. I guess I’m kinda lucky that I grew up with both Turkish and Dutch. Learning English, I refered to Dutch and now learning Japanese I keep refering to Turkish : )

Let me not get started on French tho … :sweat:

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The grammar in general is straightforward, as well as the pronunciation. Vocabulary is quite overwhelming because you basically start from 0, unlike other languages that might be related to your own.
On the other hand, it is so heavily dependent on context that it can also make it hard to understand what someone is talking about, but it’s not a big deal because you can just ask. Plus, grinding kanji takes a long time and can be confusing when dealing with similar looking ones.

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Language learning difficulty comes down to two factors: intrinsic complexity and complexity due to being different from languages you know.

On the first front, I think Japanese does have a couple of rather difficult things:

  • Kanji (but this has little bearing on the spoken language)
  • counters (but I feel like if you get them wrong you’ll still be understood)
  • politeness and formality (ok this is probably legitimately hard) as well as gendered language
  • how much stuff gets dropped and/or changed especially in casual contexts
  • maaaybe the fact that there are so many homonyms, but I don’t know if that’s really an issue in practice

OTOH, Japanese is fairly regular in terms of grammar, doesn’t have a lot of verbal paradigms and the fact that it’s agglutinative (a string of suffixes with different meanings instead of a single suffix for multiple meanings) also makes it rather simple in other terms.

As for the second part, I think Japanese is probably really hard for most people, since it is not related to any other language (except Ryuukyuuan). You might have a benefit if you know Chinese or any language heavily influenced by it, since millenia of contact have resulted in some similarities (as well as the use of Kanji, of course), but otherwise you really almost start from ground zero, especially in vocab. Even the learned Greco-Roman vocabulary that exists in most European languages doesn’t seem to exist in Japanese (I assume that Chinese plays the same role that Latin and Greek does for us).

As all European languages (as far as I am aware) are right-branching, learning a language that is almost entirely left-branching like Japanese takes some adjustment for many people. It’s not that I can’t recognise these things on paper, but you actually have to adjust your “mental CPU” to keep different things in memory while you’re listening (or reading, if you don’t want to reread). Admittedly, this is a problem that is very likely to solve itself once you leave the “translate into your own language” phase.

Similarly, there are many constructions that, if I were to learn Russian or some other Indo-European language function similarly to ones I already know. I just have to learn the words and translate them one by one. In Japanese, these are often distinct grammar points, e.g. てもいい for “may I …”, the potential, the volitional, かも, etc. Of course, there are also big differences between English and Russian, but there’s still also many things that function very similarly, and in Japanese it often feels that I have to learn speaking anew. It’s harder to translate directly from English to Japanese and I instead have to think more deeply about what I’m actually trying to express and how that maps to Japanese (of course, this is true for any language, but for more closely related ones, the “translate word by word” approach gets you farther).

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Counters get way easier once you realise you can just use 〜つ and 〜() for everything unless you know a better one :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: And if you see them in writing, even when you’re not familiar with them, they’re pretty easy to recognise as being counters most of the time. It’s a little trickier when listening, but even then, if everything makes sense instead of something that sounds like it could be a number followed by something… It’s probably a counter.

They’re much less of an issue in writing anyway because of kanji, and not a huge issue if your vocabulary is big enough I’d say. Familiarity with a language takes care of the vast majority of that - you can illustrate it in writing too, if I say “their are English homophones two, you’re just used too them” you know what that means with probably minimal trouble - and that’s actually more confusing than hearing them, because you know which word is meant in context.

Japanese has more homonyms/homophones (same thing considering the writing system), but the situations in which they’d actually lead to confusion taking context into account are few and far between I’d say. If you’re talking about a political discussion between world leaders and you say the こうしょう(交渉) had a good result, I don’t think many people are gonna think you’re talking about school emblems, mineral deposits or welfare ministers.

As far as context dependence in Japanese goes, I think homophones aren’t nearly the hardest part of it.

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Sure, but to be fair, you can say the exact same thing about e.g. gender in a language like German or Spanish. It’s not a problem for input and in terms of output, even fluent non-native speakers get it wrong sometimes and are still understood. There can occasionally be a word that changes meaning depending on the gender but that’s rather rare and even there, context helps.

And if you mix up a conjugation, in many cases you’ll also still be understood. I haven’t tried, but I think if I tried to say “tenió” in Spanish people would just assume I meant “tuvo” (or at least in writing), because I used the regular paradigm but it’s an irregular verb.

That’s why I think that “many irregularities” can make it hard to master a language but it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily hard to get to a decent level quickly.

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Yeah, it’s a matter of what you’re trying to achieve really. If you’re trying to achieve perfection, some parts can definitely get in the way a lot. But if it’s about being understandable and understanding what you read and hear, or even being fluent, then yeah, I probably would say the same thing about gender in German (I know nothing about Spanish but I assume it’s roughly the same). Or for example, I’d say half of Dutch natives can’t tell when a past participle needs to end in T or D. You can worry about that, but… people won’t misunderstand you, and likely won’t even suspect you’re not a native speaker because of it.

At some point you notice you’ve been calling something “der” when the rest calls it “die” and you kinda learn what gender belongs to what word as you go (that point is fairly early, in my experience, for words you use and hear/read regularly at least), but until that point people understand you and you understand them just fine, so from a practical perspective, mission accomplished, I’d say :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

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The ship/sheep based grammar explanations we get are completely normal, which language doesn’t resort to consonants in imaginary boats or farm animals in order to figure out its conjugations? :grin:

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I think that might fall into the category of mistakes that native speakers make more often than non-natives, because the latter have studied it systematically. Like English speakers confusing “there” and “their” (makes no sense when coming from another language) or German speakers mixing up “das” (the) and “dass” (that).

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Yeah, it might - I don’t really know, but it makes sense. We do have mandatory formal education on Dutch spelling and grammar, but that particular point doesn’t seem to stick all that well for some reason, despite there being a certain regularity to it and mnemonics being taught and everything.

But with that said… Dutch grammar does seem fairly complex, with a whole lot of irregularities and exceptions and what not. Can’t really expect all of that to stick with everyone… or expect everyone to suddenly expend a bunch of conscious thought on things they’ve been doing without even thinking about it so far with zero issues.

Its just time consuming, but u can learn it with ease when it comes to difficulty itshelf.

Compared to what?

Every language is easy for native speakers. (Or at least they mostly don’t remember their struggles.)

Closely related languages are relatively easy to learn. Consider the Romance languages, or the various dialects of (spoken) Arabic or Chinese.

Japanese is an isolate, with few or no (depending on how you feel about the Turkish-Japanese connection) relatives among living languages. This doesn’t make it objectively hard, but it does mean that most non-native learners will have little pre-existing foundation.

The US Foreign Service Institute rates Japanese as extremely hard for native English speakers. Language Difficulty Ranking - Effective Language Learning

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