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10 Myths About Learning Japanese

1. Japanese is near-impossible for English speakers.

If you’ve been around enough multi-lingual speakers, you know this just isn’t true. While Japanese is definitely difficult (especially for English speakers), it’s not impossible to learn. Granted, you’ll have to learn a lot more concepts (especially grammar rules and new pronunciations) compared to if you’re learning Spanish or French; that just makes it more challenging and definitely not out of your reach.

What gives Japanese such a nasty rep as a difficult language? For the most part, it’s because Japanese is genetically unrelated to English whatsoever. You know how you can rely on cognates when learning German or Spanish? Not gonna happen here. Think you can use English-style grammar with Japanese? Nope, you’ll have to learn a new one entirely. Plus, you will likely discover some concepts that just don’t exist in the English vernacular.

Is it harder than other Romanic languages? Of course. That, however, just gives it a higher learning curve and, basing on the people I’ve seen who have learned Japanese, it really isn’t that steep.


2. Japanese writing is impossible.

While I can relate to the “overwhelm factor” of learning the Japanese writing system, “impossible” is an exaggeration. Sure, it’s mindblowing, especially if your only exposure thus far is to the Latin alphabet. I won’t kid you — it will take time and commitment (more so than learning the spoken language), but it can be done.

In fact, once you get around the initial shock, the top-to-bottom and left-to-right writing orientation should make it easy to pick out individual characters. Even with just knowledge of the basic hiragana and katakana, you can do reasonably well discerning grammatical structures. Sure, you might miss out on some of the central elements of the sentence, but that makes it very achievable.


3. You need to be young to learn a language as difficult as Japanese.

While I do believe a new language is easier to absorb while you’re young, that doesn’t make it impossible for the more advanced among us. In fact, it’s about as hard as studying anything new at whatever age you are, whether it be chemistry, drawing or writing bars for rap songs. Like we said above, spoken Japanese actually isn’t that hard once you learn the core sounds, so there’s really no valid basis for this myth.


4. Japanese words make no sense.

Of course, it doesn’t make sense — you don’t know the language. It just sounds as gibberish to you as English probably sounds gibberish to them. Spoken Japanese, in fact, is quite easy to make sense of early in your language learning — there’s only one final consonant, five vowels and very few sounds.

Japanese has a very simple phonology with a very small phoneme inventory. Even better, the sounds should be very familiar to English speakers with no exotic elements. There’s no tone (unlike Chinese) and while there’s a pitch accent, it rarely matters during actual conversations (yes, people can understand you for the most part).


5. You need to learn to speak very fast.

Life is fast-paced in Japan and when you listen to native speakers talk, they might sound like they’re rushing to spit words out of their mouth. In reality, that’s a testament to the simple sounds used throughout the language: you’ll likely be talking the same way once you gain some amount of fluency. Japanese is just like any other language — you can talk in a more deliberate pace without losing meaning.


6. Learning the language takes a lifetime.

Let’s be real: mastering any language probably takes a lifetime, too, even your native vernacular. But who among us is really learning a second language to become a national authority on it? Yeah, I thought so. If all you’re after is a reasonable level of skill in Japanese, a few months to a year is more than enough period to get there if you put in the time and effort.


7. You can learn Japanese from watching anime.

This is a strategy embraced by many people who want to use their anime fandom as a means to actually learn the language. Will it work? To a degree, I guess. I have a friend who did just that, although he mixed it in with some basic lessons he found for free online, especially during the early stages. He also got a translation dictionary and a basic phrasebook, which he would study sporadically. I’m not exactly sure how long he went from absolute zero to functionally competent at understanding the language, but he did make it. He can barely speak, but he can understand and read most of the anime content in the native language. To make it short, any skill he picked up isn’t likely to be of much help when actually conversing with people, but it’s better than nothing.


8. Japanese sounds ugly.

While it doesn’t have the grace of French, I don’t find Japanese ugly at all. Sure, there are some speakers who sound bad when using it, but Japanese can actually sound pleasing to the ears when spoken by someone whose language skills are crisp and precise, especially if they know how to color their language.


9. Japanese is very similar to Chinese.

Sure, they both have weird sounds spoken by Asians, but that doesn’t make them similar. At all. In fact, learning one won’t automatically make it easier learning the other. From my experience with both, I’d say the biggest sticking point in learning Japanese will happen when trying to understand how to put sentences together; for Chinese, that’s a little easier, with most of the difficulty occuring with your use of tones during speaking.


10. You need to bow and show politeness all the time.

No, that’s not true, although I do understand the misconception. We’re veering into cultural territory beyond language here. Although Japanese pragmatics are definitely complex, it’s something you are likely to pick up along the way, especially if you interact with people regularly so don’t let it scare you off. Yes, politeness and formality levels are integrated into the use of language, among other pragmatics, but being observant and listening to people should clue you in on which words to use when and for whom.

About Sally Morgan

My name is Sally Morgan, I'm American and currently a Language Teacher in New York State Schools for French and Spanish. I have studied Foreign Languages, translation and teaching at the Columbia University in New York. I lived for 3 years in Europe including France, UK and Italy.

I am a passionate linguist and love how speaking another language opens the doors of communication and therefore a whole world.

Please ask me any questions below

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