Nihongo Muzukashii?

The other day, a Japanese man I know set about explaining why Japanese was so hard. It was one of those conversations that begin with a fellow who can’t speak a lick of English taking pride in telling you how difficult it is to learn Japanese. It started the usual way. ‘Nihongo muzukashii?’

I gave the anticipated answer and explained that, yes, I did find Japanese hard. To say otherwise would look arrogant, especially if, as would be likely, I cocked up my next sentence.  In any event it would be a lie. The man I was talking to allowed himself a bit of a smug grin and told me that Japanese was indeed very difficult, maybe the most difficult language in the world. It has, you see, three reading systems whereas English only has one. Counting them out slowly on his fingers, he enunciated, ‘Katakana, hiragana, kanji!’ He held three fingers up for emphasis. I thought about raising one in celebration of my language but decided against it.

‘That is why Japanese is difficult,’ he said.

Well, no. It’s not. It doesn’t make things easier, but the reason I find Japanese difficult is not the number of writing systems. It is because I was born and raised in the UK by English-speaking parents. Japanese is difficult for me for the same reasons that English is difficult for many Japanese – the languages are just very, very different. I have no doubt that learning French or German is generally easier than learning Japanese for an anglophone but that doesn’t make Japanese an inherently more difficult or superior language. Different languages are difficult for different people. I bet I’d find Chinese a bastard to learn because I am tone deaf.

Kanji, it is true, ups the difficulty stakes in learning Japanese but the fact that it is one of three writing systems is barely relevant. Katakana and Hiragana are fairly simple syllabaries and, once mastered, there can be no doubt about how to read a word written in those scripts. Kanji is a whole other ball game with multiple readings for thousands upon thousands of characters. The fact that you can not usually read by yourself until after a great deal of study contributes to the slow pace of learning Japanese. But still, to suggest English is far easier because it has one alphabet is misguided and simplistic. It may have one alphabet of only 26 letters, but give a thought to tough and though and bough and cough and you quickly realize fewer letters is not an automatic indicator of reading ease.

I told my companion that I thought learning kanji was tough. ‘It takes a lot of time and effort,’ I said.  ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘even we Japanese can’t read some kanji. ‘But,’ he added, ‘kanji is very useful because we can look at a kanji and sometimes know the meaning just by looking at it!’

‘But you can do that in English, too,’ I said. I would usually have just nodded and agreed but I was in a bit of a contrary mood.

‘No,’ he said, thinking I had misunderstood. Then he explained the same thing again.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You can do that in English.’

I don’t think he believed me. But anybody who has seen and understood, say, the word ‘multifunctional’ could hazard a pretty good guess at what ‘multilingual’, ‘multipurpose’, ‘multilateral’ and a multitide of other words employing ‘multi-’ mean, even if they had never seen those words before. It is not unique to kanji.

We moved on, and the man brought up another reason for why Japanese is so difficult. ‘In Japanese,’ he said, ‘we have words that sound the same but have different meanings!’ He beamed with joy at the revelation of a language having homophones. He told me with barely concealed elation how ame can mean rain (雨) or, hold on to your hats readers, candy (飴)! And hashi can mean chopsticks (箸), bridge (橋) or edge (端)! Well fancy that! Except that our ‘rain’ is a homophone too, as are myriad other English words. And here’s the thing that confuses me: I have heard this homophone boast quite a few times over the years and they always, always reel out the same old examples of ame and hashi. Why? They are almost never going to cause confusion. Only if the very chubbiest of fellows was talking would you pause to wonder, ‘Hang on, is he staying in today because of the rain, or the candy?’ No, homophones may cause problems, but those ones don’t and it is a truly bizarre thing that there are people that seem to think they are somehow unique to Japanese. They are not. And neither is it because of their existence that anglophones might find Japanese difficult.

Anyway  the chap seemed a bit disappointed that I wasn’t particularly impressed by his ame and hashi, but I cheered him up a bit by assuring him that I think Japanese is difficult. I do. It is a constant struggle and the better I get, the more I realize how far I still have to go. My battle for proficiency, however, is hard for almost none of the reasons my lunch companion thought.

The waiter arrived and the conversation changed to food. It was a pleasant chat, but somewhat spoiled by my companion’s curious need to express how exceptionally skillful I am at using bridges.

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15 Responses to Nihongo Muzukashii?

  1. It’s funny how monolingual people always think their language is the hardest one to learn and they always give the wrong reasons for it.
    I have met many monolingual English speakers boasting that English was the hardest language (it’s always hard not to laugh at that moment), and roughly the same with French people.

  2. Ryo says:


  3. Jay Dee says:

    Ah yes, I’ve had a few conversations, especially with my students, about how hard learning Japanese is. However, I find that many of my students believe I am a very good Japanese speaker, even though they don’t hear me speak it. Just the fact that I’ve been in Japan for 7 years causes them to assume that I’ve studied Japanese so much that I must be nearly fluent. Children assume I can speak it, as I always seem to understand their Japanese questions to me. I have low level students who incorrectly assume that I can understand any vocabulary question they have for me by using the Japanese word. Yet if I do say something in Japanese, I always get amazement as a response.

    I ask them what the most difficult language to learn is, and they often say English, not Japanese. Curious, isn’t it?

    • I love the way kids just talk to you without concession. Of course, there are times when I want adults to slow down or drop the keigo a bit, but the most annoying are those who just seem to hesitate and panic before even trying to speak in Japanese to you. Or worse, if you ask them simply to repeat something because you didn’t hear them / want clarification they again panic and start stuttering random words in English.

  4. kathryn says:

    Chinese would definitely be harder. As well as the tonal thing, there is a heap more kanji to learn!

  5. togainunochi says:

    LOL it’s all hard for me. What always gets me is when someone here(US of A) thinks speaking louder will make you understand them. Body language usually gets me through.:-)

  6. Jeremiah says:

    I understand what the Japanese native speaker meant about being able to tell some things with kanji by looking at them. I’ve experienced that myself. That only happens if you’re very ‘fluent’ in what the kanji radicals mean by themselves, and there’s plenty of kanji that don’t play by those rules because of the vagaries of history. It’s true you can do it for some words, but that’s some. If more people knew their own English language’s roots better, they’d have an easier time with quite a few words – though not all.

    I’d love to be helping people learn more Japanese myself, but I’m anchored to eastern Canada where the local demand is miserable.

    • Hi Jeremiah,

      Yes, I understand what he meant, too, and he was right that you can sometimes guess meanings. But it is, as you say, just about understanding radicals and such, and it is not so different from being able to guess what some words mean by looking at them and their prefixes and whatnot. That it is not something that is unique to Japanese was my point. Perhaps it is a able to be done more often in Japanese, but that doesn’t mean (as one person has already tried to insist to me) that it can’t be done with words made from letters. I know you weren’t suggesting that but he certainly was!

  7. Turner says:

    My speaking Japanese has declined a bit since I left, but I just had a horrible realization when I went in for a language evaluation last week: my writing skills are almost nonexistent. I need to get back over there.

    • My handwriting skills are almost non-existent, too. Quite simply, apart from filling in name and address etc I never need to write by hand these days. Wish I could, but really am too lazy when we have computers and email which have rendered it almost unnecessary in my case.

  8. Raestloz says:

    Isn’t japanese hard to learn due to the ridiculously varied way of saying the same things due to levels of politeness? And how the same character can have multiple ways of reading with the same meaning? And the same meaning can have different characters due to simplification? And let’s not forget regional accents.

    Of course, chinese is much harder due to the number of characters and the dependence on tones (with devastating, business-destroying result sometimes), but japanese is difficult alright

    The equivalent of difficulty in English would be learning Ye Olde Shakespearean English and street slangs alongside official modern English. I guess…?

    • Yes, Japanese is hard for many reasons, but I think the main one is simply that it is so far removed from English. That is also, in my opinion, why there are so few good English speakers in Japan. The languages have so little in common that for a speaker of one to learn the other takes a huge amount of effort!

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