Is English harder than Japanese?
If you are a native speaker of English, learning Japanese can seem like an ambitious endeavor. In fact, the US Foreign Service Institute considers Japanese to be one of the most difficult languages to learn for an English speaker (along with Arabic, Chinese, and Korean). While it may take an average learner 30 weeks to master French, it will take approximately 88 weeks for Japanese. Needless to say, the actual time can vary based on the language learner’s natural ability, prior linguistic experience, and time spent in the classroom. In the following, we will challenge the common notion that “Japanese is hard” and outline why we can similarly say that “English is hard.”
Why Japanese Is Hard
What will possibly scare away most potential learners is Kanji (漢字). These adopted Chinese characters are used along with two other scripts, Hiragana (ひらがな) and Katakana (カタカナ), to write Japanese. Unlike Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic symbols, each representing one syllable. Below, you see an example of a Japanese sentence.
Sounds hard? When learning Kanji, mnemonics can be tremendously useful. Check out this video if you like to learn more about the best way to learn Kanji. The recommended book from the video is called “Remembering the Kanji” by Heisig and is a fantastic resource to jump-start your studies.
Advantage: The English alphabet!
Next, we have Keigo (敬語), which literally means “respectful language.” While the English language has no system of honorific speech, the situation is quite different in Japan. Using Keigo is showing your respect for a person who is older than you, has higher social standing, or is someone you have just met. Generally, there are three main categories of Keigo: Sonkeigo (尊敬語), Kenjougo (謙譲語), Teineigo (丁寧語).
However, rest assured! Even Japanese people need considerable practice in order to correctly express themselves in Keigo. That’s why some companies offer Keigo training sessions for their employees. Unless you plan to work at a Japanese company, you don’t have to worry too much about Sonkeigo and Kenjougo. As for Teineigo, the standard polite form, it is taught by every Japanese textbook from the start.
Why English Is Hard
Because there are few sounds in Japanese compared to English, some Japanese will find English pronunciation especially difficult. For instance, Japanese has 5 vowels, while English has around 20 distinct vowel sounds, depending on the regional dialect. The English language also has a distinct “th” sound which often becomes a “s” or “z” sound in Japanese. Another example is the way “l” or “r” is pronounced in American English. The Japanese “r” sound is more of a combination between “r” and “l.” If you take a look at some English loanwords, the distinction becomes clear:
マイク (maiku) - microphone
レザー (rezaa) - leather
ビル (biru) - building
Advantage: Japanese pronounciation!
Sentence structure is another aspect of English that many Japanese may find difficult. This is understandable considering how Japanese sentence structure is markedly different from English. In Japanese, sentences follow subject-object-verb order. This is also why some people say that Japanese sounds backwards. Take a look at the following graphic.
Compared to most European languages, Japanese verbs also do not change much to show a different person, tense, or number. In fact, a single verb is sufficient to form a correct sentence. A correct English sentence, in contrast, requires subject and verb. See below for an example:
食べる (taberu) - depending on the context, it can mean “I eat” or “She eats” or “They eat.”
Advantage: Either! However, Japanese sentences can be a lot simpler (especially in speech).
To sum up, Japanese and English are quite different. However, no language is really harder than any other language. It's a matter of perspective ;)