Learning a foreign language takes dedication and time. To achieve fluency, one must read, write, and speak the target language each day. Native speakers of English who take introductory lessons in Japanese will no doubt be intimidated by the two syllabic systems hiragana and katakana, the latter of which is used for words borrowed from English and other languages. These represent every sound in the Japanese language, and are written beside each other to spell a word. Even more daunting are the kanji characters derived from Chinese. To comprehend a Japanese newspaper, you must be able to read thousands of individual kanji. But, is Japanese really that hard? There’s no such thing as an easy language but some aspects of Japanese are relatively easy to grasp when compared to English
English vowels and consonants
Consider how many English vowels there are: a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. Compared to other languages that’s a small number of vowels, but the number of English vowel sounds is astounding. English has an incredibly complicated vowel system, and how they’re pronounced varies from one English speaking country to another. Listen to speakers from the United States, England, and Australia, and you would get the idea.
Some English vowels are tense, while others are lax. To illustrate this difference, the word “keen” is a tense vowel sound, while the word “kin” is lax. These words have different meanings and spellings, but to a Japanese student pronouncing them correctly might be problematic. Consonant clusters in English require lots of awkward tongue movements. For example, the last three letters of the words texts, fifth and breakfasts are challenging even for English speakers.
Japanese has just five vowels and they’re a, i, u, e, and o. They are very close to their English counterparts and vowel sounds in Japanese don’t change at all. In the Japanese language there are absolutely no silent letters or diphthongs, and a very limited number of consonant clusters.
Like it or not, learning grammar is necessary to speak any language correctly and with ease. It’s like laying the foundation of a house. The good news is that Japanese grammar isn’t as complicated as you might think.
For instance, there are no articles in Japanese. In English, speakers have to say “a book” or “the books.” In Japanese, those words aren’t used. To make this clear, the Japanese sentence hon wa koko ni iru can mean either “a book is here” or “the book is here.” Easy, isn’t it? Another simple aspect of Japanese grammar is that nouns almost never change to reflect plural forms. In English, the letter ‘s’ has to be added to so many nouns to make them plural, but there are some big exceptions too, such as moose, geese, and mice. In Japanese, the word for cat is neko and it can refer to one cat, five cats, or ten cats!
When discussing verbs and their respective tenses, Japanese is less challenging than English. There are two tenses in Japanese: past and present. How can that be? The easiest way to explain this is to take the verb “to eat,” which is taberu in Japanese. The present tense also indicates that the action will occur in the future, so taberu can mean “I eat” and “I will eat.” Tenses in English are varied and beginner students must contend with past, present, future, past perfect, present perfect, future perfect, and so on.
Taking a quick look at these odd expressions so often used in English, it’s worth noting that phrasal verbs are verbs combined with adverbs or prepositions. Sometimes, a phrasal verb can be a combination of both. Examples are “boil down to” and “look in on.” There are thousands of these sayings and no easy formula to learn them all. Since Japanese sentences are always spoken in subject-object-verb order, phrasal verbs, essentially, don’t and can’t exist. Therefore, it makes learning Japanese somewhat less difficult because there aren’t any comparable expressions.
The toughest part of learning Japanese is writing kanji, but when it comes to mastering basic grammar, tenses, and the sounds of hiragana, English speakers shouldn’t have too much trouble. Learning a new should be fun, and not treated as a chore.