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How Hard is it to Learn Japanese? (Language Profile)

By JD / October 13, 2017

If you're looking for love in Japan then it wouldn't hurt to learn some Japanese. But before your mind is carried off with warm fuzzy sunbeam-coated images of chatting up a beautiful Japanese woman next to a cherry blossom tree, you must understand that learning any foreign language is no small feat. 

It won't be hard to learn basic phrases here and there, but if you're looking to learn Japanese to at least a basic conversational level it's going to take some dedication and probably a long time. 

So, how hard is it to learn the language?....pretty hard. 

What makes Japanese so difficult

1) Grammar

Japanese grammar is a lot different than English. I remember taking a Spanish class in high school and struggling to make Spanish sentences based on Spanish grammar. I had gotten so used to the way English grammar worked that it literally felt wrong to make certain sentences in Spanish. 

Well Japanese takes the idea of different grammar to an entirely different level. In fact grammatically speaking, Japanese is about a far from English as it gets. I don't want to go into detail here about the intricacies of it all (You're probably not on this site for a grammar lesson). 

Just know that things like word order, honorific language, and being a topic prominent language (English is subject prominent) all make Japanese difficult to wrap an English speaking brain around. 

For more info how Japanese grammar works you can check out the video below

2) Writing system

Japanese uses one of the most complicated writing systems in the world. In fact written Japanese is really two writing systems wrapped up in one.

One is called kana and is more similar to an alphabet (the symbols represent sounds). Kana is broken into two categories: hiragana and katakana.  Each is written differently from the other, and each has 46 characters. Hiragana is used to spell out Japanese words while katakana is typically used for foreign words. 

These ladies do a much better job than me at explaining Japanese writing

The other writing system in Japanese is called kanji. Kanji work similar to the way Chinese characters do, in that they represent whole words rather individual sounds. Learning Kanji is rough because you essentially have to memorize them. To be considered literate in Japanese you'll need to know something like 2,000 kanji. That's no small feat. 

3) Cultural differences

Every language has to be learned in the context of its culture. You can't just memorize a phrase book and expect to be fluent. True fluency is living with the language and the people who speak it. This is especially true of the Japanese language. 

The language is heavily honorific. The words and grammar you use are greatly effected by your relationship with the people you're talking to  (or about), and the context of the conversation. You bet your bottom dollar that as a Western learning Japanese you're most likely going to fumble your way through Japanese culture. 

A little info on how honorifics are used in Japanese

How long does it take to learn Japanese?

The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) divides foreign languages into 1 of 5 categories, with the 1st being the easiest for native English speakers, and the 5th being the hardest languages. Japanese falls squarely into the 5th category along with languages like Mandarin, Korean, and Arabic. 

According to the FSI a category 5 language takes 88 weeks or 2200 hours of classroom instruction to reach fluency. Keep in mind to that classroom hours don't include the hours spent for homework and practice. So expect to spend over a year and a half of constant study before being fluent in Japanese. Needless to say the language isn't for the faint of heart. 

How much of the language do you really need to know?

We will never recommend against learning the language of a country you plan on traveling to. Even if you learn a word or two it can only help you. But we try remind guys that they shouldn't feel obligated to learn the language before they can travel or start meeting women. 

Luckily for native English speakers, English has become a lingua franca in many parts of the world. While you shouldn't travel and expect anyone and everyone to know English, for many countries you can reasonably expect someone to.  Generally the larger the city and the more touristy the area the more likely you are to find English speakers. 

Still if you have your heart set on meeting someone special from Japan the odds themselves aren't as much in your favor. Japan ranks 35th in its overall English proficiency level with a score of 51.69. 

To give you some context using these metrics Japan falls behind other countries such as Russia, Vietnam, Poland, and the Philippines.  

As far as dating Japanese women overseas, we always recommend that you focus your energies on women who have at least a functional level of English. The inability to communicate puts a damper on romance. Also if you can keep things in English you're much less susceptible to scams, which is the biggest reason why we urge you to keep things in your native language. 

Even though Japan might overall have a low level of English, if a Japanese woman is seriously open to a relationship with a foreign the chances are much higher that she knows English. A quick filtered search on Japan Cupid or Asian Dating will reveal a decent number of women with knowledge of English. 

That being said, an honest effort to learn some Japanese before meeting Japanese women isn't a bad idea. If anything you're more likely to come off as someone who generally respects and is interested in her culture. 

We don't do things here because they're easy

Here at FWHL we don't do things because they're easy. We do them because they're worthwhile. So yeah, learning Japanese is hard and the cultural is very different from the West, but if you're interested in a serious relationship overseas that's probably part of the point. 

At times Japanese culture can go from weird, to exotic, to downright mesmerizing. If you're serious about meeting a Japanese lady, and you're interested in the culture then learning some Japanese is a great idea.  

Where to start learning Japanese

If you're looking to learn the language and don't know where to start. I can recommend two sites: Italki and Japanesepod101

On Italki you can find professional  Japanese teachers and book one on one classes with them on Skype. This is the site that I used when I started learning Russian and I can't recommend it enough. Prices will vary from teacher to teacher but you can expect to find a solid professional teacher for around $15 an hour (sometimes less sometimes more). 

One of Italki's Japanese teachers 

Forget the expensive and over-marketed Rosetta Stone courses and try Japanesepod101. A basic subscription will cost around $8 per month (less if you buy more months at a time). The lessons are in the form of podcasts. Each episode uses a Japanese conversation to teach you basic phrases, words, and grammar. 

The hosts keep things interesting, and overall the podcast is great way to learn a little of the language before you travel. 

About the author


Founder of FWHL. When JD's not writing articles he's probably practicing his Russian or trying to play AC/DC on his guitar.

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