Japanese – a language impossible to learn?

As part of our Asian languages series, we take a look at Japanese. We explore the many alphabets, its phonology, and look into the complexities surrounding this fascinating language.

Glancing at Japanese, it seems like this is a language near impossible to learn. Indeed, Japanese is considered to be one of the hardest languages for a native English speaker. The Foreign Service Institute places Japanese in Category 5, the highest category.

A language that is exceptionally difficult for English speakers

Learning Japanese requires 88 weeks, or 2200 hours, of study. Japanese is grouped in this category with other notoriously difficult languages, such as ArabicChinese, and Korean. However, out of all of them, Japanese is considered to be the hardest language for a native English speaker.

There are 125 million native Japanese speakers, and around 2.5 million people of Japanese origin. Many of these people speak Japanese as their first language, and are living in the Americas, particularly the United States and Brazil.

Why are there so many alphabets?

There are 3 different alphabets in common use. Kanji is possibly the most well-known, this alphabet contains early Chinese characters.

Modern Chinese uses around 6000 characters, but in Japanese there’s only about 2000.

Hiragani is the main phonetic alphabet, and it is mostly used to denote grammar. Whereas Katakana is the alphabet mostly used to distinguish non-native words that do not have kanji associated with them.

The fourth alphabet, called Romaji, is not in common use. This literally means Roman letters, putting the complex language into a form that most Westerners can understand.

As hard as it seems?

Despite the opinion that Japanese is near impossible to learn, there are grammatical concepts that make it easier.

As with many languages, there are many loan words present in Japanese. Very few of these are ‘false friends’ that have drastic semantic changes. One word that does change, which could lead to both confusion, and humour, is Manshon (マンション). This does not refer to a palatial home, instead it is simply a humble apartment.

One aspect of grammar that has haunted all language students is the need for verbs-subject agreement. Japanese has omitted this, no more painstaking memorisation of conjugation tables!

Verbs must always go to the end of the sentence, meaning “I watch television” becomes “I television watch”. Therefore, you must have patience when communicating; it is impossible to know exactly what they are saying until the final word.

Japanese is a syllabic language, made up of 45 basic syllables. This sounds like a lot, but they can only be pronounced one way.

Even though English has only 26 letters, it contains more sounds.

The pronunciation of the syllable never changes, regardless of where it appears. Also, most of these sounds have an English equivalent, certainly making learning easier.

It is also possible, occasionally, to guess the meaning of words written in Kanji. When you examine this word 外国人 (gaikokujin), looking closely at each character enables you to guess the meaning:  = outside;  = country;  = person. Therefore, despite not knowing the word previously, you can confidently say that it means ‘foreigner’.

What do I need to keep in mind when translating Japanese?

With the plethora of alphabets, it’s vital to use highly qualified translators. At Capita TI we have native in-house Japanese linguists, as we realise the complexities of this language, and believe it necessary to have these professionals as close to our customers and processes as possible.

When translating, you must know which alphabet should be used where; otherwise the work will be not only illegible, but also not credible. The different alphabets also require different tactics online. Website localisation is therefore vital, allowing your website to be fully optimised to a new client base, and integrated for the society.

Japanese presents many problems when requiring translation; translators often require several attempts for a fluent translation. Proofreaders must often be used to guarantee the quality and fluency.

Japanese grammar, and the way sentences are created, is radically different to English. Commonplace grammatical terms regarding English have little to no relevance for Japanese.

One problem that all translators face is idiomatic expressions. It would be foolish to translate these literally, so unless there is an equivalent, culture must be considered. Idioms are a bizarre part of language, and only the most talented translators can seamlessly apply them across languages.

Benefits of doing business in Japan

Japan is the 3rd largest economy in the world, meaning there are many opportunities to get involved in business. Japan is a leading power in; manufacturingenergyhigh tech and software, to name but a few. Japan has incredible spending power, and an enormous amount of Internet users, making it an excellent country to target for business.

Japan is a country that has always fascinated people, and learning the language would be one step closer to understanding the culture and the history.



Share this story

Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up