I’ve been studying Japanese (to varying degrees of success) for close to three years now (I think). It’s most certainly been a while. Over this time I’ve grown to understand where Japanese is simple and straightforward – and where it’s not. Here are what, in my opinion, are the most difficult things about Japanese.
Understanding Spoken Japanese
It is very difficult for me to understand spoken Japanese. It may be because there are many different dialects than Tokyo standard that are just different enough to throw me for a loop. It may be that Japanese people just rattle things off rapid fire and it’s hard to tell where the words stop or begin. It may be that sometimes they seem to take verbal shortcuts that I haven’t learned yet. I’m slowly getting an ear for it, but it really takes time.
“R” vs. “D”
The Japanese sounds for “R” and “D” sound very similar – to the point where it’s hard to tell them apart. I think the D is a little more consonant, but that’s one of my biggest frustrations with trying to understand spoken Japanese.
What’s the Deal with all the Hononyms?
There are so many different things one word can mean. “Hashi” has two that I know of, “Kami” has three, and who knows how many “Hi” has. The only way you can tell the difference is in context. This is made even more troublesome because of the reverse problem – one kanji can have multiple meanings and readings, and you can only tell the difference by context. It’s actually not quite as hard as I’m making it out, but it’s still troublesome.
The Unwritten Rules
This is perhaps the hardest part of the language – the often stifling rules of the culture are built into language. You can say something grammatically correct and still be rude just because you chose the wrong way of saying it. Like there are six different ways of saying “you” and each of them is rude except in a very specific context. There are at least three different levels of politeness, casual, polite, and obsequious, and many, many different levels of rudeness. One of the hardest parts of the language isn’t learning how to speak it, but what the correct way of speaking it at any given time is. Because in order to do that, language lessons aren’t enough. You have to understand the culture well enough to know what’s expected.
That’s not to say that learning Japanese isn’t rewarding. I think it is, and I don’t really regret the time I’ve spent studying it. And it’s, all told, not as hard as it has the reputation of being, as long as you keep your wits about you and choose a way of learning that works for you. But it’s also not an easy thing to learn, and I continually find myself pivoting to try to find a way to learn it that works better for me. At the moment, the things that are giving me trouble are just the things that come with experience and the right kinds of lessons.
What’s the most difficult thing about Japanese for you? What about the easiest? I’ll do a separate post on my answer to the latter question.