Learning how to read and write in a new language is challenging. The task is twice as challenging when you learn Japanese: a language with three alphabets and over 2000 kanji characters to memorize. Learning a language even half-that complex can take years.
Many English speakers find it difficult to learn Japanese characters. Three different writing systems, a different sentence structure from English, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness make Japanese a complex language indeed. However, it’s important to know that, despite its challenges, Japanese is a unique and exciting language. And at the end, it’s incredibly fulfilling to learn Japanese. The more you learn the language, the more your doubts disappear and slowly but surely, with more practice, you will stop worrying about how difficult it is to learn Japanese characters.
Why do many people believe that Japanese is difficult?
Some people see learning Japanese as learning two languages at the same time: spoken Japanese, which reflects the native roots of the language, and written Japanese, which utilizes characters adopted from China and forced to fit the spoken language.
But, even according to experts, spoken Japanese is not particularly difficult to learn. The spoken language has limited sounds (five vowels and thirteen consonants) and the grammar is rather easy, as there are no case declensions or other complex issues common to languages such as Russian or German.
Another point that worries some students is learning Keigo. Keigo is a highly formal Japanese used in certain business situations. But in the recent years, Keigo has become less of an issue for students as Japanese speakers themselves are adopting simpler Japanese, particularly in service industries that deal with visitors from abroad. Therefore, Keigo is not that important to non-native Japanese speakers and public expectations to use it are lower.
Japanese Alphabet and Writing System
The Japanese writing system is a complex system of interconnected parts, and several writing systems are in use in Japan.
That’s because in Japanese, there are two phonetic syllabaries: kana and kanji. Kana are used to represent syllable sounds, while kanji are Chinese pictographic characters used to represent meanings. Moreover, there are two phonetic alphabets based on kana: Hiragana and Katakana. The phonetic alphabets are always written and pronounced the same way, unlike English, which treats vowels and consonants separately.
Katakana and Hiragana
Hiragana and katakana have five rows of vowels and five rows of consonants, whereas Japanese is read vertically from right to left, so the corresponding vowels are on the far right side of the table.
As the first writing system that Japanese children learn, Hiragana is the most basic. The rounded shapes of the hiragana alphabet (shown on the left side of every square) easily distinguish hiragana from other alphabets. By contrast, Katakana (shown on the right side of every square) appears sharper.
As we mentioned, both Hiragana and Katakana are based on syllable sounds (kana). Kana are organized and easy to learn. The ten characters listed below in the two alphabets express the five vowels without corresponding consonants. The first vowel is “a” (like in “ball”), the second is “i” (like in “green”), then “u” (like in “moon”), then “e” (like in “men”), and finally “o”.
Vowel Sounds a i u e o
Hiragana あ い う え お
Katakana ア イ ウ エ オ
Consonants are corresponding to the rest of the kana, and they are formed when a consonant is followed by a vowel, for example, k + a = ka. You can read them by adding a consonant before the vowel, but this will make one consonant. Only the consonant “n” is an exception to this rule, which is pronounced without a vowel and is written ん in hiragana, and ン in katakana.
Unlike katakana and hiragana, kanji is a pictographic character. Therefore, Kanjis are symbols that represent meanings rather than sounds. Each of these symbols has its pronunciation or reading. Below are some examples of simple kanji to show you what they look like:
木 means “tree”
速 means “quick” or “fast”
食 means “eat”
Japanese kanji is often seen as the hardest part of learning the language, regardless of whether you’re a second-language learner or a native speaker.
How many kanji should you know to speak Japanese fluently?
The answer is none if you’re simply looking to speak the language. You can have simple conversations and easily communicate in daily life situations even if you don’t know kanji.
But when Japanese people learn their first kanji, they are already functionally fluent, so why should you be any different? If you learn just 1000 kanji, you’ll be able to read and understand approximately 90% of the day-to-day Japanese communication.
And learning the 2,136 joyo kanji (general use kanji that children are taught in school) helps you to achieve the government-mandated minimum literacy and gives you a comprehension rate of over 99%!
But keep in mind that most kanji have multiple ways of being read and can be combined to form many different words, so simply recognizing them is just the first step. Another thing to keep in mind is that most books at intermediate and higher levels assume you know more than 2000 kanji (though you might be able to find toddler books using less than 1000 kanji). As with English or other similar writing system-based languages, there’s no way to sound out a word or figure out its meaning from hints. With enough kanji under your belt, however, you will begin to sound words out (yes, there are small phonetic components in kanji) and guess meanings. You will also be able to see how words relate to each other when you know kanji.
The many difficulties of the Japanese Alphabet and Writing Systems
There is no doubt that those students coming from alphabetic languages will find Japanese a challenge. Japanese is written in three ways: with kanji, hiragana, and katakana. We should also mention Romaji: the romanization of the Japanese language using the Latin script. It is primarily used to input/type the Japanese language on digital devices: computers, mobile phones, etc. Since it uses the Latin alphabet to transcript the language for digital input, Romaji is also arguably a uniquely Japanese writing system.
Hiragana and katakana are not particularly difficult to remember, but kanji is a major hurdle for learners whose mother tongues do not use characters.
Kanji pronunciation and kanji meaning seem to be connected arbitrarily. For example, in Japanese, the word “tsukuru” means “to make”, and there are at least three different characters for it, depending on what is being made. In addition to this, one kanji may have different pronunciations. Typically, most kanji have at least one kun (native Japanese pronunciation) and at least one on (Chinese-derived pronunciation). As a result, there is an original difference between the Chinese and Japanese root words.
Despite all this, it is of course possible to master hiragana, and katakana even kanji. With the wide array of resources available today, there is sure to be a method that will make the challenge more flexible.
Hints for Learning the Japanese Alphabet
Now when you know the difference between hiragana, katakana and kanji, let’s have a look at some tips for learning the Japanese alphabet with the help of a Japanese teacher:
Combined learning of hiragana and katakana
It makes sense to learn both hiragana and katakana characters for each sound at the same time, since there are two of them. The same as in elementary school, where you practiced writing uppercase and lowercase letters in groups.
Flashcards are useful
Making them can help you improve your writing skills, and using them can help you memorize the hiragana, katakana and even kanji. Flashcards are a very powerful learning tool!
Stroke order is important
In Japanese and in Chinese, the order in which characters are written matters a lot. When you study characters, ensure you get the stroke order right using a guide or workbook.
The truth is that learning the Japanese language isn’t as difficult as it’s made out to be. Studying according to your needs, and particularly practicing speaking and listening first, will put you on the fast track to communication. After that, you can learn reading and writing with a little more persistence and hard work. Explore italki’s blog for additional ideas, too!
Despite the challenges below, learning Japanese is a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. On our blog we share articles about the Japanese language and advice on how to find the best Japanese teacher to help you study if you have difficulties.