How difficult is it to become fluent in Japanese compared to other languages?

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Individuals whose native language is English may struggle to learn a foreign language. Some might be easier than others due to the similarities with English. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI) conducted a study for people in the 30 to 40 age range who had an aptitude for learning a new language. The learning schedule consisted of 25 hours of classes each week, plus 3 hours of independent study. The purpose of the study was to determine the length of time it took students to become proficient in a specific language. Here is a synopsis of the results:

  • Category 1: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German – 23-30 weeks
  • Category 2&3: Greek, Hebrew, Polish, Russian – 36 to 44 weeks
  • Category 4: Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin, Japanese88+ weeks, in addition to a year of study in the foreign country

As stated by the FSI, the learners in the above study had a penchant for languages. For others lacking this gift may take longer. If you had to choose one language, it should be French or Spanish, or both as over 100 countries speak these two.

Selecting Japanese is probably not the first choice of most English speakers unless you are of Japanese descent, engaged in commerce with Japan, plan to teach there, live in Japan, do a student exchange, or want to impress your friends. An individual working for an international or domestic company or organization that interacts with Japan would benefit from learning the language.

U.S. trade with Japan totaled an estimated $303.0 billion in 2019. Exports = $123.4 billion; imports = $179.6 billion.

Language difficulty varies according to one’s native tongue. For example, Spanish is relatively easy for Italians as they are similar in grammar and vocabulary. Whereas for English speakers, Japanese grammar and vocabulary are unrelated to English. Japanese contains many Chinese characters (kanji), making it somewhat easier for either one to learn the other’s language.

Some educators purport that you can converse in Japanese with imperfect pronunciation – something it shares with English. It takes practice listening to an audio of the correct pronunciation to become understood. Some people butcher the English language sufficiently to make them hard to comprehend.

Japanese consists of three scripts; Hiragana has 46 primary characters, and Katakana has slightly more. To read a newspaper or online news report requires knowledge of approximately 1000 kanji. Elementary school children in Japan learn 1,026 kanji characters. This portion of their education is known as the kyōiku kanji (教育漢字), or “education kanji.” During junior high and high school in Japan, students learn another 1,130 characters. A much higher degree of difficulty than our 26 letters!

Consider the following example:

English: Good morning everyone

Japanese using our alphabet: Minasan ohayōgozaimasu

Japanese characters: 皆さんおはようございます

You can see how onerous it is to decipher the characters versus seeing the phrase typed in our familiar alphabet. A Japanese newspaper uses only the characters. To Americans and other English-speaking peoples, the Japanese kanji look like Sumerian cuneiform. In frustration, the learner declares, ” Kore wa hijō ni chōsen-tekidesu,” or “this is very challenging.”

Another difference between English grammar and Japanese is the verb comes at the end of the sentence:

The farmer eats the apple has the literal translation of – the farmer the apple eats.

The good news is that Japanese has no plurals, no determiners (a/an/the), and only two tenses. What a breeze! Not precisely because there are other twists to learn before fluency or literacy. For example, prepositions come after the noun. I went to Spain, becomes Spain to went.

Individuals considering another language as a college requirement should choose one from Category 1 above, not from #4. However, those involved in commerce or education in Japan or China, as an example, may need to be fluent in Chinese or Japanese. The characters in both languages compound the arduous task of recognizing thousands of squiggly figures, let alone being able to write them.

You do not need to live in the country to become fluent. Numerous language apps and software programs allow immersion into the foreign tongue. Some educators opine that you should master fluency before accuracy. As with English, many speakers ignore correct grammar, even educated people use incorrect verbs, such as – ‘he don’t know how to speak properly’. One axiom is that fluency accelerates when you begin to think in a foreign language.

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