10 things you *don’t* have to worry about when learning Japanese

By | June 29, 2020

All over the internet you can find discussions about why certain languages are difficult to learn, and I have seen my share of those for Japanese language. So for a chance of pace I thought I would take the opposite angle and talk about a few things that you generally don’t have to worry about when learning Japanese when compared to other languages. Think of these as reasons to stay motivated to keep learning Japanese. (akirameru na!)

(Note: I am focusing on standard Tokyo-dialect here since regional dialects can have significant differences in grammar and pronunciation.)

  1. Inconsistent pronunciation

In some languages, particularly English, there is not a one-to-one mapping between written letters and sounds. This means just because you know how to read a word doesn’t mean you know how to pronounce it. For example, vowel sounds in English can change depending on the word, and sometimes you can even have a different sound for the same exact word (ex: “read [more books]” vs. “[already] read”).

In Japanese, on the other hand, for the most part words are pronounced like they are written. It’s true that there is an intonation accent that can be difficult to master, but even if you get the pitches wrong native speakers will generally understand what you are saying (assuming your basic sounds are pronounced correctly); this is partially because regional dialects use different intonation patterns, and those can often still be understood by Tokyo-dialect speakers.

This also applies to loanwords (which are written with a special alphabet in Japanese), such that in Japanese the pronunciation of loanwords is well-defined, whereas in languages like English the pronunciation of loanwords can be difficult because pronunciation rules from another language may be involved. For example, the word “rendezvous” is taken from French and doesn’t sound like you would expect it to sound using standard English rules of pronunciation.

2. Endless verb tenses

Languages such as English and Spanish have a large number of verb tenses to specify various nuances, and mastering them can be tricky even for some native speakers (ex: “If she would have had been there…”).

Japanese, on the other hand, has a very small number of main verb tenses. Some basic English tenses, like future tense, simply do not exist. There are words that graft onto verb stems and can change the meaning (like “-tai” or “-nikui”), however their conjugation is very straightforward.

3. Irregular conjugations

Speaking of verbs, English verb conjugation has a large number of irregularities, meaning you are basically forced to memorize them on a case-by-case without being able to rely on any hard and fast rules. Some verbs don’t change in certain tenses (like “put” and “let”), making things even more confusing. And some or, like in the “read” vs. “read” case mentioned above, change in pronunciation only.

Japanese does have a few rules for different verbs stems (-tsu, -ru, -u, etc.), and some exceptions, but for daily use the number of exceptions required to learn is very small. The verbs “iu”, “suru”, “kuru” are the only ones I can think of off hand.

While this could be made into a separate point altogether, it should also be mentioned that verbs in Japanese don’t change conjugation depending on the subject (first-person vs. second-person, etc.)

While there are entire books out there that list verb conjugations for common Japanese verbs, I would argue that most of the time they are not necessary for studying that language. The exception would be perhaps for beginning students who have not yet mastered the basic rules of conjugation.

4. Plural

Whereas many western languages have a concept of plurality (ex: “car” vs “cars”), which is rife with exceptions like “fish”, Japanese for the most part allows plurality for words without changing their form. There are a few cases where plurality changes the word though (ex: “hito” vs. “hitotachi”).

5. Gender in objects

My Spanish is pretty rough, but I do remember that objects in that language have gender that affects how they are used (for example using the article “el” vs. “la”).

Japanese has no such concept, though to be fair there is a gender-nuance in some of the sentence-ending particles and other words (ex: “wa” or “no”).

6. Weak connection between letters and meaning

In English, if you are seeing a word for the first time, typically the only clue you have to its meaning is the context. Japanese, on the other hand, also gives hints based on the alphabet used (if written in katakana then it’s likely a loanword or onomatopoetic word, etc.). But more importantly, if the word is written in kanji and you happen to know the base meanings of the kanji you can sometimes guess the meaning with a good degree of accuracy, sometimes even the pronunciation. In some cases the kanji themselves are pictographic (like 木, “tree” which makes it even easier to remember).

Due to multiple readings for many characters, understanding the pronunciation with kanji can be a little challenging, but often just getting the meaning is enough.

7. Lack of full distinction of transitive and intransitive verbs

In English, some verbs can be transitive or intransitive, but others can be used in either form. For these verbs, you have to use the context of the sentence (including word order) to figure out whether the verb is used transitively or intransitively.

In Japanese, however, there are many cases of transitive/intransitive pairs, and they generally sound similar. For example, “tsukeru” (transitive) vs. “tsuku” (intransitive) is a pair of verbs that has many uses, but can be most easily understood in terms of turning on something electric. Compare Japanese vs English:

  • I will turn on the light.
  • 電気をつける (denki wo tsukeru)
  • The light will turn on.
  • 電気がつく (denki ga tsuku)

Notice how in English the same verb is used for both cases, and there is no easy way to immediately distinguish intransitive/transitive (though native speakers develop an intuition for this involving word order, etc.). In Japanese, a completely different verb is used. Furthermore, Japanese uses specific particles to mark a word as being the subject (“ga”) or object (“wo”) of a verb, which makes the way different pieces of the sentence fit together very logical.

It’s a little hard to convey the convenience of all this, but once you get used to it you may wish English handled transitive/intransitive verbs more like Japanese does.

8. Articles: the nightmare that is “the” vs “a”

For native speakers it is no big deal, but just try to explain how “the” and “a” work to someone learning English; I guarantee it won’t be easy.

Fortunately, Japanese has no concept of “the” or “a”, and after you learn this language you may wonder why English needed articles in the first place.

9. Lack of options for first and second-person pronouns

In modern English, there isn’t much choice for first-person pronouns except for the everyday “I”. Second-person pronouns are similarly limited.

Japanese, on the other hand, has many of these. For example, modern Japanese has a bunch of first-person pronouns: boku, watashi, watakushi, atashi, ore, washi, etc. There are also a few second-person pronouns: anata, kimi, omae, etc.

While it may seem like extra work to learn these, these words provide unique ways of expression that have no real equivalent in English.

10. Unnecessary Words

English contains many cases where words are required for a grammatical reason, yet don’t really give much extra information. In particular, “it” is one word that sees very frequent use because it is required if the object of a transitive verb is otherwise omitted. For example: “I bought it today”.

Japanese is very convenient because unnecessary words are frequently omitted. This applies not only to things like first-, second-, and third-person pronouns that can be guessed by context, but also other words like objects. Japanese doesn’t really have an exact parallel to “it”, and no such word is needed. Let’s compare:

  • I bought it today.
  • 今日、買った (kyou, katta)

Note that this Japanese sentence is very minimal and other words (such a subject, object, or sentence-ending particles like “ne”) can be added, but it is technically grammatically correct as-is. On the other hand, “I bought today” or “bought it today” are not grammatically correct (although I think the second may be passable in some informal conversations).

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This is just the tip of the iceberg for reasons that Japanese can be easier to learn than other languages. Let me know if you can think of any others I haven’t listed above.

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