As a result of our human nature, one of the first things we think about is the difficulty of learning a given language. We want to achieve the most in the shortest amount of time, therefore we would like to choose the language that is not difficult. However, for me the question of difficulty is very tricky. I don’t think you can compare languages as you could compare for example mathematical exercises. Being unable to answer this “difficulty” question, let’s just simply say that learning Japanese is not an easy task.
What challenges did I have to face while learning Japanese?
First of all, when I started learning Japanese, I began with katakana-s and hiragana-s, and I could master them in a few days having experienced the rapidest progress ever. The rest is much more difficult.
My next step is learning kanji. The vast number of characters originating from Chinese proves to be something that will keep me busy until the end of my life. By reading this, you might have already guessed the most difficult thing in learning Japanese. Unfortunately the list is not yet over. Just think about it. If it was over every Chinese native speaker could speak Japanese without any additional effort, however they don’t.
You could learn all these tricky and charming characters, but if Japanese is not your native language you will still face difficulties. The origin of these problems is that your brain has been wired when you were a child. This means that the way you think and put your sentences together is influenced by the cultural environment you grew up in. A very common mistake that non-native speakers make is that they form the sentence they want to say on their on language and translate every single word to the target language. This method might work in some cases when there is a one to one relation between the two languages, but don’t be offended if you get laughed at.
A very simple example is the English “close your eyes” that could be translated into Japanese as ”目を閉める，me wo shimeru” as a direct translation. This is a real example I used and people burst out laughing around me, because the correct translation is: ”目を閉じる，me wo tojiru”. Both words mean “to close”, but one can be used for eyes and the other one cannot. This is the manifestation of the problem I mentioned above. In order to avoid this you have to acquire a superhuman skill. This skill should enable you to recall the correct expression from your memory when there are seemingly equivalent solutions.
In this sense, I wouldn’t say that Japanese is more difficult than other languages. I’m pretty sure that other languages, such as French, Italian or German have such peculiarities. If we accept that this difficulty exists, the whole problem boils down to the audience. I’m saying this, because if the native audience is helpful and you get corrected every time you make a mistake, you can naturally progress, but this approach diverts us from the linguistic problem so let’s leave this question open.
Another issue I can mention here is the advance of machine translation. The problems caused by such translation systems are strongly related to the previous discussion. Suppose you want to say something on a foreign language. If you don’t speak that language you can open Google Translate and let it translate the expression for you. It also gives you a few options to use, but who will decide which one to use? I guess, you. If you don’t know the language, how do you know which one is the appropriate one? If you know the language, why do you use machine translation? I feel a little bit of a contradiction here and what’s even worse, many times I see translated texts, full of mistakes caused by careless machine translation. In the same time, this makes learning even more difficult because you end up learning the from mistaken translation and you are unable to tell correct and erroneous translations apart. Just think about the era preceding machine translation. This issue was not as apparent as these days.
We can commiserate with language learners, but what about situations when nuances do matter? Who will decide whether the translation expresses exactly the same thing as the original language?
I’ve been thinking a lot about these problems these days and I haven’t found a good solution. The best you can do is to listen to native speakers carefully and pay attention to phrases they use. Try to point out your own mistakes. So for example there is a given situation and suppose you need to express something. Try to observe how native speakers say the same thing in the same situation. When you realize that they say it in a different way correct yourself and never forget it. By doing so, you don’t have to keep asking stupid questions from native speakers.
Another very effective way is to write. The following method costs some money, but probably it’s the most helpful. Try to write something in Japanese and have native speakers correct your text. There is a great agency offering such a service. I found it very effective when other people point out my mistakes. The mistakes was produced by you. And if no one corrects you, you will make the same silly typo or grammatical error. However, if there is someone who corrects your writing, you will remember forever, because you will associate the mistake with the correction. Oddly enough, probably spending some money might help more, because you will not want to make the same mistake and waste your money again.
I could have talked about pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and other boring topics in this article, but I’m sure there are other materials for that. I tried to share my personal experience with you, but believe me, you will face similar issues when you reach the intermediate or upper-intermediate Japanese level.