Can It Really Be That Difficult?

“Is that Japanese?”

I had some homework up on my computer at lunchtime, and someone peeked in and saw the Kanji.

“Yeah.  It’s some of my homework.”

“I lived on Okinawa for three years.  Hand gestures got me by.”

Now, I know that I have an interest in learning Japanese and she obviously did not, but…three years?!  Goodness knows what I could accomplish if I could get even three months of immersion like that!  What a golden opportunity that was.

Now, partly, that’s just me.  I can’t imagine living in another country for an extended period without making an attempt to learn the language.  I would absolutely hate to be surrounded by people and newspapers and TV and music that I couldn’t understand.  It would feel so limiting…

Now, I am making a guess that she was living on a military base, so she was surrounded by people who spoke English, but, still…

So I found myself wondering why so many English speakers think that Japanese is just too difficult to learn, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

-The Kanji

Obviously.  Everybody knows that you have learn about 2 million of those unusual looking squiggles in order to read anything.  The person that I spoke with knew that there are , in fact, two other writing systems that you have to learn as well.  That is obviously impossible.

Except that you don’t have to learn to write them since we have keyboards that will type them for you…and you don’t have to learn to read anywhere near that many for basic literacy…and you can learn to read hiragana in a week or even a weekend, and the same for katakana, and, anyway, you can learn the daily use Kanji in just a few months (Remembering the Kanji, The Hacking Japanese Supercourse, Anki, Memerise,  and countless other resources.)

-The sounds

Actually…while Japanese obviously sounds very different from English, there are a surprising number of English loan words, and, anyway, the Japanese language has fewer total sounds than English does.

-The grammar

Yes, Japanese grammar is very different from English grammar.  That doesn’t mean that it’s more difficult, just different.  Looking at it objectively, there are some things about Japanese that I find more difficult than in English (adjectives) but other things that are quite a bit easier than in English (changing a statement to a question).

So what’s the real issue?  I think it is really two things.  One is that so many people have heard that Japanese is just impossible to learn that it has become an accepted “fact” without any real basis.  It’s just one of those things that everybody knows, just as everybody once knew that the Earth was flat and the moon was made of green cheese.

The other is the fact that Japan, culturally, is very different from the UK and the US.  If the culture is so different, obviously that language must be incredibly different, and learning something that is so incredibly different is obviously incredibly hard.

Look, learning a new language, in and of itself, requires effort.  The more different the new language is from whatever languages you already speak, the more effort it will take.  Okay.  We acknowledge that.

The greater the level of competence you want to acquire in the new language, the more effort it will take.  Learning to speak at the level of a college graduate will take more effort than learning just enough to scrape by.  Okay, we acknowledge that, too.


It takes effort to get good at playing the guitar, to become a long distance runner, to learn to play golf, to make the college football team.  Lots of things take effort.  Does that mean they’re impossible?

I am smack in the middle of learning Japanese.  (Not of trying to learn Japanese, but of learning Japanese.)  It isn’t impossible.

Have you ever done a 100 mile ride on a bicycle?

I have.

When I started riding again as an adult, I would ride for a few miles and I would be tired.  Gradually, my rides got longer and faster.  Eventually a day came when I rode 100 miles.  Afterward, I was so wiped out I could barely move.  Later I did it again and felt  tired.  Later I did it again and went to a party afterwards.

When I first threw a leg over a bicycle, having not ridden one in 20 years, and took my first wobbly turns through a parking lot, if you had suggested to me that I should aim for a 100 mile ride, I would have laughed at you.  The first time I did a 20 mile ride, I would still have laughed at the idea of a 100 mile ride, but, eventually, my rides got longer and longer, and I built up to the point where that ride was possible.  Later, it even became fun.  In the beginning, though, I didn’t even think about it.  Let me try to ride 10 miles today and maybe 15 miles next week, and I’ll see where I’m at next year…

Do it one step at a time, one pedal turn at a time, one Kanji at a time, one verb conjugation at a time, one vocabulary word at a time.

Gradually, you will get stronger, able to ride farther…

Gradually, you will get more knowledgeable, able to say more and more…

And one day you will find that you have done a 100 mile ride…

And one day you will find that you just had a conversation all in Japanese…

Here’s the simple truth:  right now, all around the world, people of all ages are learning Japanese.  They know that it is possible because they are doing it.  I know that it is possible because I am doing it.

There are lots of different methods.  I talk about the things that I have tried and what works for me.  I’m not looking for tricks to teach me Japanese in one week.  I’m in it for the long haul.  I’m working my way through a 25 chapter textbook (with lots of help from my Cafetalk tutor!).  Right now I am on chapter 9.  Next week, I expect to be on Chapter 10.  Eventually, I expect to finish the book and move on to book 2.  Eventually, I expect to have a conversation entirely in Japanese.

Don’t listen to people who tell you how difficult it is.

Learning Japanese is not difficult, really.

Studying Japanese every day…that is difficult.  If you can do it, though, you will learn the language.  It’s that simple.

Five months ago, I started learning the Kanji.  Niko over at likes to hear from people who use the Supercourse, so I have written him a few posts to update him on my progress.  The first half of the last post that I wrote him was written in Japanese!

Impossible to learn?

Not hardly.

If Japanese interests you, then get a study plan, make use of some good resources, and put in the consistent effort.  You’ll be amazed at how absolutely possible it is to learn Japanese.






2 thoughts on “Can It Really Be That Difficult?

  1. I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for writing it. ^_^

    I’ll try to remember to share it with my readers in the next newsletter.

    By the way, I think you’re still waiting for an email from me. Will send one soon!


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