I am often contacted by clients claiming that they have been studying Japanese for about years and still can’t read a manga or understand anime. When I tell them it’s perfectly normal, they are surprised.
Beginner learners are not aware of the time they will need to spend to learn Japanese. After an initial burst of motivation, they soon find themselves struggling more than expected. Of course, that has nothing to do with any individual trait. It simply takes a really long time to learn to handle Japanese skilfully.
How long does it take?
Well, that is difficult to say because it also depends on what you do, and how. For a Westerner, it could take at least twice as long as you’d need for a European language.
So why it takes so long to become fluent in Japanese?
That’s exactly what I will try to make clear in this post.
The four crucial aspects which make it so hard to become fluent in Japanese
Apart from the time you need to spend learning the grammar and vocabulary, I believe there are four crucial aspects that make it so hard to reach fluency in a shorter time span:
1) The writing system
It takes about a week to master hiragana and katakana (50 symbols each). Or even a few hours if you use mnemonic aids, etc. For the 2000+ kanji, however, it’s a different question altogether!
Nowadays, there are plenty of resources and methods for learning them, but you still need to know too many of them both individually, and in compounds, to gain access to interesting materials outside of textbooks or children books.
Leaving novels and news articles aside, the level you need to be able to read a manga is actually pretty high. It’s not only a matter of vocabulary, but a mixture of the three other aspects I have listed below.
2) Sentence structure
As some of you guys might know, Japanese is a SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) language, meaning that sentences are structured as follows:
私は 本を 読みます
watashi wa - hon o - yomimasu
I - (a) book - read
'I read a book'
This structure does not pose much problems when sentences are simple. However, when you want to make longer and more complex sentences, our ‘Western’ brains find it very hard to process.
Coming back to the ‘book’ example, to say something like “I’m reading the book my friend from Tokyo gave me last year”, you would need to put the words in the following order:
去年 東京 の 友達が くれた
kyonen - toukyou - no - tomodachi ga - kureta - hon o - yonde imasu
last year - Tokyo - of - (a) friend - gave (me) - (a) book) - to be reading
'I’m reading the book my friend from Tokyo gave me last year'
I usually advise beginner students to not translate in their heads from their mother tongue. It is definitely more efficient to get used to thinking directly in Japanese right from the beginning.
Starting with simple sentences and expanding them with more details in a build-up fashion seems to work very well, and students like this approach.
Another reason for avoiding direct translation is that most of the time Japanese people express ideas in a totally different manner. Thus, it is definitely better to learn whole expressions instead of building them from scratch on your own.
3) Speech styles and levels of politeness
The other big obstacle in learning Japanese is politeness, or formality. There are three main levels or styles to it: informal or casual (used with family and close friends); formal and honorific (both used when talking with somebody you’re not very close with).
Factors affecting your choice of politeness level are what in another post of mine I referred to as ‘the four pillars of communicating in Japanese’: 1. who you are (jibun); 2. who is the person you are talking to (aite) based on his/her rank in society (your teacher, a colleague, etc.); 3. the place or situation you are in (ba); 4. the content of your message (naiyō).
Being fluent in Japanese means being able to juggle with all of these levels and choose the most suitable one for the situation at hand.
4) Male and female speech registers
Finally, you also have to come to terms with male and female speech styles. Unlike most European languages, in Japanese, gender is marked by distinct speech patterns or words.
This can be clearly seen in the use of different personal pronouns such as ore or boku for men, and watashi or atashi for women (although these may vary due to regional dialects and new trends in society). Other features include the use of different sentence-final particles (yo, ze, zo for men, and wa, no, kashira for women), different intonation patterns, and so on.
Most non-native speakers of Japanese tend to speak or sound like girls! That’s because their Japanese teachers used to be mainly female and the only speech style they were used to was the formal one (desu, -masu).
So the question is….
Can you master Japanese without going to Japan?
I personally don’t like the word ‘master’ – you will never ‘master’ a language, even your own mother tongue! However, with the resources available on the Internet nowadays, I’d say yes… you actually can get enough exposure to the language even outside of Japan.
Up to a certain threshold, though!
If you really want to go the extra mile, a few months’ stay in the country – where you find yourself actively communicating with native speakers on a daily basis in various situations and roles – will definitely help you internalize all of those tricky aspects of the language.
Outside Japan – and until you can set foot in the country – I believe the number one thing you need to focus on is 'preparation'.
Watch dramas or anime, read manga and pay attention to how the language is used by different characters and in different situations. If you can, also find real Japanese people in your area or online to talk with and practice as much as you can.
With enough preparation, fluency will become much easier to achieve.
What is your experience with learning Japanese?
So, this is my honest account on why it takes so long to become fluent in Japanese.
How about you?
If this post resonated with you, I’d love it if you could share it on Facebook to let others know about it, and then leave a comment below and tell us your main struggles.
Stay tuned for more posts!