The most difficult language in the world?
Mandarin and Arabic often battle for the title of the most difficult language for English speakers to learn. However, the Japanese language, for a variety of reasons, makes a respectable showing in the top ten.
In this article, we will look at the complexities of the Japanese language, including how the introduction of English words can make it even more confusing for English speakers.
Three different alphabets!
The Japanese language has three alphabets, and for many learners of Japanese, kanji (漢字), the logographic characters of Chinese origin, can be the biggest stumbling block because of their shape, meaning, and multiple pronunciations that are often not clearly connected. For many Japanese language learners, the mastery of kanji can take a lifetime of commitment.
Hiragana (平仮名 or ひらがな) is a phonetic lettering system that is used to show the Japanese pronunciation or for other cultural and linguistic reasons.
As if having two weren’t bad enough, Japanese has a third phonetic lettering system called katakana (片仮名 or カタカナ) that is usually used to write words of foreign origin within the rules of Japanese pronunciation.
Don’t worry. It gets worse.
Context is king!
In English and similar languages, meaning is often created or clarified by the use of certain words, such as definite versus indefinite articles (a/an vs the) or singular versus plural verb endings (“eat” vs. eats”). Failure to follow these grammar rules can lead to confusion and frustration in communication.
In Japanese, when the context of the communication conveys such distinctions, speakers will often not use words, such as pronouns. This can lead to sentences that seem extremely short and confusing to a non-native listener.
However, there is yet another unexpected challenge for foreigners learning Japanese...
Loan words: A linguistic adoption
Historically, languages are constantly absorbing words and ideas from other cultures without translation or significant pronunciation changes. These are called loan words, and some good examples of Japanese words that were easily adopted into English would be “sushi” or “samurai.”
Japanese is no different, and there are many English loan words that are easily understandable in both pronunciation and usage. However, due to a variety of cultural and linguistic reasons, those loan words are sometimes incomprehensible. To better understand this phenomenon, take a moment to read this article and watch the video about “Japanglish,” a term often used for English language loan words in Japanese.
While a bit over the top, this video quite entertainingly captures some of the joy and pain of trying to communicate in Japan.
Japanese loan words: It’s complicated
In the Japanese language, loan words are called gairaigo (外来語 [imported+word]), and there is a long history of borrowing words from Chinese. However, the majority of modern gairaigo come from English, especially starting from the post-World War II era.
English speakers might say to themselves, “That’s great! I should be able to understand these loan words when I go to Japan...”
Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
English syllable vs Japanese mora
At this point, I could take a deep dive into the linguistic and phonological differences between English syllables and the Japanese equivalent, the mora, a phonological unit that describes syllable weight. However, I’m afraid your eyes might start to quickly glaze over, so it might just be easier to give you some examples.
In English, the word brake consists of five letters, but it is pronounced as one syllable. In Japanese, brake is written in the previously mentioned katana alphabet and requires four mora, a phonological unit that describes syllable weight. It looks like this: ブレーキ and would be pronounced as “boo-raay-key.”
Another example that caused me some confusion when I first heard it is the Japanese word for Australia. Because of the pronunciation rules and mora usage, it is written as オーストラリア and pronounced as “aah-su-to-ra-ri-a.”
Basically, this means that many English loan words are written with Japanese pronunciation rules that can change the sounds so much as to be completely mystifying to foreigners. Of the three alphabets, katakana is my least favorite for this reason as I am constantly trying to figure out the pronunciation of a loan word that I am sure I know but just can’t catch it.
Abbreviations and contractions
Shortening words to save space and time is a common practice in all languages. For example, McDonald’s, the world-famous fast food restaurant, is often shortened to Mickey D’s in English. Japan is no different. The full pronunciation of the name is マクドナルド (“ma-ku-do-na-ru-do”) is obviously too long for casual use and is often shortened to マック (“ma-kku”). While understandable, it is still frustrating when you hear it for the first time, with the speaker’s expectation that you know what it is.
How about with more than one word?
Let’s try a quick quiz. What are the meanings of these English loan words in Japanese?
Stumped? I don’t blame you. I was, too.
The first is the shortened form of リモートコントロール (“ri-moh-to-ko-n-to-roh-ru”) which is the Japanese pronunciation of remote control. The second is from デパートメントストア (“de-pah-to-me-n-to-su-to-ru”) for department store.
And it just gets better!
As if English loan words with unusual pronunciations and abbreviations weren’t bad enough, the Japanese people have created wasei-go (和製英語 [Japanese-made English]). These words and expressions are based on English words and contractions that DO NOT EXIST in English or have different meanings altogether.
Years ago, in an izakaya (bar), I was puzzling over this word written in katakana: ハンドルキーパー. I painfully sounded it out, “ha-n-do-ru-kee-pah.” Handle keeper? Since it was in katakana, I was sure it was a foreign word, probably English, but I had no idea what it meant. A long, drunken discussion with the patron next to me revealed that it is wasei-go for “designated driver.” Because Japan has extremely strict drinking and driving laws, if friends go out for the night by car, usually one person among the group will volunteer to drive and take everyone home. He or she is responsible for “keeping a handle” on everyone and the situation.
For my wife, one of her favorites at the convenience store is アメリカンドッグ (“a-me-ri-ka-n-do-ggu”). Any guesses what “American dog” is? If you guessed “hot dog,” you’d be close. It’s actually a “corn dog.”
And last but not least...
The final icing on the cake is loan words from other languages. Because they are of foreign origin, they are also written in katakana, which lets you know that they are probably not Japanese words. However, due to the above reasons, it can be difficult to determine what language or culture they come from, and you may find yourself struggling to figure out the pronunciation and decipher what it might possibly mean, only to find out it is not from the language you thought.
The most common non-English gairaigo that most people first run into is バイト (“ba-i-to”), which is a shorter form of アルバイト (“a-ru-ba-i-to”). The meaning is “part-time job,” and it comes from the German word for “work:” Arbeit.
Interestingly enough, there are a few non-English gairaigo that have been so absorbed into the Japanese language, that some Japanese people don’t even know they aren’t original Japanese words. Perhaps the most famous example of that is tempura, which, unlike most foreign words, is written in kanji and hiragana (天ぷら) which is apparently a conflation of tempero (“seasoning”) and têmpora (“ember days”) in Portuguese. Both of these examples are also a fascinating nod to the history and the long-term presence of Germans and the Portuguese in Japan.
However, don’t let all of this discourage you from learning or exploring the Japanese language. While it can be a steep learning curve at first, it is a really interesting and beautiful language, and the more you learn, the more you can engage with the country, the culture, and the people.
Be careful, though. It can be addictive.
My wife and I came here to Japan with the idea that it would only be one or two years.
We’re now just wrapping up our 13th year.
And I’m still studying Japanese.
And I still hate katakana.
Originally from Ohio, USA, Bailey is an experienced freelance writer and editor, especially for technical and scientific content. With an MA in English and a background in science, he also has more than 20 years of experience in teaching English around the world.