Many linguists consider Japanese the most difficult language for English speakers to learn. The main reasons for this are:

  • 3 Alphabets – Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji (Romaji is used as well, but you already know that alphabet since its the alphabet we use in English).
  • Kanji – is not a phonetical alphabet, it is comprised of thousands of characters and in Japanese the majority of the characters have multiple readings.
  • Grammar/Sentence structure – One major difficulty is the lack of English equivalent particles in Japanese. Whereas Spanish has an equivalent of our English particles and all you have to do is just learn that “de” means “of” and so for forth. Latin based languages have similar sentence structure whereas Japanese is completely different.
  • Tongue twisters – Many Japanese words and their conjugations are repeating similar sounds. Example: atatakakatta – was hot. atatakunakatta – was not hot.

However, there are some things about Japanese that are simple.

  • All the sounds (pronunciations) in Japanese are already in English. Meaning you don’t have to learn new sounds (i.e. the rolling “R” in Spanish and all the tones in Chinese).
  • There are hundreds of loan words in Japanese. Example: esukareta – escalator and erebeta – elevator and pinku – pink.

With all that considered, it is important to remember that you CAN do it. Ever person on this planet has learned a language. Toddlers learn Japanese. More importantly if you believe God is calling you to Japan, He IS going to help you, and I want to help you too.

My advice for you to learn Japanese

  1. Come to Japan. Swimming is best learned wet, so Japanese is best learned around a bunch of Japanese people. Unless you live in a place with thousands of Japanese people surrounding you on a daily basis (sarcasm intended), you should learn Japanese in Japan. Language learning is best done immersed in that language.
  2. Before you come to Japan, learn Kanji. “What!?! Are you crazy?!” I know that’s what you’re thinking or even that I’m completely wrong, but hear me out first. Chinese people come to Japan to learn Japanese all the time. There were Chinese students in our class. They stunk at speaking Japanese, just like we all did, but they had a huge advantage. They could already read the majority of Japanese sentences and understand them. The reason? They knew the Kanji. If you don’t already know, Kanji are the same as the Chinese Characters. When I look at the Kanji 山 I think “mountain” or “yama”(Japanese for mountain). When a Chinese person sees that character they think “mountain” in Chinese. In day to day life, they could have looked at a billboard and knew what the store was advertising because they already knew what that Kanji meant. I however, looked at that same billboard and had know idea what it meant. Therefore if you take the time to learn the Kanji before you come to Japan you can have a major advantage.
  3. Don’t learn Hiragana or Katakana before you come, or any Japanese words for that matter. Believe me I’m not trying to break you brain here, even though this seems opposite from what I said in point 2. You shouldn’t learn Hiragana or Katakana prior to coming because they are phonetical alphabets. Meaning when you see a character it reads as a single sound. Like when you see the letter “A” you say “aa”. When I see this Hiragana Character” “あ” I think “aa” as well. In other words you have to know the correct Japanese pronunciation of it, and if you don’t have a Japanese person there telling you how to pronounce it correctly you will forever sound like a redneck Japanese. It’s imperative that you don’t try to learn how to say Japanese words or sounds yet, because you will not pronounce them right. When you learn them incorrectly, it will take you that much more work to unlearn that word and re-learn it correctly. Don’t do Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone either. Unless you have a Japanese friend that will commit to correcting your 発音 (pronunciation), don’t try to learn Japanese words or the alphabets. You might ask why is that different for Kanji. The difference for Kanji is that you will be learning the English word associated with a given Kanji. I.E. 山 means mountain. 川 means river. 火 means fire and so on.
  4. Start Learning Kanji now. With all that said, if you believe God wants you to be a missionary in Japan, start learning Kanji today. In one year you can learn all the 2,000 characters you need for everyday living here in Japan. That sounds huge, but its as simple as 8 characters a day 5 days a week for 52 weeks. There won’t be a better time for you to learn than right now. The older you get the harder it’s going to be. And don’t worry, I’ll make it super simple for you. Click this link and follow their advice to the letter. If you do that, you’ll be well on your way in conquering one of the hardest parts of this language.
  5. When you first get to Japan focus primarily on speaking, not reading and writing. You may go to a language school that doesn’t have much speaking opportunity, and it’s mainly grammar, writing, and homework. All of that is good as long as you spend another 4 hours outside of class speaking it daily. Here’s the reason why: Do you remember how you learned English? Was it in School? No you spoke English fairly well before you even started school, before you ever wrote, and even before you could read. We all started learning by listening, and then emulating. As we emulated, our parents would correct us. Example: Our son has a cursing problem. He’s 3. He says fish like “bish.” Say that out loud and you’ll understand what I mean. He says castle like “astol.” Which is extremely embarrassing when your kid comes in randomly saying **shole to your guests, when all he’s really meaning is “Hey I just built a castle, come look!” He really loves building castles so he says it a lot, A LOT. To fix this problem we correct him when he says it, “No, son. It’s Castle. Ka…Ka…Kaastle.” This works great for 2 reasons, our son is getting better at saying Castle, and our guests don’t think my son just cursed them out. My point in all that is we start by listening to the language, then we start emulating, and as we emulate someone corrects us so we don’t go around accidentally cursing out people. Example: Japanese for cute is Kawaii. Japanese for scary is Kowaii. In Japanese, the difference is very subtle so you need someone to correct you. You don’t want to say to a Japanese lady that her baby is very Kowaii (Scary). That would make you a Castle. 🙂
  6. Learn Hiragana and Katakana. Once you’ve moved to Japan, start off by learning these alphabets. You can easily learn them in a month or two. However, as I mentioned before, you should focus on speaking. As you learn them have a Japanese person there with you. As you begin writing them say them out loud, and have your friend/teacher/volunteer correct you. Write the letter, say the letter, and have them correct your pronunciation. If you go to a regular language school they should start with this anyways, but be careful that you do it the way I mentioned above. The school you may attend, might just teach you how to write it and then for homework have you practice writing it many times. Don’t fall into that trap of just writing. Remember, FOCUS ON SPEAKING. Do the homework, but do it while saying them and while someone corrects your pronunciation!!!
  7. Go to language school, but also go and practice. You might think going to language school is enough. It isn’t. You need at least 30 to 40 hours in the language a week. Language school is probably 4 hours a day 5 times a week. That only equals 20 hours a week! You need to get out and spend another 20 hours in the language. Take time for listening (Japanese radio/TV/Preaching) as well as speaking, but primarily speaking.

If you continue that process you will learn Japanese. Focus on the daily process, and you will learn the language. 

Good sources for your language study


LAMP – Language acquisition made practical by Bruster. Pivotal for Learning Japanese!

Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig. I recommend books 1 and 3.

Apple Apps

Midori – great Japanese dictionary. Don’t bother buying a stand alone electronic dictionary if you have a smart phone. Get this for you iPhone instead.

Kanji Flow – great for learning kanji. Click here for instructions.

Imiwa? – another great dictionary, but also free and comes with Kanji Flow.


Step by step guide to learning Kanji.

Kanji stroke order