For native English speakers trying to learn Japanese, there are many challenges to face. As a native English speaker, you will not only have to get used to a new language—you will also have to learn new pronunciations, new sentence structures, and three new writing systems. The task appears daunting to many at first, but with focus and a lot of practice, anyone can make the transition from English to Japanese.
Pronunciation is probably the smallest challenge a native English speaker will face when learning Japanese. There are not many sounds in the Japanese language that English does not have an equivalent for, but there are some difficult sounds. The most difficult Japanese sound for English speakers is the Japanese “r.” The Japanese “r” sound resembles a combination of the English “l” and “r.” Keep in mind, the Japanese language does not have an “l” sound like English does. The “r”s in Japanese act as a fusion of the two English letters. The result is a kind of rolling “r” sound, as in Spanish, but not as harsh sounding. The Japanese “r” sound is very soft and gentle. The best way to learn this sound is by listening to a recording of it and then practicing it on your own!
Another sound that’s difficult to master when moving from English to Japanese is the sound that is Romanized as “fu.” The hiragana symbol for this sound is ふ. This symbol appears in the “h” row of hiragana, but this particular symbol sounds more like the English “h” and “f” combined together. Once again, it is best to listen to a recording of the alphabet in order to get this pronunciation down!
There are a couple of other pronunciation notes that native English speakers should be aware of. First, the symbol しis Romanized as “shi” but should be pronounced as the English word “she” is pronounced. Sometimes this symbol is actually a whispered symbol, but that depends on how it appears in the word. For examples, the word して(Romanized as “shite”) should be pronounced with a whispered “i,” almost as if the word was actually “shte.” Second, the symbol をis Romanized as “wo” but is actually pronounced as “oh.” This is the same pronunciation as the symbol おwhich is Romanized as “o.” These two symbols are very commonly confused, so watch out for them!
A big difficulty experienced by native European speakers who go from English to Japanese (or any European language to Japanese) is the sentence structure. Japanese sentences occur in subject-object-verb structure; English sentences occur in subject-verb-object structure. When trying to learn Japanese for the first time, many people have a hard time remembering that the sentence structure is almost backwards from English. English speakers have to learn to trick their brains into thinking in a different order than usual. The alternative is to formulate sentences in your head in English first, and then translate those into Japanese and move words into the correct position. This technique is often utilized by beginners. Practice is all it takes to get used to this sentence structure, but it is confusing at first.
The biggest difficulty faced when transitioning from English to Japanese is the need to learn and master three symbolic writing systems. None of the Japanese alphabets are based on the Roman characters of European languages; instead, symbols function as syllables and sometimes even entire words. This is extremely confusing to new learners, and it just takes a lot of getting used to. The Japanese language has hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Each of these systems is distinct. The two that are the easiest to learn are the kana alphabets: hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is used to write all native Japanese words. Katakana is used to write foreign words that have been adapted into the Japanese language. All borrowed words are written with katakana, never with hiragana. Likewise, every single native Japanese word can be written in hiragana. Both of these alphabets consist of the same syllable sounds. The only differences are the symbols used to represent each syllable.
Kanji is the third symbolic writing system, and it is by far the most complicated. Kanji is made up of over 50,000 symbols that can stand for words, ideas, or entire concepts. These symbols are also more complicated (in most cases) than the symbols used for the two kana alphabets. Luckily, only 2,000-3,000 kanji symbols are actually considered to be “every day” use kanji. These are the kanji that are essential, but it doesn’t hurt to learn as many kanji as possible. It is also important to note that not all words written in hiragana can be written in kanji, but all words that can be written in kanji can also be written in hiragana.
Practice is the easiest way to overcome all of the difficulties discussed previously. However, there are other ways to jump the kanji hurdle. If you happen to run across a kanji symbol you do not know while in Japan, you can ask to have it written out in hiragana. You may know the word, but not the kanji symbols. Even if you do not know the word when it is written out in hiragana, you can use the hiragana symbols to look the word up in a dictionary. This is less of a problem if you are studying on your own or in a classroom, but it is still a good idea to figure out what unfamiliar kanji symbols are. More than likely, you will probably see that same kanji again. Another way you can figure out what a kanji symbol means is to try and estimate how many strokes are in the character. Most dictionaries have a list at the front with common kanji and their translations organized by the number of strokes. You can always try to look them up on these lists.
Several problems with transitioning from English to Japanese exist, but keep in mind that you should never let difficulties keep you from reaching your goals. Native English speakers can definitely learn Japanese, despite the problems and challenges they may have to face in order to do so. Do not let adversity scare you away!