While at a Christmas dinner party recently, I was asked the standard American icebreaker:
“So, what do you do?”
“I’m a linguist and an author who writes about language learning.”
“Oh? What languages do you speak?”
“I’ve dabbled in a few, but I mostly focus on Japanese.”
“Wow, that’s a really hard language! You must be really smart.”
I knew this exclamation was coming since it’s the same response I almost always get when talking about language learning, but it still makes me cringe every time. Many people, even those who have never studied the language, assume that ① Japanese is difficult, and ② you have to be really smart to learn it.
So is Japanese difficult? And does it require great intelligence?
Two distinct groups of people like to believe that the answer to both is a resounding “yes”:
- On the one extreme, it gives an easy “out” to those with limiting self-beliefs:
“I’d love to learn Japanese, but I’m just not good at languages.”
- On the other extreme, it allows some to carry a smug sense of prestige for accomplishing the supposedly herculean feat of learning Japanese:
“I don’t know if you heard, but I learned to speak Japanese fluently, so I’m kind of a big deal.”
The reason I cringe is that both of these beliefs are fundamentally flawed. The truth is that anyone with even moderate intelligence can learn a language.
Language acquisition is a matter of exposure and practice, not intelligence.
You don’t need:
- A high IQ.
- Good grades in language classes.
- A degree in Linguistics.
You do need:
- The discipline to put in consistent time and effort.
- The courage to face uncertainty and ambiguity.
- The belief that you can learn Japanese.
Maintaining sufficient discipline, courage, and positivity day in and day out is actually the difficult part of learning Japanese. Understanding the language itself, by comparison, is often far easier. In fact, many aspects of Japanese are refreshingly easy, especially when compared with supposedly “easier” Romance languages like Spanish. See my guest post Is Japanese hard? on Fluent in 3 Months for a list of many ways in which Japanese is easier than you might think.
I refuse to call Japanese “difficult.” And so should you. I will concede that Japanese is quite different from English, but we shouldn’t conflate “different” with “difficult.” Some may consider this mere semantics, but framing matters: how you think about a language—and your ability to learn it—makes a massive difference. If you think a language will be difficult to learn, it will be. If you think instead that it’s simply unfamiliar and will soon become familiar with enough practice, your language learning journey will be a heck of a lot more fun. You will look upon language practice as a treat instead of a chore.
If you combine a positive attitude with enough practice, any language (no matter how different it may be from your native language) will eventually become familiar. Bit by bit, the language will start to feel more and more natural. You will eventually reach unconscious competence, the stage at which you can understand and speak without having to consciously process every word and structure. And then you, too, will see through the myth that Japanese is difficult or requires great intelligence. I just hope this doesn’t ruin dinner parties for you…