The Hardest Writing System! – an animated rant about learning Japanese

The Hardest Writing System! – an animated rant about learning Japanese

Writing Japanese is hard. I know you’re thinking.
Duh, Josh, it’s Japan! When they go in, they go ALL IN! But it’s worse than you think.
It’s ridiculously, ridiculously hard! Growing up, I was a language nut. Look at
me, making this video, guess I still am. Through the years, I spent time learning this script
and these scripts and these ones… some time learning this… and even more with… alright,
you get it. And then I went for Japanese. See, in the
US there’s this flu that goes around. It’s called Japanophilia. Catch it and you’re off
reading manga, watching anime and eating the kind of sushi with the fish that’s on the
top like *slurp*. I was committed though. I headed for the library and straight to the
Japanese books. This was back when the new library was being built, so they were holding
books hostage in this dingy place with no a/c. The books are all shuffled around down
on these low shelves. You know the ones that are below your knee level all on the ground?
So I do my ninja bend and I scan the resources. Fluffy book about Japanese Is For Everybody?
Pass. Easy Japanese In 5 Seconds a Day? Pass. Cartoon-cat-yay-by-the-way-you’ll-learn-some-Japanese-I-promise?
Double pass! But then, there it was: the biggest, the heaviest, the densest textbook in the
entire section. Modern Japanese Book I: Grammar Lessons. It called my name. It said, “Ikimashou!” So I rush home, I bust open the book and it
hits me with… syllables. My first thoughts are, well, the optimist in me comes out and
says, “Oh, these look so fun and Japanesey!” But guess what the pessimist in me said? “That’s
like 76 more symbols than I want to memorize!” Yeah, the pessimist inside me is an oni who’s
a fast counter. The optimist won out. And for good reason.
It was actually less of a hassle than it looked like at first. Just 46 characters in total,
on account of some of the syllables turned out to be duplicates with two little voicing
slashies added to their heads. Even better, I was told this is technically all I needed
to know to write every Japanese sound. That’s all the syllables the language has, thanks
to Japanese being all neat and orderly in the way it lays out syllables. And that’s great! Until I found out that
the friendly syllables are lies. Like when the t+i syllable is actually chi and then
the t+u syllable is tsu. Or when this, this and this actually sound like that and that
and that. The more I read, the more Japanese was saying, “But wait! there’s more!”
More compound syllables, more double consonants, more historical syllables they were hiding
from me and just forgot to mention. Asterisk mark all over the place. But hey, historical spelling and complicated
workarounds. I come from English, baby, and that’s how we write! Plus I just did a whole
rant about Tibetan, so I can handle some clunky syllables. Besides, compared to how Japanese
syllables used to be written, it’s all super regular. So that’s a relief. Without giving me time to breathe, they tell
me that for each one of these syllables, I’m actually going to have to learn two characters.
Yes, Japanese has two syllabaries! The one I spent hours sweating over was HIRAGANA.
These are the same syllables written in KATAKANA. So… are hiragana and katakana for writing
different sounds? Nope. The syllabaries don’t do anything different. Then when do I use
this one or that one? Oh, just keep in mind that they’re used for different syllables
in different contexts. Japanese is very context sensitive after all. Smile! But none of that’s what made Japanese
tough. It’s when they introduce yet another mixed-in script that things start getting
serious. I mean, seriously serious. Roll the clocks back to the day Japan learned
to write. They learned it from China. And learning to write from China meant memorizing
thousands of characters just to read the basics. Yeah, well, unlike other places that learned
their penmanship skills from that formidable cultural powerhouse that was the Middle Kingdom,
Japan held onto its long master list of Chinese characters. Oh, they held onto it real tight!
They’re called KANJI, and they’re the backbone of Japanese. Even those syllabaries
I was learning came from simplified versions of some of these characters. At first they passed this kanji stuff off
as a third native system. You know, you got your hiragana, your katakana, your kanji!
And instead of different characters for different syllables, these are just different characters
for different words. You know, like you learn to say new vocabulary when you’re learning
other languages, with kanji you get to learn to draw your new vocabulary, too! So exciting. That’s when I learned about a dictionary with
more than 50,000 characters to play with! That’s a lot of characters… I think it was
maybe more of a mind game to make me okay with what came next. “Don’t worry!”, I was
told. You could do alright with basic Japanese if you just learned a couple thousand characters.
*Cough* Oh, oh, just a couple thousand?!? I guess I was supposed to say, “Oh, 50,000’s
a lot! In that case, 2000 should be a walk in the zen garden!” Are you not supposed to
walk in those? A comb through the zen garden maybe?? They even downgraded me again, telling
me I could pat myself on the back for just mastering the “basics” if I made it through
the first 1006 characters. A thousand and six. Yeah, this was slow. It
was time consuming. Uh, they started me with the simple real-world examples like trees,
suns and moons. And they looked off but if you squint your eyes you could see it. But
it was more trickery. After a couple hundred, it started to be really clear that most kanji
aren’t drawings of the words I was learning at all. No way! It took me a while, but I
figured out what was going on. They’re like playing charades with somebody
who has a very specific word in mind but refuses to give you any good hints, and the clues
you do get are like way out of date. Like, “One word. Something to do with trees. Ok.
Sounds like… oar!” Got it? Nobody? Nobody? Oh, I’m sorry, the answer was “table”.
See, the thing you missed was that “oar” sounds like “board”, which is an old word
for table. Obviously… Most kanji are this kind of strange combination
of a sounds-like piece with a something-to-do-with piece. Except that the sounds-like might not
sound like the thing it’s supposed to sound like, and the something-to-do-with can have
absolutely nothing logically to do with what the character means. It’s no good waving these complexities aside
by saying that, well, it’s a lot to learn, but at least you’re fundamentally just learning
a character for each basic word. For one, a single character might mean a bunch of different
things when it combos with other characters. It can even mean a bunch of different things
on its own. Even worse for beginners though, there’s more than one way to pronounce almost
every single one of these characters. Japanese is very context sensitive, after all. Wink,
smile. And that’s the problem with kanji: they aren’t
just kanji. They’re a bunch of problems all mixed together. It’s the most bizarrely
complicated writing system within a system ever devised by humankind! And next time I’ll
show you exactly what it was about kanji that really pushed me over the edge. I like having you here spending some time
with me thinking about the world’s toughest writing system. Stick around and subscribe
for language.

100 thoughts on “The Hardest Writing System! – an animated rant about learning Japanese

  • Interestingly enough is that Japanese people are forced to learn 1,000+ kanji characters during their pre-school and Elementary school life.

    And I thought learning Japanese will be easy.😑

  • honestly I think japanese writing is easier than english. yeah there's more symbols to memorize but honestly that makes it a lot easier to read than if it were just hiragana or something. it lets you know (for the most part) what words are main nouns or concepts, what words are grammatical words, and what words are foreign words or names. also kanji may seem horrible for having multiple readings but so does everything about english and they're basically like memorizing english prefixes or suffixes or latin roots etc., and honestly they do a better job of letting someone who may not be familiar with the word know the meaning.

  • Arabic
    have deferent writing system
    and rest are write in Latin alphabet

  • الحمدالله إني اتكلم باللغة العربية، اغلب لغات نظام حروفها لاتينية؛ وهذا يجعل اغلب لغات سهله ( اقصد اللي نظام حروفهم لاتينية)، انا اقدر اتحدث باللغة الإنجليزية والفرنسية والتركية لان نطام حروفهم لاتينية! 🙄 شكله نسى ان اللغة العربية نظام حروفها مختلف 🤦🏻‍♀️

  • I'm watching this video with tears in my eyes… I did this to myself…. I could have learned Portuguese instead 😭

  • Now you get to DRAW your new vocabulary, too!


    (Unpopular opinion, that’s actually how I’ve been feeling about kanji since I started learning. … a decade ago lmao)

  • Man, you making these videos fun to listen to (and watch). I'm not really a linguist, but your these are so compelling I can't stop watching 🙂 I give it up to those who chimed in that Koreans did something really smart awhile ago. My daughter learned to read out Korean even though she doesn't know that many words. Trivial, compared to Mandarin (breaks her mom's heart when she said she'd rather learn Korean than Chinese). Sigh…

  • All bollox.

    Non off you have ever had to read my doctors writing.

    Bloody though i had years befo…./—^—/____________________

  • Looking back on me being in my Japanese class and looking at all of this makes me smile. I can’t believe I went from not knowing much but only some characters to finally knowing how to make a simple sentence and actually speak to someone.

  • I still wonder why Japan didn't modernise its writing system, for a Western Latin one

  • 日本語は正書法がない。漢字でもかなでもいいからだ。しかもかな書きの方が分かりやすいとは言い切れないから、この問題点は悩ましい。

  • 確かに、こういうアニメみると日本語って難しいんだなぁって再認識させられるよねぇ…

  • I'm not going to lie. Japanese is hard…but it's CLEARLY not as hard as some other languages. You talk about this like it's as hard as Tibetan….it really isn't.

  • 日本人だけど、正直あんまり日本語わかってない👍日本語は日本人でも理解していないところがあります🙏

  • Japanese is extremly simple when it comes to sentence building. It starts being annoying when you learn the use of "desu ka". It starts feeling unnecessarily filled with certain words you could easily avoid with tone of voice. In both english and japanese you will add a word signifying a question. "Desu ka" in jap and completely rearrange the word in english to turn it into a question. What I love about my language PL is that there's neither of those. When you want to ask about something you just put the sentence:
    actionANDsubject+object+? (they are not a seperate part of a sentence, action defines the subject, example:
    "kupiłeś"-you (male) bought
    "Kupiłaś"-you (female) bought
    "Kupiłem"-I bought)
    "kupiłeś chleb."-you bought bread.
    "Kupiłeś chleb ? "-did you buy bread? The question mark should be well enough to understand written intention, and questioning tone for verbal intention.

  • Very entertaining way to present what most would consider intellectually strenuous work. In my never-ending efforts to learn more and more of the Thai language, I try to inspire myself to continue by emphasizing the intellectual strengthening of my mind even if for no other reason.

  • Being a native Mandarin speaker for 25 years, there're still words I don't fucking understand at all, like廞、黇、趶、蕿、鴏、褭、鼁、楛、忀、蟿、峑、鼛,like, what the fuck are these?I don't even know how to pronounce any of these. and I'm pretty sure 95% of native speakers don't even know what these bullshits are, and the list goes on for 10000 more. but calm your buttholes, you only need about 4000 for your entire life, the others are basically ignorable.髁、陎、銵、齞、镎、萚,for real, what the fuck are these, did our ancestors invented these just to fuck with us? who the fuck know all these things?
    放心啦,你只要懂得三四千個字大概就能用一輩子了,其它的字幾乎永遠用不上 <3

  • Japanese is fun! Never boring. There's only three kana that are not pronounced as was originally intended.

    You forgot Romaji. Japanese are so adept at so many 'characters', it's nothing to add our letters and numbers into the mix as well.

    At least the calligraphy is artistically inclined [like Arabic etc.] – where as Egyptian with all the different birds and Mayan hieroglyphs are not as quick to do.

  • Hiragana/Katakana are kinda like lower/upper case in latin alphabet. It's not weird to have two sets of characters for same sounds.

  • I didnt find difficult to learn the two syllabaria, the Evolution of language Just changed the pronunciation of some syllables. Ha, o are pronounced like that when they are particles, but not Always. But kanji yeah… They usually represent a word or a piece of a concept of a word and they change pronunciation according to the context… I even heard that they can be false friends with chinese symbols! Exactly like false friends in european languages. But then again, the useful kanji are around 3000 and it's difficult but not the most difficult… plus more and more kanji are getting substituted by kana. For me you just gave too importance to pronunciation and how to transform It in writing… If you start from pronunciation then the language with the further pronunciation from the writing Is the hardest to write according to me (like danish or tibetan like you said in other videos). Obviously kanji dont represent a sound so i wouldnt count them. Have you Heard about kazak language? It can be written in latin alphabet, cirillic alphabet and Arabian alphabet, even if they are promoting a latin-based alphabet. That would be difficult for me… Because you must be equally good in reading and writing 3 alphabets… Interesting video!

  • Basically with Japanese you just have to learn two totally different languages: one written one spoken. Funny thing is sometimes I totally forget a word,but still remember how its written. Wish they would just stick to Kana. It'd make Japanese so much quicker to learn.

  • 日本と台湾はある程度漢字筆談で会話が成り立つというのが利点、言葉は全く違うのに。

  • The Video is so well made, but if you are learning Kanji readings your learning Method just sucks. You don't benefit from knowing the individual readings, you need to learn words or even bettter: sentences in which the Kanji is used (and with which other Kanjis). The best way to do this is to read (you just need accept that you won't understand much in the beginning).
    Reading doesn't work by reading all the single characters in a word. There are good exanples of that online just google: "reading mixed up words". The same goeas for any Language… Just immerse for 1-2h a day in native media and give it 5-7 years… You'll surely know 2000+ Kanji. Of course an SRS is key here to drill them into your long term memory.

  • I actually know a way to write japanese and chinese without chinese characters, but I might get killed for it so it is a secret 😛

  • 確かに日本語は高校でさえ漢字を習うくらいで文字の量が多いから難しいかもしれないなぁ

  • Trying to learn any or more conscious spoken language isn't going to get you any closer to yourself though. How about you learn to speak your own language and start just loving yourself then you might start to realize you don't need spoken words to communicate with the world around you.

  • Sha:
    All of them mean different meanings but are all pronounced “Sha”

  • Poor me struggling to learn Italian already knowing two romance languages (Portuguese and Spanish), and dreaming of one day learning Japanese. I guess I'll just give up lmao.

  • 漢字なんか一日三文字暗記で年間千文字、二年で二千文字も学べば、ほぼ日本での日常生活は事足りる。君達難しく考え過ぎ。

  • I took Japanese for 4 years and it honestly gets so easy after you understand the basic kangi and hirigana. Also Katakana is only really used in Japan when People wanna be fancy or when Japanese people wanna say English or Foreign words in a Japanese style . Like for example Car Wash in Katakana would be カー・ウォッシュ. While in Japanese Car Wash would be 洗車( Kangi) , せんしゃ ( Hirigana), and Sensha ( Romaji). I honestly think the hardest part about learning Japanese isn't the vocabulary and how to write it and how to pronounce it ; since Japanese has the same core vowels ( A I U E O ) in all of the letters ( A I U E O , Ka KI KU KE Ko for example ) . It is sentence structure and those damn fucking particles. I hate fucking particles. 😠

  • I'm JUST getting started with Japanese, but so far, it's really not as bad as you describe here. I see you're points but they seem exaggerated. (Maybe for comedy?)I really enjoyed the video, but I worry you're scaring people off learning a really cool language?

  • It's really not as hard as you make it sound as long as you find the right system to learn it with. I mean, not the hiragana or katakana at least. The kanji takes time but it can be really enjoyable to see how it builds off of itself when learning vocabulary.

  • Japan just took the "keep it simple stupid" strategy, beat it to death with a kanabo and flushed it down the talking toilet

  • Dude if you cut out your crappy engaging style and get to the fucking point, it would be a lot helpful and make people watch more videos.

  • みんなの日本語を勉強する経験はいつも違うんですが、私なら本当に難しくないです。誰でも我慢して絶対に出来ると思います。破けちゃダメ〜 諦めるのは下らねぇ

  • learn romanian. what you say, how it sounds and how you write it. are all the same. grammar is hard, though.

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