Should I learn Japanese?

Over the years, I (Niko) have read thousands of emails from fellow students interested in learning the Japanese language. Something calls out to them, be it the culture of Japan, the people, or the language itself. And they want to answer that call.

But they don't know if it's "smart," "practical," or "worth it."

After all, only about 128 million people speak Japanese, not nearly as much as, say, Chinese. Or Spanish. Or English.

Does this mean that learning Japanese is a less valuable pursuit? Will it not improve your career prospects? Should you just give up on it now?


It depends.

You shouldn't let someone else decide whether or not you should learn Japanese.

After all…

Advice is autobiography.

What might be best for someone else is only rarely what's best for you.

Furthermore, what they say is the best for you or them may not be accurate because of confirmation bias.

The near future is a mystery. We are at an unprecedented time in human history, and none of us know what the world is going to look like in ten, twenty, thirty years.

We are told...

…don't learn Japanese. Learn an easier language, like Spanish.

But even if you learn Spanish, the knowledge might not be all that valuable. There are already hundreds of millions of bilingual Spanish-English speakers, so speaking Spanish has limited impact as a unique professional skill. The same is true of Chinese, the so-called "most practical" language to learn for career advancement.

…don't learn any language. Computers will be able to translate everything soon.

Let's say that's true, and computers start translating all kinds of content from Japanese into English.

People will still be watching Japanese shows in the original Japanese, hating the English dubs, the English subs, and dreaming of the day they could enjoy this content in its original form.

Imagine there was a little device you could put in your ear to get all Japanese translated automatically.

Are you happy to miss out on the chance to think in a different way? To have thoughts in a format that used to be inaccessible to you?

Are you content not to show some of the amazing people you meet in Japan that you worked very hard just for a chance to talk to them, to hear about their world from their voice?

I don't know if you should learn Japanese. It's not my place to say what is a valuable use of your precious, finite time on this planet. I can tell you this, though:

I've never regretted studying something because I was hungry to learn it.

If you really want to learn Japanese, then I can't imagine that you'll regret studying it, either... unless, of course, you study for just a bit and then give up.

So, should you learn Japanese?

Someone else cannot be the one to say whether you should learn Japanese. But we can make some pretty good guesses based on what is attracting you to the language.

Like I said, I can't be the one to say whether you should learn Japanese. But I can guess whether you should based on what is attracting you to the language.

Should you learn Japanese if…
...someone you love speaks Japanese, and you want to communicate with them better?
— Yes. love Japanese anime, and you want to watch it without subtitles?
— Yes. love Japanese light novels, video games, or manga, and you don't want to wait around for translations?
— Yes. want to get a good job, and you think Japanese skill might be a good asset?
— No. It's too difficult to predict whether Japanese language skills will be a valuable asset in, say, ten or twenty years. have a trip to Japan planned, and you want to be able to get around comfortably?
— Maybe. If you're just worried about getting around, English is fine in many cases. That said, the first 30 or so units of Phase One don't take all that much time to complete, and they are filled with travel language that would certainly make your trip more enjoyable. have moved to Japan, and you will likely continue to live in Japan for many years, whether it's for work, family reasons, or whatever?
— Yes. Living in Japan is exponentially more enjoyable if you speak Japanese. Aside from daily living being more enjoyable, you are less likely to be excluded from a variety of activities due to your lack of Japanese ability. I have gotten many Japanese friends to admit that they would not have invited me to certain parties or other events if I couldn't speak Japanese because they would not have wanted to make their friends or family feel pressured to use English.

At the end of the day, it's your decision.

But it certainly doesn't hurt to give it a shot.

And if you do decide not to learn Japanese, please don't say that it's because of "practicality," which is in most cases little more than an excuse to not do something intimidating.

As for me, it certainly wasn't practical to dive into learning this language as an unemployed twenty-something. But it changed my life in more ways than I can count. I wouldn't have my wife and kids, my friends, or just about any aspect of my career without it.

When I started, though, it was just because I thought it sounded fun. And so did Ty, whose life has similarly been changed completely by learning it.

Life is full of surprises.