It’s because it’s hard to learn to read and write. The FSI measure of proficiency comprises “General Professional Proficiency in Speaking” and “General Professional Proficiency in Reading”. The Japanese writing system is by far the most difficult in the world to master.
I’ve been learning Japanese for many years and am functionally illiterate in the language. And of course, being unable to read cuts you off from the ability to learn from written materials.
I think Indonesian/Malay has got to be easier than Vietnamese for a typical native English speaker. Vietnamese is a tonal language, and many of its phonemes are also significantly different from English.
Japanese is also, as I understand (I’ve taken several years of Japanese but only a few weeks of Chinese) much more difficult to speak with social appropriateness - I’d taken the language for a year, and then all of a sudden we learn that there’s a lot more to it than that, different verbs for speaking to people above you and below you, etc. Chinese is tonal, yes, but has IIRC a pretty simple grammar. And of course with Japanese you have to not only learn to read and write Chinese characters but also two other syllabic alphabets.
As a spoken language, Japanese is actually probably quite simple. There isn’t a lot of contractions, little to no irony, not a lot of different ways to say the same thing, the rules of grammar aren’t all that large, and there are only a small set of phonetic sounds necessary.
The written language, however, is quite evil.
There are two syllable-based phonetic alphabets that you need to know, plus the entirety of the Chinese character set, except that each Chinese character is given at least an average of 3 separate pronunciations and there’s no real rule for what those pronunciations will be. You just have to remember mass quantities of information.
The following character can be pronounced in any of the indicated ways:
生 - nama, sei, shou, hae, ha, i, na, u, o, fu, and ki
I’m nowhere near fluent (mostly because I didn’t put a lot of effort into it), but I didn’t find learning Korean all that difficult… at least to my level of fluency. After a couple of months I could get around Seoul without any big problems, ask for what I wanted in restaurants and stores, tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go, hassle pretty girls in bars. What else do you need?
Grammar. Chinese grammar is fairly straightforward. Really the tone thing isn’t that bad- you can learn to distinguish tones in one afternoon. Think about as learning the difference between “desert” and “dessert,” but for every word.
From what I understand, Japanese grammar is not only tricky, but it keeps getting more and more intricate the more you learn.
I study Mandarin, and have experimented with Japanese friends by going through my character books and asking them how many they know - it’s typically only about one out of three. This seems to fit with their estimate that they probably know in the neighborhood of 2000 of them, while I’m given to understand that in Mandarin to be functionally literate one needs to know somewhere around 6000.
For the easiest, I would definitely nominate Bahasa Indonesia. It’s a modern language, standardized in the 70s, with one tense and fairly sensible grammatical rules. The spelling and pronunciation is also very easy, with each letter having (pretty much) just one sound associated with it.
Grammatically, Korean and Japanese are fairly similar. Phonetically, they’re very close too, but Japanese has slightly fewer sounds. It’s really the writing that makes the difference between the two. You’ll need at most a few days to learn the Korean alphabet. You’ll need at least a few years to become functionally literate in Japanese.
Both languages, though, are structured in a completely different fashion from English. This means that to really become fluent, you have to significantly alter the way you structure your thoughts.
the trickiest part of Japanese, as has been mentioned, is not just that the grammar is structured in the opposite way of English (whereas Chinese the grammar is not only simpler, but it’s structured the same way as English. Example being in English you say “I will go to the park” whereas in Japanese you say “I to the park will go”) so you have to structure your thoughts differently, but there are also so many different levels of familiarity/formality to deal with. I cannot, for the life of me, understand Keigo, which is a very subservient and formal way of speaking, and it’s all very roundabout and difficult for a foreigner. Plus so much of the language is implied. You often don’t say the subject (so instead of “I will go to the park” you just say “to the park will go” and the “I” is just implied. That’s an easy example, but it gets FAR more complicated) so when speaking to native japanese people you often are left in the dust as to who/what the hell they’re talking about.
I second the grammar aspect - you have to adjust your brain a bit. But also Japanese has a large number of homophones, so in that respect it can be confusing to listen to. Also, the kanji have a few different pronunciations, depending on context, which also take a long time to learn.
I don’t know if it’s the hardest, but I know it’s not easy.
I study Japanese, so I’ll say straight-away I’m biased in some fashion.
In terms of speaking/listening, Japanese isn’t really that bad. Once I started studying seriously, I picked it up pretty fast. I’m faaaar from naturalized fluency, but I am functionally fluent in anything that’s not a business/formal situation. Yes, keigo is a pain and there are a lot of homophones, but it’s not so bad. For me, it was a matter of getting my brain to operate differently. I actually remember the moment it happened,and I swear I felt a ‘click’ in my brain. So, to add detail to my general statement above, the first two-three years of Japanese study (outside immersion) can be painful, but once an epiphany is reached.
In terms of speaking, I always imagine Chinese to be much harder. Certainly Chinese also has homophones and some type of formal register?
For writing, it’s complicated. Chinese has many many more characters, however from what I understand, each character has one and only one pronunciation, barring a few exceptions. Japanese requires about 3000 characters for fluency, but each character can have 2+ ways of reading it aloud, and there are some rules but they are far from strict.
Honestly, people make too big a deal out of the sheer number amount of characters. I’ve been studying intensely for a few months now, and once you get going, learning the meaning, stroke order, and perhaps 1 pronunciation isn’t so hard. It’s knowing how to pronounce the character in different word combinations that’s insanely frustrating.
Soooo, I’d say Chinese is harder spoken, but Japanese is harder to read and write.
I’ll third that bahasa Indonesian/Malay is an easy language for an English-speaker to learn.
Roman alphabet, a-tonal, only present tense, simple prepositions, only one way to pronounce each letter. No articles. It’s a stripped-down, basic language. In the “I will go to the park” example, in Bahasa you say “saya pergi ke park”, or “I go to park”.
Each word is phonetically spelled and has an accent marking the correct tone, though, so once you’ve learned how to pronounce each tone (which as an earlier poster said, really only takes a day or two), you can just start memorizing words out of a vocab list. The grammer is pretty straightforward as well, much easier then English, IMHO.
The main problem I had learning Vietnamese was due to the fact that, because so many of their words vary only in tone, the Vietnamese sense of humor ends up being really reliant on puns. This is confusing as hell if your not sure of the language and trying to follow conversations with people who are joking around by purposely mispronouncing things.
“How many characters does Chinese have?
A Sea of Chinese Characters published in 1994 by Leng Yulong and Wei Yixin lists more than 85,000 characters. However, many of the characters in large dictionaries like this are variant forms of other characters. For example, Hanyu Da Zidian another large dictionary published in the 1980’s, has 56,000 characters. While the total number of characters is overwhelming, many of them also have overlapping meanings. For practical purpose, one only needs to have a small repertoire to be able to read and write adequately. It is said that it is only necessary to learn 2,000 characters to be able to understand 94% of all newspaper articles and books. An average educated person masters about 3,500 to 5,000 characters and can function properly in daily life and work.”
“Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying things like “Despite the fact that Chinese has [10,000, 25,000, 50,000, take your pick] separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to read a newspaper”. Poppycock. I couldn’t comfortably read a newspaper when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up several characters per line, and even after that I had trouble pulling the meaning out of the article.”
4000 is a bit too high a number. Level 2 of the Kanji proficiency test requires you to know the jouyou kanji (1945 characters) + the jinmeiyou kanji (284 characters). Pre-level 1 requires you to know about 3000 characters. However, level 2 is probably the highest level college-educated native speakers could be expected to pass.
Chinese does indeed have tons of homophones. Since all words are pretty much compound words, this can be really confusing for a beginner. At first you can’t reliably pick up the general meaning from a conversation using key words the way you can with other languages.
This is the definitive article on why it is so difficult to learn Chinese.
Personally, I’ve given up on literacy. If I study several hours a day, it may after a year or two to read a newspaper. Whats the point? My time would be better spent spending time with real Chinese people.