Is Japanese really the hardest to learn E.Asian language, and Vietnamese the easiest?

Yeah but I’m talking about how many people “know”, not how many they have to pass on a proficiency test. Everything I’ve ever seen has said about 4000. And the characters a person knows, in the end, comes from acquaintance rather than studying for a test. I probably know 2000 characters (by sight), but I doubt that I know more than two thirds of the 2000 you are supposed to know. Not being able to pass the test doesn’t mean that I don’t know 2000 characters, it just means that I read manga not government releases.

But the kanken requires you to have a massive amount of vocabulary and usage information for each character.

I consider myself to know 3000+ characters, by which I mean that I know their meanings, most common readings, and commonly used vocabulary. Using that standard, I think that a college-educated native speaker knows upwards of 4000 characters.

Does ‘most people’ here refer to native speakers of Japanese? If so, then we agree that they do not know ‘the entirety of the Chinese character set’, as was previously claimed.

In my opinion it’s mostly grammar and registers, with a heaping helping of writing on the side.

For one thing, Japanese is an SOV language, whereas English is SVO. There are more languages which use SOV word order than SVO, but English only uses that kind of construction for poetic license (or when talking like Yoda you want) but even then the structure is dissimilar to SOV languages since English uses prepositions instead of post-positional markers, and meaning is often coded in word order, as opposed to being more free-form and using various markers to clarify meaning.

One of the things that still trips me up sometimes is that the extra information comes before the thing you’re explaining, rather than after. For example, “The car I bought yesterday is green.” In Japanese order that would be something like, “Yesterday bought car green is.” You have to remember that the details come before the topic, and sometimes my mouth runs away with the subject before my brain remembers to switch the order, so the sentence is all garbled and back-asswards.

Going the other way, I’ve gotten lost because the person takes forever to get to the bloody subject (if it’s even stated instead of being left out or implied) and I’ve forgotten what the point is by then. At least I’m not completely alone there. Native speakers sometimes lose track of what the subject is; I’ve personally seen it happen a few times.

Then you get into the levels of politeness and formality that people mentioned before. Keigo and sonkeigo can be so complicated that native speakers have to formally study to use them properly. I actually have a better grasp of it than some of the teenagers and college-aged people around me. Employers in the service industries typically have etiquette classes for new employees to review proper polite forms in speech, among other things.

The only similarity Chinese and Japanese have is the writing, which was an import superimposed upon a language that is from a completely different family of languages from the Han-related languages. One of the reasons there are so many pronunciations for the characters is because this fundamental difference between the languages, and because there were a couple of different time periods when they were adopted.

Since the War, simplifications have changed the respective written forms, so many of the characters are not mutually intelligible anymore. Some characters are combinations that exist only in Japan. Things written with the old pre-War characters are very roughly understandable across the languages, but you have to know the old forms, which many younger people do not.

I don’t have any personal knowledge of Chinese, but from what I understand, Chinese uses the same word order as English most of the time, and the grammar is reportedly less complicated in some respects; no definite/indefinite articles, no plural forms. There are also many fewer ways to read characters. I believe that most characters have only one possible reading in Mandarin.

Sage Rat’s example for Japanese is not atypical. The fewest number of readings is usually two, but there could be a bunch of different meanings, all of which depend on context or in-depth knowledge to get right.

And even then it’s guesswork. Names or regional pronunciations are sometimes so idiosyncratic that even native speakers won’t have a clue about how to read it without asking a local. My Japanese wife didn’t know how to read some of the names in the area I live in when she first came here, and while it’s rural I’m in the same general region as Tokyo. There’s a regular game show where (admittedly not very bright sometimes) celebrities have to guess the reading of various words, or write the proper characters from a pronunciation.

Even fairly well-educated people screw up occasionally, or just plain don’t know all the possible characters you could use in a situation. A friend of mine who worked in a Japanese company related how one of the guys who studied Chinese at university screws with co-workers’ heads by writing notes that no one else can read. Admittedly, that’s not too far off from deliberately writing something in academic or lawyerese, but in this case you wouldn’t even be able to sound out the words without a dictionary.

Oh yeah, and your dictionary would be organized in an arbitrary way that sometimes depends on a knowledge of the etymology and structure of the character. Have fun looking up something with a lost radical that’s listed in the traditional category instead of the simplified version.

I’ll just note that I never found the word ordering in Japanese difficult. (Nor putting the adjective after the noun in French.)

But in both those cases I learned by talking. Maybe people who learn in a more book-based format have issues because they have more free time to think about what they’re saying?

I also don’t find keigo to be particularly difficult. I don’t speak it nor understand it, but its rules are perfectly formalised and memorable via rote study. There’s just not much chance to see it being used in practice and very little reason to learn it unless you intend to become a salesman or a flight attendant.

Damn straight, and applies to Japanese as well.

One of the current popular game shows in Japan includes a language section where the contestants have to write out (in phonetic characters) how a particular kanji is pronounced, or vice-versa. While the first few generally pretty easy (hell, I can do them), it’s amazing to see just how quickly the contestants (who are invariably all TV personalities, and presumably accustomed to the pressure) crash and burn. One that stood out was a newscaster who couldn’t write the character for her own show.

Recent technological innovations have made things a lot easier. Previously, if I encountered a word (which is typically a pair of kanji) I didn’t recognize, I had to:

  1. count the strokes in the first kanji
  2. go to an online lookup site or flip open my kanji book (after some practice, the book was often the faster option)
  3. find the right kanji
  4. go to that kanji’s information page and find how it’s pronounced and what it means
  5. type it out phonetically at an online dictionary (always separate from the kanji lookup site) and hope my computer recognizes what I’ve typed and offers the kanji I want as a possible rendering (if not, return to step 4)
    6-10. return to step 1 and do the same for the second kanji.
  6. enter the pair of kanji into the online dictionary to get an English translation. Often it’s faster to simply look up the first kanji in a real dictionary (always different from the kanji book) and skim through until you find the full word.

But now there are plenty of electronic dictionaries and other devices that let me write the character on a touchpad with a stylus (or on my computer screen with a mouse), and then show the information I need automatically. This cuts out at least 7 steps, and reduces the number of tools needed from 2 or 3 to just 1.

The question, however, is does this ease of use makes you more likely to learn the language by eliminating the tedious hunt and peck process, or less likely to learn by giving you a convenient crutch that pops out an instant answer whenever you want? Already, many native speakers will tell you that they have a harder time writing kanji by hand because word processors have made it so easy; they can recognize the characters once written, but when having to create them from scratch they draw a blank.

Neither do I. Most of the time. But every once in a while I’ll have a brain fart or fumble what I want to say. It’s not a difficulty you’d run into with most European languages at all, which is why relative to those languages I’d consider Japanese more difficult. I did Spanish in high school and even as an indifferent student was able to carry on halfway decent conversations after a year or two of study. It took me a year of living here after a year of university study before I felt particularly confident about Japanese.

It’s not so much the mechanics as when it’s appropriate to use which particular level of politeness. You have to internalize a bunch of social and cultural rules along with the words and forms. If it’s hard even for native speakers, it’s sure as hell hard for second language learners.

Knowing how to use polite forms well is necessary for advancement beyond a certain level. A close friend works at a Japanese company. He is a non-native but fluent speaker of Japanese. He has been berated for not using the right level of politeness at the right times. He doesn’t work in the service industry, but in the regular office, and yet keigo is considered to be quite important.

I’m Chinese but would consider English to be more my native tongue. I grew up in a Chinese environment and speak Chinese to older relatives so my speaking/hearing abilities are far greater than my reading/writing.

The difficulties of Chinese is the seemingly random tonal differences when speaking. In Chinese, each word can be pronounced 1 of 4 ways, with the inflection either rising, level, falling then rising, and falling. Formally, every word has one pronounciation. However, there are exceptions, and with a tonal language, when tones change, meanings change. To a native Chinese speaker, it would be pretty easy to distinguish meaning from the context despite weird tones, but much harder for a non-native speaker

For example, in English, the words “a” and “an” are used in front of a word depending on what that word begins with. “A” is used for consonants, “an” is used for vowels. Its the same thing for the word “the”, where in front of consonants it sounds normal, and in front of vowels it sounds like “thee”. In Chinese, imagine that rule randomly distributed for like a quarter of the words you’re speaking

Many people know that for native Japanese speakers, they have a hard time distinguishing the “r” sound from the “l” sound, so that the words “right” and “light” sounds the same to them. I think that difficulty is magnified in Chinese where sounds are so similar and produce different words when slightly different. And dont get me started on looking words up in a dictionary. A Chinese dictionary is a torture device :smack:

Do you think that’s a product of computers/cell phones these days, or maybe that most people just don’t write much in general or something? I asked a native friend of mine to remind me of the writing of sleep (neru 寝る), and when she wrote it I realized she had forgotten one of the little brackets inside. I guess it could have been a brain fart moment, and were it on a test maybe she would have been more careful with it, but it’s just not likely that a native English speaker would misspell the word sleep.

I assume you’re aware that there are hanzi that are not kanji, ie characters in Chinese that aren’t used in Japanese.

Technically, I believe they’re all used (in the sense that they all have a set on-yomi for Japanese and could be used in a text if the author so wished.) Call me a masochist, but I’ve always kinda wanted to buy a set of these (50k+ kanji).

I’ve also always been interested by the kokuji, the kanji invented in Japan by Japanese and not found in China (for the most part).

Yes, I’ve seen a pole where a large majority of people reported that the ratio of characters they could write versus those they could read had decreased because of their computer usage.

It’s interesting to note that computers often lead people to use more obscure characters they certainly wouldn’t have used in handwriting. I heard a commentator say “when Mishima used an unusual character, it’s because his knowledge of the Japanese language was unrivalled. Nowadays, when a kid uses the same character, it’s just because it popped up in a computer menu and looked neat.”

Technically, at least as far as the school curriculum is concerned, kanbun is a sub-set of Classical Japanese, which means that Classical Chinese is actually a sub-set of Japanese. Technically.

Since we’re talking about the most difficult language, kanbun probably makes Classical Japanese the most difficult language to read ever devised. Add to that hentaigana and widespread use of cursive scripts

chinese is an extremely logical language. That is if you know character a and know character b, you can have a reasonably good chance of guessing the meaning of character a + character b. Eg, air + machine = plane or air + machine + field = airport.

Chinese grammer is very simplistic and virtually no exceptions. For example, verb conjugations are a breeze. One says the verb + “past tense” and voila it’s past tense. The past tense modifer works for every verb. Ditto for present tense. So, one just has to learn all the different tense modifiers and add them to the verb and it works every time (maybe there is an exception but I can’t think of one off hand.)

tones are a bitch, but spoken Chinese uses the di-syallabic construction. Eg, you say two words when one would work. Eg. say " go out" instead of “go.” It’s much more clear once you get used to this.

Written Chinese is a complete and total bitch. 2,000 characters my ass to read a newspaper. I think the RenMinRiBao People’s Daily standard is a core of 5,000 characters. Elementary kids learn about 2,000 characters their first year (ask my daughter). written chinese can be thought of as a mix of ancient latin combined with modern slang. characters can have common meanings, obsure meanings, meanings lost in the roots of time, implied meanings, etc.

The other thing, knowing a couple of hundred characters is almost as functionally illeterate as knowing 4000 characters. You really have to get your base up to read anything interesting. It’s better now than when I started 25 years ago when pretty much the only thing to read was bog standard communist propoganda crapola written in a wierd dumbed down bombastic style.

In my personal experience, I found getting to a 1,000 word vocabulary and broken speech in Japanese was much easier than Chinese. But I knew Chinese before I studied Japanese. With Japanese you can " cheat" with the katakana borrowed words and have a pretty broad vocabulary. In Chinese, there is no such thing, so you’re starting from a complete blank piece of paper.

Speaking business level Japanese or beyond seems more difficult than speaking Chinese business level. Writing Chinese business level is definately more difficult than writing Japanese business level in terms of vocabulary (and hiragana and katakana are much easier than all characters). As I said earlier, the Japanese grammar wins hands down in the difficulty stakes.

I can’t speak to the other Asian languages. However, I would say some of the chinese minority languages such as the Naxi Dongba runic type script might be pretty tough…

Uhhhh, you gotta a cite for that? written Japanese came from classical Chinese, and not the other way around. So, I’m not clear how Classical Chinese could be a sub-set of Japanese. Even your cite doesn’t make the claim that Classical Chinese is a sub set of Japanese

The Japanese word kanbun or kambun (漢文, kanbun or kambun? “Han/Chinese writing”) originally meant “Classical Chinese writings, Chinese classic texts, Classical Chinese literature”. This evolved into a Japanese method of reading annotated Classical Chinese in translation. It came to be that much Japanese literature intended for Japanese readers was written in literary Chinese using this annotated style. As this was the general writing style for official and intellectual works for many centuries, Sino-Japanese vocabulary makes up a large portion of the modern Japanese language lexicon, and much old Chinese literature is accessible to Japanese readers in some semblance of the original.

That’s not what I meant. It’s a sub-set in that you can’t really read Classical Japanese fluently without being able to read kanbun. It’s a sub-set, in that from a learner’s perspective, Classical Chinese as a whole has been incorporated in Classical Japanese. To put it in a different way: you can learn Classical Chinese without knowing a word of Classical Japanese. It’s not the case the other way around.

I would emphatically say that Vietnamese is not an easy language to learn. Either that or I’m an idiot, which is possible. However, hearing other English speakers butcher it much, much worse than I do, I’d say it’s hard for most of them too.

I’m pretty sure that’s incorrect. The 1006 kyōiku kanji are taught at the elementary school level. To this, 939 more are added to constitute the 1,945 jōyō kanji, which must be mastered to graduate high-school. This covers everything you need to know in daily life except some kanji that are used only in personal names. People begin to forget the less commonly used ones after graduation. I can say from experience that if you know the right 600 or so kanji, you can read much of the newspaper.

Definitely not for me. I’ve had several years of Japanese in school, and I found it much, much easier than German or Spanish (speaking only–writing not being taken into account) because of the relatively simple grammar patterns. My attempts to pick up a few words of Vietnamese, on the other hand, resulted in me sounding like a dying cat for a bit before giving up–I could in no way produce sounds that actually sound like correctly spoken Japanese.

It should be noted that I have not attempted to learn any other East Asian languages.

Well here, to do a semi-reasonable bit of research:

Here are two sources which give (rough) numbers on word/kanji count needed to compromise a total percent of all word/kanji use. (PDF) Graph on the second page, lower left

Looking at the kanji frequency graph in my first link, it looks like about 550 kanji comprise 80% of all kanji used. The page says that in English we should expect to achieve 80% at say person 2000 words. So that’s a quotient of 3.6.

Now the average English speaker can safely be said to know about 12,000 words. Dividing that by 3.6 we get an expected kanji knowledge of 3,333. This is the lower end of the spectrum. A college graduate should know something like 17,000 words, and presumably 4,722 kanji.

I don’t think there’s any reason to think that the distributions would be different, so this just comes down to how well I was able to eyeball and guesstimate from the very small graph I found in one link and the vague table provided in the other. But certainly you wouldn’t say that someone who knows 2000 words of English could be considered to be of average literacy, even though he knows 80% of all words that show up.

No way! Japanese is ridiculous when it comes to synonyms. You use different words depending on your social status relative to whomever you are speaking with. For instance, “[to] eat” can be expressed as follows:
食べる - infinitive, can be used on its own to in informal situations. 食べます is more polite.
召し上がる - very polite, can be used when addressing someone lower.
いただく - used for addressing someone higher.

Your error here is that 1 kanji is not necessarily 1 word, no more than 1 roman letter constitutes a word. If you have 600 kanji, then there are 600*599 (299,400) distinct ways to combine them in 2-character combinations without duplicating. And that’s just the 2-character combinations – as you no doubt know, 4-kanji words are quite common, and of these there are potentially 128 billion potential combinations. Of course, not all of these combinations are valid words, but it goes to show that 600 kanji can enable a very rich vocabulary. And by definition, if you have 1000 kanji, you have an elementary-schooler’s vocabulary, which generally is sufficient to read a newspaper.