A Japan Times article by Roger Pulvers has fun with the notion, dear to people in Japan, that Japanese is “the most difficult language in the world”:
No sooner had I closed my umbrella and entered the cab than the driver peered at me in the rearview mirror and said, in Japanese: “You’re not a Japanese are you.”
“No, I’m not,” I replied.
“Oh. Japanese is the most difficult language to speak in the world, you know. Isn’t it?”
Well, for the 15-minute ride home I strove to persuade my driver that this, in fact, did not seem to be the case. I pointed out the fiendish difficulties of the languages that I had studied in my life, Russian and, particularly, Polish being much more complicated in grammar and pronunciation, at least for a native speaker of English, than Japanese. I finished my discourse as we rounded the corner by my house.
“I mean, Polish, for instance, has elaborate case endings for adjectives, and even has a special one for the nominative plural of male animate nouns!”
Having listened attentively to my passionate, if pedantic, foray into the esoterica of comparative linguistics, the driver stopped the cab by my front gate, turned his head around to me and smiled broadly.
“Well, anyway,” he said, “Japanese is still the most difficult language in the world!”
So far, so amusing, but Pulvers goes on to say:
Japanese, of the languages that I know, is actually the easiest spoken language to master.
For one thing, the number of words used in daily life is small compared to, say, English. Nuances in English are added by expressing an emotion with the use of any number of different words, incorporating layer upon layer of subtle meaning by dipping into what is an enormous chest of verbal riches. In Japanese, subtleties are added with the use of a variety of endings. When you get to the end of a sentence you can vary the tone, register and emphasis of what you say by using one or more of a number of word and sentence endings. These endings are not hard to master. The result is that a non-native can be very expressive and articulate in Japanese without having to learn thousands of words — in the case of English, words that came from Anglo-Saxon, Latin and the many other languages that have enriched its vocabulary.
And, you can pause, mumble, leave out core elements of sentences, even punctuate dialogue with long silences and still speak excellent Japanese! The other languages that I am familiar with do not allow for the huge pregnant pauses and embarrassing elipses that allow valuable thinking time for non-native beginners. What is considered an acceptable pause in Japanese, often giving the impression of profundity, would be taken for pure prevarication in English.
Verbs are generally the horror element of language learning. In English they are irregular, with auxiliary verbs and the conditional to make matters worse. Slavic languages have the perfective and the imperfective, not to mention so-called verbs of motion. (You need a different verb for “to go” depending on whether you are walking or riding in something.) Japanese verbs are a cinch. Just change the ending of the verb’s stem to get everything from “I eat” to “I ate,” “I didn’t eat,” “I wouldn’t have eaten,” “I didn’t want to eat,” “even if I didn’t want to eat” and “Sorry but I went and ate it,” which is tabechatta. Easy as pie.
This is just silly. Leaving aside the pauses, a cute but irrelevant distraction, the idea that a simple morphology means a simple language is ridiculous. Complexity is to be found in many areas of a language, and if morphology is simple I guarantee you syntax and other aspects pick up the slack. In the case of Japanese, speaking the language is rendered notoriously difficult by the necessity of choosing a politeness register before you can even formulate a sentence; this is one reason Japanese exchange business cards immediately, so they can see the other person’s title and decide which verb form to use. (Say tabechatta to your boss and you might be out of a job.) I don’t mind oversimplification in the service of a good joke, but the idea he’s trying to promulgate is just as pernicious as the one he’s making fun of.
More examples can be found in the comment section to Bridget’s ilani ilani post, where I got the link.