THE DIFFICULTY OF JAPANESE.

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.

Comments

  1. Douglas Davidson says:

    The myth of Japanese exceptionalism (and assorted counter-myths) rears its head again.
    However, there may be a point here when it comes to the written language. What would be some serious contenders with Japanese for the title of most difficult writing system?

  2. (Spoken) Japanese is not that hard, especially for (white) non-natives because of the tremendous amount of slack you’ll get cut in Japan. If you said tabechatta to your boss you most certainly will not get fired. They might laugh at you behind your back at the bar later but, eh, you’re just a gaijin and it’s pretty amazing you can even use chopsticks.
    I find French easier than Japanese but that has more to do with shared roots with English than any objective metric

  3. Sounds like somebody who never spent any time overseas has a bug up their but cause they got a bad grade in Japanese 101. LOL
    Take a pill and enjoy the joke because your response is what is pernicious.

  4. I dunno, Demotic is a pretty damn difficult writing system.

  5. “Sounds like somebody who never spent any time overseas has a bug up their but cause they got a bad grade in Japanese 101.”
    Actually, it’s someone who:

    …was born in New York City in1944. Educated at UCLA and Harvard Graduate School, where he received an M.A. in Russian Studies, he first came to Japan in 1967. He settled in Kyoto, teaching Russian and Polish until 1972 when he moved to Australia to teach Japanese language and literature at the Australian National University in Canberra. In1976 he became an Australian citizen.
    In 1982, after acting as assistant director on the film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”, Roger returned to Japan to write and direct. He has published 18 books in Japanese and English and is currently a professor at the Kyoto University of Art and Design.

    But this essay about Lafcadio Hearn does suggest he has a bug up his arse about “the myth of Japanese exceptionalism.”

    Name a field of study of traditional art or life and Lafcadio Hearn was intrigued by it, swept away by it. He is the founding father of the school of Japanese uniqueness, the fountain that provides the spiritual and aesthetic nourishment, in flow whenever turned on, that Japanese people require to convince themselves that they are more than the sum of their borrowed and mechanically transformed parts.

    So perhaps that’s the subtext for the Japan Times piece.
    I was equally interested in this comment on Bridget’s post by a native Spanish speaker:

    Japanese is quite well structured and logical, their verb tenses are simple and they do not have gender (feminine or masculine words), so I wouldn’t say it’s that hard to learn, appart from the writting, which obviously is difficult. I wonder what people think when they are learning Spanish with all our grammar rules, and difficult phonemes :-)

    I don’t know any Spanish at all (whereas I’ve been studying Japanese for years) but I just can’t believe that — for a native English speaker — Spanish would be more difficult to learn than Japanese. Perhaps someone with a knowledge of both languages might venture an opinion about this.

  6. Justus, I’m not talking about “good enough to get by for a gaijin,” I’m talking about speaking it correctly. Hell, gaijin can get by with English.
    Jonathon: I agree; I know Spanish quite well and Japanese only minimally, but I’m pretty sure Japanese is harder for the average English speaker.

  7. And, Justus, need they be “white”, these non-natives of yours?

  8. I think Chinese is a harder writing system than modern Japanese. At first glance this might not seem to be the case, but trust me it is. The added phonetic syllabaries in Japanses may seem to add complexity, but they actually make Japanese much easier to master. Foreign words are always spelled out in katakana, whereas in Chinese you have to figure out which characters are going to be used phonetically. In Chinese you also have to be able to recognize at least 7000 characters to read at an educated level, in Japanese only 2500-3000. I suppose a counterargument would be that Japanese characters usually have multiple readings – the Japanese pronounciation and often 2 or more “Chinese” readings. But personally I find it much easier to memorize 4 sounds associated with one character than to memorize 4 separate characters.
    I think Japanese is the most difficult language to learn well because in my experience Japanese people are some of the most reticent in the world to converse with foreigners. When I meet a Pole, a Brazilian, an Italian or a Chinese in the US and address them in their native language they are without exception overjoyed. With Japanese I have almost never found this to be the case, the usual response you will get (in heavily accented English) is “Ah, you speak very good Japanese.” When I lived in Japan I would be able to speak Japanese with friends and acquaintances but it was almost impossible to strike up random conversations. Sometimes to test people I would say “rosiajin desu kedo, sumimasen, eigo dekimasen” (Sorry, I’m Russian, I don’t speak English), yet as a white foreigner people would continue to speak English with me. In short there are certainly cultural issues to contend with before you label a language easy or hard.

  9. Koreans always tell me that Korean is the most difficult language to learn. It’s just nationalism rearing it’s ugly head and I suspect in the case of Japanese it’s the same thing.

  10. And considering how easy it is for four-year olds of any language to learn their native tongue, whatever that might be, I don’t know that we can meaningfully speak, as Justus has, of an “objective metric.”
    In terms of difficulty, maybe a distinction needs to be made between the standard spoken form of a language, and the hypertrophied literary extreme present in certain languages.
    All Acerbian children can speak Acerbic fluently, but the delicate involutions of Acerebric are inaccessible to all but the most highly trained churchmen and academics.

  11. Vanya, I totally agree that the Japanese phonetic syllabaries (which are not that difficult to learn) make reading Japanese a lot easier and not just because foreign loan words are written in katakana. Although both Chinese and Japanese are written without spaces, written Chinese appears to me to be an impenetrable slab of characters, whereas the katakana and hiragana (used for particles and inflectional endings) almost act as spaces by breaking up the kanji into manageable pieces.
    As regards the difficulty in striking up random conversations, in my experience this difficulty can easily be eliminated by the application of alcohol. In the tiny yakitoriya where I eat when in Japan, I usually find the Japanese customers eager to chat, once they discover that my Japanese is good enough to carry a conversation. (And my Japanese seems to magically improve after a couple of drinks.)

  12. I’m with Jonathan.. unless you’re talking to someone who REALLY, REALLY wants to use English, I’ve found that conversations in Japan tend to settle into whichever language can be used with the least hassle. If your Japanese comes out faster and easier (and is at least fairly understandable) than your conversational partner’s English, they’ll probably just speak to you in Japanese.

  13. Exactly the point about speaking (and understanding!) Japanese as it’s actually spoken, not enough to find the toilet and buy sushi. Those simple sentences make up a very small fraction of actual Japanese conversation. The thickly dense forest of complex, interlocking subordinate clauses necessary to speak Japanese decently, much less “articulately”, is quite difficult to master, though it makes up the bulk of actual conversation, being rather simple for the Japanese themselves.
    It’s absolutely true that you can learn “how much does this cost” in Japanese faster even than in Spanish (which has to be the easiest language I know), but the amount of practice and study it takes for a foreigner to learn to actually converse in sentences as simple “Could you help me?”, “Do you know a restaurant that has cheaper yakitori?”, or “Do you remember where we have to go?”, in comparison to any other language I know, including Chinese, is enormous.
    This excludes Korean, which I don’t know very well, but from what I’ve seen, its grammar is so identical to Japanese I’m sure it’s a real close call. To the point that, at least for them, I bet Japanese is far, far easier than even Spanish. Not that it’s probably very popular there though, alas.

  14. “What would be some serious contenders with Japanese for the title of most difficult writing system?”
    I’d bet on Sumerian.
    A friend of mine says that Japanese society become entirely different once you marry into a Japanese family. (You have to be accepted by the parents, of course). You then have defined personal relationships with all the family members and also with anyone who has defined relationships with the family. I think that more than most peoples, Japanese are unfriendly or standoffish to strangers whose relationships to you can’t be defined. It’s another aspect of the business card / status difficulty mentioned above.
    I’ve also been told that Scandinavians and Germans can be standoffish to persons of unknown status and relationship. Especially Swedes.

  15. I’ve always operated on the assumption that on balance, all languages are equally difficult.
    In my experience the real difficulty with Japanese is that people presume a higher level of control of nuance than I really have, so when I say something that I think is neutral, they perceive all sorts of underlying attitudes that don’t really exist.
    Come to think of it, I sometimes have the same problem with English…

  16. Michael Farris says:

    “I’ve always operated on the assumption that on balance, all languages are equally difficult.”
    In terms of spoken language, from the point of view of a child acquiring the language, this is roughly true (I’ll give myself some wiggle room for things like young creoles).
    Writing systems are different. My vote for most difficult among those in current use is Japanese (those multiple readings) though the case can be made for Chinese as well (all those characters).
    Among those not in current use, I’d nominate nôm the old Chinese character based version of Vietnamese. It nequired significantly more characters than Chinese because in addition to almost all the regular Chinese characters, there were hundreds (thousands?) of characters for Vietnamese words as well and the whole thing never was completely standardized, so that given Chinese character could represent either a Sino-Vietnamese word, a Vietnamese word with a similar meaning or a Vietnamese word with a similar sound. The lack of standardization meant there was no reliable way of telling which was which (there were some ways, but couldn’t always be relied on).
    It’s no wonder it lost out in competition with quốc ngữ (Romanized Vietnamese) though there are some standardization issues with it as well.

  17. Michael Farris says:

    When I took Japanese classes (long ago, irregularly) I thought the textbook Japanese was ridiculously easy (kanji aside). A linguistics professor said this was because it was presenting a very restricted variety. Since foreigners didn’t necessarily fit into the daily scheme of things, their options in terms of speech styles were severely limited (as would be the speech styles directed to them).
    Actually learning to understand and use the full variety of Japanese forms (including how to decode and use the mimetic system) was something there were no textbooks for.

  18. Michael Farris says:

    “the fiendish difficulties of the languages … particularly, Polish being much more complicated in grammar and pronunciation”
    I guess this means I’m smarter than he is. Learning Polish in situ just isn’t that difficult, and lots of reported difficulties aren’t that much of an issue at ground level. And the declinational/conjugational difficulties are ammeliorated(sp?) by:
    - A very close (phonemic) fit between the printed and spoken forms (the closest among slavic languages?)
    - Not much in the way of dialects. Regional dialects have largely disappeared after WWII, and have been mostly replaced by local versions of standard Polish.
    - A close fit between formal and informal Polish. Differences exist, but they’re very slight in comparison with many languages.
    The only really difficult thing I’ve found is numbers, which are a nightmare (especially 2) but then they’re not easy for native speakers either and in a pinch, you can just not decline them (as long as the noun is in the right form). It’s not elegant but it gets the job done.

  19. Vanya, in my experience I’ve always found the Chinese to be reticent in Chinese (but welcoming in English) and the Japanese forthcoming with Japanese conversations.
    I think the problem with Chinese characters/kanji is the way Westerners are taught them. We learn straight memorization, whereas in China I learned my Chinese by looking at the structure and learning how to first of all write the strokes (and their names), then by identifying the parts of them, as one would identify snow and man in snowman.

  20. I’ve always operated on the assumption that on balance, all languages are equally difficult.
    Me too, with Michael Ferris’s caveat about writing systems.
    I’d bet on Sumerian.
    In that region, I’ll have to go with Hittite, where any given chunk of cuneiform can be a Sumerian, Akkadian, or Hittite word or syllable. Of course, nôm sounds just about as fiendish, but I have no experience with it, so I’ll just settle back and watch them wrestle.

  21. I’ve heard that a lot from Japanese people. I think it’s culturally difficult to speak, since you can say something that is grammatically correct that is contextually wrong. But Thai is more difficult than Japanese, and I’ve heard that Finnish is difficult, too–I’ve been told they have more tenses and cases than German, and German grammar is much more difficult than Japanese grammar.

  22. Maktaaq,
    Where were you in China? I have to say my experience has been the opposite – especially in the US. Anytime I use Chinese with immigrants or Chinese tourists I get a warm reception – my wife even more so, probably because she is blonde and blue-eyed and speaks Chinese with an excellent accent so Chinese are blown away. I’ve never found this to be the case with Japanese I’ve met in the US or anywhere outside of Japan. In Japan I agree it is much easier to find Japanese who will converse with you in their native tounge.
    I agree with the above post that Polish is much easier than Japanese, and easier than Russian or German for that matter since there seem to be fewer exceptions to grammatical rules.
    No one has mentioned Arabic – doesn’t the US State Department consider Arabic the most difficult language to gain fluency in? Primarily due to the diglossia.

  23. My experience with Chinese has been the same as vanya’s, for what that’s worth.

  24. Justus, I’m not talking about “good enough to get by for a gaijin,” I’m talking about speaking it correctly.
    I think this is a silly distinction to make given the vast numbers of native English speakers who have difficulty speaking English correctly. Language is about communication not pedantics, IMHO.
    And, Justus, need they be “white”, these non-natives of yours?
    I don’t know; that was simply based on my experience. I’ve never known any non-white (non-asian) foreigners who have lived in Japan.

  25. I’s a nobrainer. The hardest language in the world will always be whichever one I’m trying to learn right now.

  26. Justus/Abdul Walid
    The non-natives need not be white to get cut “slack” but they can’t be East Asian non-natives. I had a friend from Ghana with whom Japanese loved to speak Japanese, and I got the impression that the Nihonjin, probably for racist reasons, didn’t have high expectations for his Japanese, although he had much better language skills than most foreigners. I believe Middle-Easterners are treated as “white” in the Japanese frame of reference, although I lived there before the large influx of Iranian guest workers which may have changed attitudes. Chinese and Korean non-natives are definitely expected to be able to speak Japanese better than “gaijin.”

  27. Yeah, that’s the subject of an anecdote in Jack Seward’s wonderful Japanese in Action: he visits a hot spring with a nisei friend who speaks no Japanese but (obviously) looks Japanese, while Seward himself is fluent; the owner addresses all his remarks to the woman, ignoring the fact that Seward has to translate them all for her (and then translate her responses for him).

  28. Michael Farris says:

    I’m glad to see soneone else is a fan of Seward’s book, as for judging language abilities by looks, I’ve heard similar stories from Mexico in the past (and had a similar experience in a Mexican bar) though the last time I was in Mexico (87 Oaxaca and San Cristobal) gringos who could speak Spanish were pretty much taken for granted.
    I’d also say that what little I’ve looked at Korean, it seems harder than Japanese (in terms of how much they get into a single word verb phrase and figuring out where the morpheme boundaries are).

  29. Hi Vanya, I was in Guangdong (I learned both Cantonese and Mandarin); I also studied in Taipei. In both places I found it the same, people were lukewarm to my speaking Chinese but brightened considerably when we switched to English. I suspect part of it might be that the people I ran into were heavily into practicing their English.
    In Japan, though my Japanese is extremely basic, I got the opposite. Sometimes – even when I tried to explain in my bumbling Japanese that I could barely speak the language and if they could please use simpler words – people zipped onwards at the same speed.
    For some reason, my Chinese is now nearly fluent and my Japanese is deteriorating.

  30. Japanese is the most difficult language, and that’s why in WW2 American intelligence had so many Americans translating it and why the Japanese didn’t feel they had to do a better job at cryptography. It would have been a lot safer to just have had an “extraordinarily difficult language.”

  31. someguy says:

    I am a native-speaker of English residing in The Netherlands and I am often told by Dutch people that the language is very difficult. This seems to be a widespread folk belief. I wouldn’t make too much of it.

  32. Wasn’t Navaho supposed to be very difficult? Or at least Navaho is supposed to be very difficult to the Japanese :). Basque would also be a very good candidate.
    As for German grammer being more difficult than Japanese grammer: I doubt whether any native English speaker could seriously claim that, given the many similarities between the languages.

  33. given the many similarities between the languages
    Those similarities don’t really extend to grammar. English has essentially no noun morphology beyond singular/plural, and the genders of German are completely foreign to us, not to mention the syntactical habits Mark Twain makes fun of in The Awful German Language. I personally found German not easy at all when I had to learn it for grad school.

  34. Do the Dutch really think they speak a difficult language? I have heard a Swede claim the same thing – that outsiders can never master Swedish. My impression, from knowing
    German, is that both should be fairly easy for English/German speakers to learn. When I look at a Dutch newspaper I probably understand 60-70%, without having ever studied Dutch. It’s probably the case that very few foreigners can be bothered to learn those relatively insignificant tounges. Then again, of all the major European colonizing powers the Dutch seem to have been by far the least successful at propagating their language outside the mother country (is it even really spoken in Surinam? Certainly not in Indonesia) so maybe there is something to that.

  35. Phoenix says:

    I think any agglutinative language isn’t exactly hard to learn. Everything is just so regular. Japanese isn’t all that hard. But colloquial Japanese is extremely hard. Not only do the Japanese in this case leave out 60% of the words needed to make a legitimate sentence, they also come up with completely new verb conjugations, or just forget about them all together. I once had a Japanese person say to me: “Tokorode, utsu?”,(at place, play?) the thing she meant was “Ima, mou ichidou uchimashou ka?”(Now, shall we play one more?). This is such a horrible simplification of the Japanese language that it’s hard to grasp.
    But still, I’ve come across languages much harder than Japanese. I’m a native speaker of the Dutch language, and near native speaker of English. And to me, French is the hardest language I’ve ever learned. The whole language feels like it should be drained with noun cases, like it’s ancestor, latin. But it isn’t, it’s extremely confusing. Then you also have noun gender, which to me, is not only difficult but also extremely useless.
    I was surprised to hear about the Nom script being pointed out as the most difficult, to me it seems quite easy. It’s not like I can read it fluently, but you can clearly see when a character is a Nom character or a Chinese character. becuase the combination of the characters is often really strange. I think Nom had the potential to become the best Sinitic writing system ever. It not only had a Logographic part, which is Absolutely necessary for an Isolating language, but it also had a phonetic half, which isn’t completely superfluous, since we all still speak languages consisting of sounds. If the French surpressors wouldn’t have forced the Quoc Ngu upon the Vietnamese in the 19th century, Nom would have definitely evolved into something which could have revolutionalized the sinitic branch of writing systems.
    the Jurchen script, to me, seems far more difficult. I’m not too wel known with the Jurchen script due to a lack of recources, but the systems which made Chinese and Tangut sensical writings seem to have been thrown overboard by the Jurchen speakers.

  36. Michael Farris says:

    “I think Nom had the potential to become the best Sinitic writing system ever. It not only had a Logographic part, which is Absolutely necessary for an Isolating language, but it also had a phonetic half, which isn’t completely superfluous, since we all still speak languages consisting of sounds. If the French surpressors wouldn’t have forced the Quoc Ngu upon the Vietnamese in the 19th century, Nom would have definitely evolved into something which could have revolutionalized the sinitic branch of writing systems.”
    What “phonetic half” are you talking about? If it had developed a regular phonetic component (analogous to kana or hangul) then it might still be in use. AFAIK it never had a phonetic half, it had a number of cumbersome workarounds.
    Also, AFAIK the displacement of Nôm was a long process (centuries basically) almost all of it carried out by Vietnamese initiative.

  37. It seems a bit silly me to me argue about which language is the hardest to learn. As somebody pointed out above, they would all seem equally easy to learn, provided one is a toddler in a total-immersion environment.
    I suppose what we are really asking is, what is the hardest language to learn if you are a non-native speaker adult? But even here, any answer must be entirely subjective.
    Two things, I think, will make a foreign langage easier or harder to acquire. First: how far is it from one’s own language set (in terms of vocabulary, mechanics, etc.)? An average Japanese might find German tough, an average Dutchman less so. Second, and far more important: how adept is a specific acquiror at thinking outside the box his existing language set has built for him? I’m certain there are Japanese who can quickly become reasonably fluent in German, and Dutchmen who never could.
    Can’t speak a word of Japanese myself, so I’m hardly qualified to make a judgement of its difficulty. My point though, is that, even if I were so qualified, any such judgment would be valid only with respect to me.
    Pulvers, for example, is linguistically very gifted, apparently, yet found Russian difficult to learn. My own skills are far more modest, yet I found Russian a doddle. Perhaps this was because I had learnt Latin in the schoolroom, so Russian’s case-system didn’t strike me as bizarre at all. Indeed, its grammar is, I would say, straightforward and easily understood (with the minor exception of verbs…).
    Yes, it’s probably safe to say that the average English speaker will have less trouble picking up a Germanic or (especially if he had earlier had some Latin) a Romance language than Japanese, simply because English already has a fair bit in common with, say, German or Spanish. But that doesn’t really tell us very much. There is less value in saying ‘X is easier to learn than Y’ than in saying ‘Somebody who has a good ear and can slip the mental patterns imposed by his native tongue is probably going to do well at learning either X or Y’.
    BTW, Pulvers makes much of the difficulty of Russian verbs of motion. They’re what I found hardest, too. But surely his pointing out that one needs a different word for ‘go’ according as whether one is on foot or in a conveyance is very anglophonocentric. (And, FWIW, that’s not what I found difficult about Russian verbs of motion.) Don’t most IE languages draw this basic distinction? (I have no idea what others do.) Speakers of a great many languages could, with greater justification, say, ‘That English is so bizarre! It uses the same word “go” whether you’re walking or riding!’

  38. (on the go by foot or by car issue)
    Eniglish *is* bizar: it has different words for going by horse (‘ride’) and going by car (‘drive’). In Dutch, we both ‘ride’ a horse and a car.
    (on Dutch being difficult)
    Written Dutch isn’t that hard to learn for the avarge European, as it’s in between German and English with respect to word morphology etc. Spoken Dutch on the other hand is less easy, as the Dutch tend to swallow many syllables (‘khedanoniedaan’ for ‘ik heb dat nog niet gedaan’, for example), more than the English or the German seem to do (to my observation) – our Prime Minister is a very bad example. Also, subtle variations in meaning can be expressed by relative meaningless words like ‘wel’, ‘even’, ‘nog’ etc. which non-native speakers tend to find hard to grasp.

  39. I’ve got some German friends who master Dutch fluently. But when conversing with them there are those little errors/differences (pronunciation, vocabulary, accent, grammar) that give away their foreign mother tongue (as my use of English here does too :-).
    Dutch isn’t hard to learn. And I don’t believe that is the reason it has or hasn’t spread after our colonial presence in the world. One can find Dutch in Indonesia, Surinam speaks Dutch as does South Afrika (albeit in a 17th century form?). The lack of economic power today makes it a less desireable second tongue to master, so you’ll find English, French, Spanish, or even Chinese more often.

  40. (on Dutch not having spread)
    In Suriname, Dutch is still taught in schools. In fact, Suriname has recently become a member of the Dutch Language Union, formerly with only Belgium and the Netherlands as members. It is the official language of the Surinam government. Many people speak different languages though, but have at least some grasp of Dutch.
    Overseas ‘colonies’ of the Netherlands, most notably Indonesia, were not true colonies until the 19th century. Before that, they were a conglomorate of commercialy owned property, most noticeably by the VOC (United East Indies Company). These commercial companies had no purpose what-so-ever in teaching the ‘natives’ their language: it was easier to learn some basics of the native language and employ a few translaters, than to teach your labourers (let alone their children) your language. Thus, Dutch never caught on much, although many scientifical, economical and political terms in Indonesia come from Dutch.
    Dutch politics have never been to teach Dutch to all people within the kingdom or colonies: even today on some of the Dutch Antilles islands, people are not taught and do not speak Dutch.

  41. jal,
    without ever having had a single lesson, I find it easy to read, say, a Dutch newspaper (as you say, it’s pretty much a midpoint between English and German). Can’t make out a word people are saying, though. (Oddly, if I listen to two Dutch people speaking a few metres away from me, I have the strong impression that they are speaking perfect English and I have become aphasic.)
    Germans, I think, would pretty quickly grasp all the wee wels, evens and nogs, as they have a lot of Füllwörter of their own. Some of these (wohl, eben, noch) even look cognate. Of course, there are also regional words like fai. Germans from other regions, to say nothing of Dutchmen, would blink at these, and I suppose the Dutch might have their own supply of little words that would trip up the non-native speaker.
    Clear diction is not a universal anglophone phenomenon. English-speakers in some places slur their words together like champions; even your prime minister might be impressed.

  42. I do have the strange sensation sometimes, when I am listening to Radio Nederland Wereldomroep (uncomprehendingly, I might add) that I’m listening, not just to English, but to AMERICAN, but have, as Mrs Tilton puts it, become aphasic.
    Speaking of reading languages one hasn’t ever made the faintest effort to study: I think I could find my way much more easily through a Spanish newspaper than through a German one. The relative simplicity of the grammar is one part of this, and the other part, of course, has to do with William the Conqueror, who helped meld the sister tongue into English.

  43. My experience with Chinese is that often Chinese are not really that impressed when you can speak ti; they just assume you have learned how to act in a more civilized manner.
    As for the writing sytem discussion, with hanzi you may need many more than you do kanji, but the big difference is that hanzi are generally systematic. The system is phonetically based, with the proviso that the phonetic system represents is about 2,500 years old now. Still, it helps a lot. With kanji, either there is the Sino-Japanese form where so much of the phonetic material is sanded off that the words are indistinguishable, or else you are looking at some native word, so it is random nonsense.
    Thai spelling is supposed to be difficult because of the mismatch with the alphabet, which was developed for Tamil or whatever East Coast group traded with the Khmer. English is horrible to learn because it is 1) a compromise system that fits no one actual dialect or standard language and 2) it is old and there have been some pretty significant shifts.
    As for difficult structures, that has more to do with how exotic to the learner the language happens to be, than with any inherent complexity. Navajo looks pretty strange, and Salish languages are quite different too. On the other hand, complexity makes a difference too; British languages such as English or Irish do have a lot more tenses than French or German, and you can see it when you hear them try to use them correctly.

  44. My experience with Chinese is that often Chinese are not really that impressed when you can speak ti; they just assume you have learned how to act in a more civilized manner.
    Yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. When I lived in Taiwan, people encouraged me to speak Chinese in exactly the same way they encouraged me to use chopsticks, get a seal with my name rendered in Chinese (and learn to write it thus), and in general behave in a Chinese fashion. It became very clear to me how China assimilated so many waves of “barbarians” over the millennia. The attitude is “you may not be like us yet, but you will” — as opposed to Japan, where the attitude is “you’ll never be like us, so why try?” (Or that’s the impression I got when I lived there.)

  45. Have any of you tried learning any signed languages (manual languages used by the Deaf)? I have heard American Sign Language compared to Chinese and Navajo in terms of difficulty to learn, primarily due to extensive verb inflections and the classifier system.
    chimera

  46. Expressing the nuances of any language is difficult to master–to speak, say, as a native. Japanese is a language of subtlety, and quite difficult to apply in its appropriate forms at different times.
    Of all the languages I’ve studied, Japanese is the most layered in terms of MEANING conveyed in the words THEMSELVES…relying less on irony than on the choice of vocabulary or pacing of phrasing. That is EXTREMELY complex, and no language to my knowledge gives such weight to words…and the space between words.

  47. If Japanese is so bloody easy to learn, why is it IM-BLOODY-POSSIBLE for me to get a hold on this damn thing!!!!????!!!!

  48. Languagehat, what you describe is exactly how I felt, only in Japan. Assimilate – that’s the word I wanted to use – the Japanese invariably, in my experience, used Japanese when addressing me, from my in-laws down to the post office clerks and the tabi sock maker. My father-in-law demanded I do not speak any other language but Japanese (though my fiance and I met in Chinese).
    I think the explanation must lie in the fact that I was a female foreigner marrying into a Japanese family. I suspect that some of the commenters whose experience is that they were kept at an arm’s length by the Japanese are male and white, thus not expected (if they hooked up with a Japanese gal) to get too assimilated and hence not expected to have an interest in Japanese. What does everyone think?

  49. Makes sense to me, and it would never have occurred to me (being male and white, that’s the experience I have access to). Thanks for the input!

  50. Michael Farris says:

    I remember one white male who had studied both Mandarin and Japanese he said (paraphrasing)
    ~Both say that their languages are impossible for foreigners to learn. But if you manage to learn Chinese, then people love you for it and if you manage to learn Japanese, they’re suspicious of you.~

  51. Ah yes, the old ours is more diffucult than yours. Well Japanese is difficult, though not I suspect the most difficult language in the world. I am a bi-lingual English/French speaker, who has studied Japanese for a year and a half. As a matter of fact I am in Japan at the moment. I think the question of difficulty is really about context. For example in Ireland where I come from the average highschool grade in German is higher than the one in French, which just means that for native English speakers, German, which has many links with English, is easier than french. Japanese is percieved as so difficult beacaus it is so very different from a European language. That said, even though I am fluent in French, its still a damn hard language, and I personally find it harder to learn, gramatically anyway. I know so many native French speakers who dont actually know some of those all too complicated verb formations, but I guess its the same with Kanji and Japanese people.

  52. remo williams says:

    I lived with a Japanese family for two years and have lived and worked in japan a total of 8 years, becoming fairly proficient. Reading has become my stronger skill because most japanese are so incredibly insular. My homestay ‘brother’ didnt say a word to me in two years. I thought despite being a friendly person, it must be me. Then I heard of the same experience from most others who lived with Japanese: Usually the mother is open while the kids dont interact with the foreigner. The father may want to use English or is working until 11pm.
    Those proficient at European languages are dead wrong to assume the only real difference is in writing systems or culture. Japanese, Korean and Chinese all require about 8000 words as oppposed to the typical 1000 French, English, etc words to ‘get by’ (I saw the results of a study and a linguist confirmed it, so I assume it is largerly correct)
    Friends who study Mandarin and Japanese claim that they have a much easier time expressing themselves in Mandarin and that Japanese just “doesnt come out” like they want.
    Koreans and Japanese who insist they have the hardest language for an American or European (excluding those Finns) to learn are correct. Not that you can learn Arabic after leaving the airport…

  53. Whoa, that’s an interesting talk over here. Can I put a few words as well?
    My native language is Russian and despite the fact I was told numerous times it’s extremely hard – I can’t agree. For me English for example was easier than Spanish, much much much easier. Probably due to the fact that English has less words than German or Russian and the words aren’t polymorphic. The spelling wasn’t hard for me since I’ve got a “visual memory”.
    Spanish was much harder probably ‘cuz I was told “hey, it’s easy” and when I’ve started to study it I found out that it has the same polymorphic verbs as Russian, argh…
    One point I can agree 100% – the closier is the language to your native one the easier is to get into it. Being a native Russian speaker Belarusian was a no-brainer for me and currently, since I’m living in Ukraine now, the Ukranian is pretty easy as well.

  54. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to determine which languages are the most difficult. I am a native English speaker who knows French and Russian, and thus very poorly equipped to pronounce on the question. What about the question of the most rewarding languages? Several of you know both Chinese and Japanese. Which would you recommend in terms of reward attained rather than difficulty encountered? And if anyone knows Arabic, I would like it put onto the same scales. And where did Aleck get the idea that German or Russian had more words than English? The omniverous hybrid English has a vocabulary that makes other languages look like marathon runners in a sumo ring.

  55. I’d say it has as much to do with whether or not you use the language you’re learning on a day-to-day basis. I studied Arabic in college for two-and-a-half years, but after moving to Japan I was more able to express myself after six months than all those semesters in college. It just sticks better when you have to say it. Although I will say this–learning Japanese by ear is a whole lot easier than some other languages. First, when learning new words in, say, Korean, I’m always having to be like, “Wait, was that aspirated or double, and was it “o” or “eo”?” In Japanese, the way you heard it is probably how you’d look it up in the dictionary. (Not so the other way around. My electronic dictionary even has a katakana function for Japanese users to enter in what they thought they heard and spits out several possibilities, ‘cos most of them wouldn’t know the spelling of a word just based on hearing it.) Second, the syllables are nicely spaced, meaning you don’t have a bunch of consonants all mashed together like in Arabic. So once you get used to the clatter of all those syllables, it’s not all that hard to play back what they said and figure out the meaning.

  56. Japanese is my first second language, so I don’t have much perspective on how it compares to others, but I do have a link:
    The aforementioned link
    According to the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, Japanese is the hardest foreign language for an English speaker to learn — since it’s in the “exceptionally difficult” category while also having an asterisk (which means it is “somewhat more difficult for native English speakers to learn to speak and read than other languages in the same category”). Other languages marked “exceptionally difficult” are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin and Korean. Polish is in Category II, indicating midrange difficulty for a native English speaker.
    So the Japan Times article would seem to be wrong, which comes as a surprise to no one who noticed how selective and narrow its examples were.

  57. I’ve always wondered what criteria the Foreign Service Institute uses. Like Nate I could read basic Japanese and express myself within 6 months of living in Japan. I’ve also studied Arabic, and believe it or not, I found it much more difficult to attain a basic reading comprehension of Arabic than of Japanese. Personally I find the Arabic script very hard to decipher, the letters look too similar and I often have to go back and puzzle out individual words that I already know.
    I’ve also never understood by what criteria Japanese is considered more difficult than Korean. The grammars are very similar, Korean pronunciation is harder for English speakers than Japanese, Korean shares the same issues of many politeness levels, multiple homonyms due to Chinese borrowings and an inward looking somewhat isolated cultural tradition. Is Japanese regarded as so difficult because many Americans are Kanji-phobic?
    Also when people bring up the difficulties of keigo, or the many nuances and layers of meaning in Japanese words I think it would do well to keep in mind that not every Japanese has a mastery of all these subtleties either.

  58. Umm.. ‘scuse me for interrupting your interesting conversation and all. I was just wondering what’s so terrible about swedes. Actually, swedish shouldn’t be at all difficult to learn, except from the slighly quirky sentence structure(the sequence changes depending on whether it’s a main or subordinate clause). Oh, and also the reale and neutrum which are sort of similar to masculine and feminine form. But different.
    I’ve never met a swede in my life that acts superior about their language. Maybe it’s because I’m a swede myself. Oh, well. I guess you’re all waaay past this topic already (if it was even supposed to come up) but… Mm. I just like to un-prejudice people if you know what I mean.
    And back to the topic; I find japanese real easy. I can understand a fair bit and already express myself some although I’ve never studied the language. Just been following some anime for a couple of months. It’s weird how fast you pick things up just listening to a language.
    I don’t really see what would be so difficult about japanese. Kanji, yeah, but you can get along somewhat using katakana and hiragana, right?

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