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A dose of wrong: The world's most difficult language

What's the most difficult language to learn?

It's a good question, and an extremely difficult one to field.

What's the most uninformed response you could give to the above question?

That one's not so difficult; I've got the answer right here!

John Hopkins Magazine put the "most difficult language" question to none other than the then-Deputy Director of the National Foreign Language Center, presumably on the assumption that said official would supply an insightful answer. What John Hopkins got instead was this reply:

Japanese is without question the most daunting language for a native English speaker to tackle, according to Brecht... He notes that the State Department allows its students three times as long to learn Japanese as it does languages like Spanish or French.

I can't argue with the State Department's estimates of the time required for its students to learn a language, or with the general claim that an English speaker will require more time to learn spoken and written Japanese than to do the same with Spanish.

Unfortunately, the Deputy Director should have stopped there, but didn't:

As Brecht explains it, the challenge with Japanese is threefold. First, there's the fact that the Japanese written code is different from the spoken code. "Therefore, you can't learn to speak the language by learning to read it," and vice versa.

What does "the Japanese written code is different from the spoken code" mean? Apparently it simply means "the written language isn't phonetic". Okay, but the first problem there is that "phonetic" languages aren't always terribly phonetic either; English and French are great examples. By contrast, the Japanese "written code", when written in kana, is nearly perfectly phonetic, far more so than English or French!

I guess the point is that the addition of Chinese characters adds a difficult non-phonetic component, which is certainly fair enough. But it's hardly unique to Japanese, and the talk of "codes" is just confusing.

What's more, there are three different writing systems to master. The kanji system uses characters borrowed from Chinese. Users need to learn 10,000 to 15,000 of these characters through rote memorization; there are no mnemonic devices to help. Written Japanese also makes use of two syllabary systems: kata-kana for loan words and emphasis, and hira-gana for spelling suffixes and grammatical particles.

Here we get into myths and mistakes. First, Japanese readers do not learn over 10,000 Chinese characters. Around 2000 are taught in school; those joyo kanji are considered the the requirement for reading newspapers, literature, etc. The highest level of the government-sponsored "Test of Japanese Kanji Aptitude" will only take you up to 6000 characters, making you a kanji god – yet that's still far, far short of an imaginary 10,000-15,000.

Further, there's that silly old chestnut about "different writing systems". Yes, there are several scripts – or character sets, whatever term you like – used in Japanese. But they combine to form ONE writing system, called Japanese.

Any language we might name will use multiple character sets. English has two sets of letters (yes, two, not one: upper-case and lower-case, though you'll be hard-pressed to find a Japanology text that recognizes this), plus a set of Arabic numerals, plus all those orthographic and punctuation symbols, some mathematical symbols, and so on. Together, all those character sets make up one writing system.

That all holds just as true for Japanese – which then adds Chinese characters, too. And without question, that makes things a lot more complex and difficult to learn. But in the end, it's still ONE writing system.

Contrary to another claim, there are mnemonic devices to help with kanji pronunciation: you can often guess the Chinese-derived on pronunciation of a character from its similarity to other characters, or from its radical, and knowing the character's meaning is often plenty enough to allow a guess at its native Japanese kun reading. True, that leaves many more instances in which you can't guess at those; lots of memorization is indeed required, and no one would call it simple. Still, the claim isn't quite correct.

Get beyond that and you're faced with a culture that, says Brecht, is "truly foreign for most Americans."

What the heck does that mean!? Culturology silliness.

With many languages, students start by learning introductions (Comment-allez vous? Trés bien, merci, et vous?) "But with Japanese, you can't even begin to do that with lesson one because of the social distinctions involved in making introductions," says Brecht. Age, social status, gender--"all these sociological factors make it so complicated that introductions can't be the first lesson," he notes.

Rubbish in its purest rubbishy form. Students of Japanese typically do learn those same introductions in Lesson 1, because there's nothing unusually difficult about them. "Hajimemashite. John desu." "Ogenki desu ka? Hai, genki desu." And so on. Simple, and quite devoid of "truly foreign culture". Are those the perfect introductions and greetings for all occasions? No, but they're perfect for most occasions, and workable in pretty much any occasion.

Finally, there's the issue of grammar. In English syntax, grammar is right branching. We set a topic and then comment upon it: "I saw the man who was sitting on the red chair, which was sitting beside the door." Japanese syntax is left branching-- "totally contrary to our approach," says Brecht. Thus, the sentence above becomes something along the lines of: "I saw the red, which was the chair, which was....." You get the idea.


Sorry there; my head just asploded. Excuse me while I clean up.

There we go. Now: "I saw the red, which was the chair..." What the...!? I don't know what tongue our linguist has in mind here, but it sure isn't Japanese. Let's try to dig into that mess.

In Japanese, "red chair" is akai isu - literally, "red chair". Same concepts, same order. (Compare that with English's "easy" relative French, which would reverse the word order to chaise rouge!)

"I saw the red"?? Wow, I can't even fathom where that came from. Trust me, it has no relation to Japanese.

Where things get concidentally closer to the above claims is in other descriptive clauses. This big field of grammar is too rich to cover here in any detail, but in general: in Japanese, any descriptor consistently comes before what it describes; in English, confusingly, it sometimes comes before, sometimes has to come after.

We want to offer two descriptors of the chair: it was red and it was by the door. In English, "red" comes before "chair", but the other descriptor has to come after, so we get "I saw the man (who was sitting) on the red chair (which was sitting) beside the door." (The bits in parentheses are optional; even the English isn't as complex as Brecht suggests.)

In Japanese, both descriptors come before the chair, consistently and predictably, so we get doa no soba no akai isu, which is something like "(the) by-the-door red chair".

Now you mark all that with ni, as it's where the man was sitting, and you place it before "sitting" (suwatte iru) – remember, we always place descriptor before described.

Then all that goes before "man" (otoko) – again, descriptor before described.

Finally, you add wo after otoko to mark the man as the object, and finish with the verb "saw" (mita).

If it's necessary for comprehension, precede the whole thing with the subject "I" (watashi wa).

Final sentence: [Watashi wa] doa no soba no akai isu ni suwatte iru otoko wo mita.

Is that structure difficult for you, or Brecht, or English speakers in general? I leave that to your opinion, but I'll suggest that in absolute terms, the consistent pattern of "descriptor before described" is a heck of a lot simpler than English's all-over-the-place descriptors and "A which was B which was C..." constructions. On top of that, the Japanese sentence above offers the big favor of clearly marking parts of speech (and even lets us drop the watashi wa subject altogether if it's already clear); these things make a language easier, not harder.

How is it that the writer's depiction of Japanese grammar is so wrong? The answer lies toward the start of the article:

"I would like to learn Japanese but I don't have enough time in my lifetime. That's very depressing," says [Brecht].

The guy doesn't know Japanese. There's certainly no shame in that, but why is he giving out lessons? Let me offer some advice to the National Foreign Language Center: The next time you want to comment on a specific language, please let someone qualified field the question!




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