(Disclaimer: The **IS** a LONG post. No need to state what is obvious. Don't like, move on to shorter posts.)
Couldn't find a place to discuss linguistics specifically so this might be just as good as any other section.....
I would really like to get some WELL-FOUNDED thoughts on this matter, i.e. not mere speculations or opinions. I am not sure if there are any professional linguists around here, but people ACTUALLY having studied more languages than Japanese for more than two weeks are welcome
Considering the general recommendation from US Foreign Department Language Studies - at least something like that - Japanese, Mandarin and Arabic get the rating Very Hard To Learn, right? I have PLAYED around with Japanese for soon ten years and have studied Mandarin since last (this) summer.
I have never attempted to study Arabic, but I have a Teach Yourself book and can "read" Arabic, since I know the writing and can translate that into acceptable sounds. Of course I don't understand anything of what I say, but nevertheless.... It's a rather tricky grammar, compared with, say, Farsi ("Persian") which is a VERY EASY LANGUAGE, something I know since I have learned a bit a long time ago. Arabic is kind of difficult to pronounce, but not at all as difficult as Mandarin.
Mandarin is A VERY DIFFICULT language the first months or so, when you have to learn 1) pinyin (a monster compared with romaji/kana) and 2) the rather subtle and varied sounds and 3) the tones. This takes some SERIOUS work. But from there it's a fast ride towards literacy, **IF** you happen to know Kanji really well, as I do. If not, then you of course have to add the problem of learning Hanzi, which is roughly the same as learning Kanji, apart from the fact that MORE characters (3000+) are needed than in Japanese if you to be considered reasonably literate. (I am also very old fashioned since I also count HAND WRITING as a requirement to gain the status of FULLY LITERATE )
When I stopped merely having Japanese as a hobby and recreational activity, and actually tried to STUDY Japanese in a serious and structured way, I had a rather humbling experience: I failed! And I failed miserably!What I did was to basically go for a modified AJATT method, i.e. adding sentences to a SRS program and repeating them until I new them well AND could go from English to Japanese without any effort. No problemo to learn the sentences in Japanese and be able to read them and understand them. BUT... And a MIGHTY BIG BUT: the other way around just didn't work! Soon I found that I had to spend 60-70% - probably more like 80-90 - of my time to repeat and repeat. Not much room to add new sentences.
OK, I thought, I am getting too old and dumb for this kind of Real Language Studies. [Nasty Word] Japanese!!! Then I needed something new to put my teeth into and picked Mandarin as the best candidate as another failure. And voila: I was neither dumb not too old to learn A VERY DIFFICULT LANGUAGE. I am rather shocked by the ease of Mandarin and the speed I manage to keep up. There might be some black hole waiting ahead, but I can't possible imagine what that could be. Mandarin grammar is so easy that many claim that "Mandarin has no grammar at all". It sure does, as proven by the one and only Mandarin grammar book I own (Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar), but as things look right now this single title will be enough for a couple of years.
Japanese seems to a particularly easy target for MERE OPINIONS; even among EXPERTS. Compare these two quotes from
1) Read Real Japanese Fiction, Amazon.com: http://tinyurl.com/977p3t
2) Read Real Japanese Essays, Amazon.com: http://tinyurl.com/94sbcg
both beautiful books I strongly recommend (like almost every title from Kodansha)!
1) Michael Emmerich:
The phrase "best-kept secret" gets on on my nerves [...] You have heard rumors, no doubt, that Japanese is an extremely difficult language for English speakers to master. Impossible, even! Well, rest assured, fellow students - these rumors are false. One of the best-kept secrets around, really and truly, is that Japanese is not actually that hard. [...] That's the rub, really - It's not that the language is hard, per se, you just have to take your time getting into it, and that's true of any language.
(My emphasis on the last sentence!!]
2) Janet Ashby:
[...] Yet Japanese remains a deeply frustrating language to study. So much so that I remember finding it positively encouraging when my Japanese professor remarked one day that it took seven years to learn the language - I had despaired pf ever being able to pick up up a Japanese magazine or newspaper and read it more or less easily.
The problem is not only the kanji barrier, high though that can be for Western learners of Japanese, but also the differences in the spoken and written language and the unfamiliar vocabulary, set expressions, sentence patterns, and even the way of thinking. And despite all the changes in the learning environment over the years, there still aren't many intermediate reading materials available, especially ones that can be used for independent study.
I quoted at length from Ashby since she summarized what would have taken me much more words very eloquently. I would like to add one point, though: There aren't very many text books for the beginner either. Genki, Japanese for Everyone (which I own) and the likes are excellent for maybe one year, but then they leave you in the dust. Mandarin have already passed Japanese by a wide margin with text book SERIES like A New Practical Chinese Reader offering material for a full three years of UNIVERSITY STUDIES. OK, it will, when the final volume 6 is published. There are quite a few alternatives, even if I don't think anything i FULLY as comprehensive as this one.
Back to Emmerich/Ashby ... Why the contrasting statements? Don't know. I think Emmerich is possibly playing with words. "Difficult" and "taking ages" are obviously not synonyms. Every bit and piece of Japanese is of course NOT DIFFICULT. The problem is that the NUMBER of pieces to keep track of, vastly exceeds any possible and impossible language I can think of. Just for fun, I will send a copy of this post to his Princeton email address, including a link to see if he will respond
Enough for now. I'm all ears