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You are correct that it's like learning anything else. If you put the time in and are motivated and go about it the right way you can learn it.

But it's still "the most difficult language to learn". So it's worth taking that difficulty into account. For example one can learn Spanish, Swedish and Vietnamese in around the same amount of time it would take to learn Japanese.

What about Chinese? As someone who's learning Japanese already, Chinese looks more difficult to me. To me it seems very subjective, some people will be better at learning one language vs. another.

I spent 3 years learning Mandarin in college, and then spent a full 13 months at Beida in 96. I've had significantly less training in Japanese: one year in CC, but decades now of regular subbed anime, a Japanese wife, and two Japanese-speaking-first children. I think their relative complexity is broadly equivalent, but in different ways:

Phonologically, Japanese is easier. No tones, and no retroflex consonants to worry about as in Mandarin (unless you don't mind sounding southern/Taiwanese). There is a pitch accent in Japanese, but apparently it varies wildly from one end of the country to the other, and it's not generally critical to comprehension, unlike Mandarin tones.

Lexically, Japanese is easier, at least IME. Don't know a word? Given all the borrowing in Japanese, I've had very good luck just to mangle the English word into Japanese phonotactics, and 90% of the time, the person I've spoken to immediately knows what I mean.

Syntactically, there's a lot more similarity in Mandarin's basic SVO word order to English.

But Kanji. OMG. You need to learn roughly the same set of Kanji as hanzi to be high-school literate, but the Japanese set will generally have a minimum of two pronunciations per character, which vary wildly in context. Mandarin generally has one pronunciation per character, which becomes far simpler to learn.

From the contact I've had with (Mandarin) Chinese, the basic grammar has the same word order as English. You have to teach yourself to interpret tones as lexical information, instead of just emphasis/emotion/flow. You need to learn more characters in Chinese than in Japanese for equivalent proficiency. Deeper into the language, there are more "two birds, one stone" kind of metaphors that are widely used (basically, cultural points that you need to learn, even if you understand the literal meanings of the constituent words).

Those are a mixture of my impressions, and the opinions of friends who speak the language (both learned and native). Overall, I think the most difficult part of mastering Chinese and Japanese is the same: Lack of shared cultural context, if you come from an English-speaking or European country.

According to the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State, Chinese and Japanese are in the same category of difficulty (2200 hours).

But, there's an important distinction. Japanese is singled out as "somewhat more difficult for native English speakers to learn than other languages in the same category."

Tones are tricky in Chinese, on the other hand, there is no conjugation which I really appreciate.

For me, and from a mechanical perspective, the only truly difficult part of learning Japanese was kanji. The really annoying part is that Japanese doesn't use spaces and instead relies on transitions between the three writing systems to separate words, so even if you can get a hold of a page all in hiragana, it'll look like a wall of text. I still don't recognize much kanji, so for the most part I can only understand written Japanese after glossing it in WWWJDIC [0]. Furigana is a life saver.

Spoken Japanese, though, is easy. Well, at least from a mechanical standpoint. Japanese grammar is dirt simple and minimalistic, and I found it shockingly easy to learn. However, as someone else mentioned elsewhere in the post, Japanese is very big on inferring as much as possible from context and only speaking what can't be inferred. It can honestly be a chore just to determine whether a sentence is in the first person, the second person, or the third person, because Japanese is so aggressively pro-drop that most of the time, that information has to be inferred from context. And if you intend on speaking Japanese yourself, there's a lot of subtlety when it comes to picking the appropriate register to speak in. Use the wrong verb endings or the wrong pronouns (in this case, I'm glad Japanese is so aggressively pro-drop), and you'll stick your foot in your mouth.

[0] Most people use it as a dictionary, but it also has a really awesome glossing mode: http://www.edrdg.org/cgi-bin/wwwjdic/wwwjdic?9T

Look at Rikaichan/Rikaikun (Firefox and Chrome extension names). They're great tools for aid in reading.

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