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Has there been research done about which languages are generally the easiest to learn for an average native Japanese speaker? Do they have an easier time learning Mandarin than learning a Western language like English?

  • A great majority of Japanese people tend to say that Korean is the easiest to pick. I am researching for a study now. Do you mind if the study is not in English? – 永劫回帰 Apr 12 '16 at 4:58
  • @駑馬十駕 : Of course the study doesn't have to be English as long as you speak in English about the results of the study. It's likely that more information about the subject matter is written in Japanese than in English. – Christian Apr 12 '16 at 10:34
  • @Christian The Internet is full of questions "should I pick Korean or A?" with A being either Chinese or English but finding real studies proves to be quite hard. The best I found so far was reviewing the teaching of Korean in Japan and what were the impressions of the students but nothing that compare Korean to other languages. – 永劫回帰 Apr 12 '16 at 11:40
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    @Αδριανός Japanese speakers use kanji extensively. It'd be rare to see a sentence written by an adult that didn't contain kanji. Koreans speakers use hanja much less extensively and generally just write in hangul. Chinese characters (especially simplified ones) are not identical to kanji. Japanese speakers learn to decipher classical Chinese by character in high school... – virmaior Jun 1 '16 at 15:09
  • A good start for learning western languages would be Esperanto since it provides a language with no grammatical irregularities. This would be a good gateway for a person whose first language is Japanese to learn harder western languages, which can have many irregularities. It is a constructed language, though, but very useful in learning to understand Western languages. – Karlomanio Oct 8 '18 at 19:38
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This language school's website has hour estimates for how long it takes a Japanese speaker to learn various other languages based on their internal studies. I've attempted to translate it.

The course names are somewhat confusing but they basically boils down to something like learn the minimum level needed when working/living abroad, learn to be able to do basic daily communications, learn to use daily expressions and be able to live smoothly abroad.

Note also the times are in hours of (classroom) instruction.

Course Name  'Working Abroad Course'    'Training for the Fundamentals Course'  'Course for Studying Abroad'
Spanish      50~60                     120~180                                 240~300
French       60~70                     130~150                                 300~350
German       60~70                     130~150                                 300~350
Russian      100~120                   180~220                                 350~400
Indonesian   40~50                     100~120                                 180~240
Korean       40~50                     100~120                                 180~240
Chinese      50~60                     120~160                                 240~300
Thai         80~100                    140~180                                 280~340

Note that English isn't in the table, but it is included in a difficulty chart on that website as being in the same category as French, German, Hungarian, and Thai. So, estimating based on the other languages, English probably would take around 300+ hours of instruction to reach the maximum level taught at this language school.

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Japanese is considered a "language isolate" which is a language that has no demonstrable relationship with other languages or is descendant from any other language. Other examples of this is Georgian, Korean, and Etruscan.

There have been attempts to show that Japanese is related to such languages as Ryukyuan, Tibeto-Burman, and Mon-Khmer but inconclusively. Korean has been shown to be the strongest possibility but it remains a hypothesis. Strangely, I know several Koreans who can speak Japanese but this may be due to the close proximity of the two countries and the intermingling due to travel.

This leads to the conclusion that if Japanese is an isolated language it would be difficult for a Japanese native speaker to learn any other language but not impossible

Reference: Martine Robbeets (2005): Is Japanese Related to Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic and Turkic?. (Dissertation; see the abstract on linguistlist.)

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While the results of this paper aren't explicit in their conclusion with respect to your question, you can infer that if an LFG can be ported from Japanese to Korean with high success, then there must be a high degree of similarity between the two languages (for some definition of high).

This is commensurate with the fact that there's a large amount of historical influence of both China and Japan within the Korean peninsula.

When hangul was invented by King Sejong in the 15th century, there was still a desire for some degree of cultural unification with China (hence influencing the maintenance of hanja, or Chinese characters, in Korean); however, Japanese occupancy in Korea also had a hand in the melding of Korean. In fact, in pre-WW2 Korea, Japanese was a mandatory course to be studied by students leaving Korean as an optional course.

  • The fact that the languages are similar doesn't necessarily mean that Korean is easier to learn. Korean could also simply be a hard language to learn and a dissimilar language that's less complex could be easier to learn. – Christian Jun 7 '16 at 11:18
  • @Christian Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the basis of your question. How would you define "easier"? Similarity is typically regarded as a good metric, but the real answer to your question would require hundreds of man-years for Japanese language learners to learn every language on the planet (and several times over for statistical validity). – erip Jun 7 '16 at 11:27
  • I'm talking about the time it takes to learn the language. For English natives the US Foreign Service has a list that measuses difficulty of learning the language in hours. It takes an American half the time to learn Zulu than it takes them to learn Korean. – Christian Jun 7 '16 at 11:31
  • @Christian I'm familiar with the FSI list, but the problem is that those are estimates (and fairly poor ones, to boot). Language learning isn't a simple transaction of 600 hours in, fluency out. Fluency isn't well-measured and facility isn't well-defined. – erip Jun 7 '16 at 11:34
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    @fi12 : There are many institutions such as language schools that teach multiple languages and evaluate how well their students speak their language. As such the data is likely out there. The question is whether someone published it. – Christian Jun 8 '16 at 19:51

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