Everyone says Japanese is a hard language, but if you remove the Kanji learning part from it, is it just as easy as any other language which just has a different writing system?

Is spoken Japanese easier or harder than other common European languages?

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    Ignoring extralinguistic features like writing systems, it's difficult to define language difficulty in an absolute way. It's more easily defined relative to the languages you already know--look up linguistic distance. Japanese is much easier to learn for a native speaker of Korean than English, for example. – snailplane May 14 '14 at 18:43
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    In my own personal opinion, kanji isn't a matter of difficult, so much as it is, they just take a lot of work to memorize. I find it much more difficult to read when a sentence is written without kanji, because it's hard to tell where one word ends and where another begins--or even if a set of characters is a word at all. – Ataraxia May 14 '14 at 19:27
  • On the back of snailboat's answer, and with a real world example: when you first started to learn to write (assuming English is your primary language), the alphabet was a difficult thing to learn. However, were you to study French then you would find the written side (ignoring spelling) not as difficult because French has a closer linguistic distance to English than Japanese. – Jamie Taylor May 15 '14 at 15:07

From a hypothetical perspective I'll concede that it's not impossible to be effective in Japanese without kanji (after all, Korean is very similar in a number of critical ways here, and has been functioning largely without Chinese characters for 60 years—and North Korea has completely abolished their use), however there are many practical benefits to be gained from keeping them.

That said, if you remove the kanji, it actually makes (written) Japanese much harder in several ways. The most important of these is that it makes it more difficult to identify homophonic words.

For example, which meaning is the writer referring to when they use the following words?

  • sake: salmon (鮭) or alcohol (酒)?
  • hashi: bridge (橋), chopsticks (箸), or end (端)?
  • kami: deity (神), paper (紙), or hair (髪)?
  • kaeru: to change (換える, 変える, 替える, 代える), to go home (帰る), or just a frog (蛙)?

These are just a small sampling among many others possible candidates. These don't even list out all possible homophonic examples for the ones I've called out.

Further, for experienced readers of Japanese, it becomes much harder to skim through things because the visual cues have been removed. Kanji aren't just there to make people's lives difficult.

Another area in which Kanji are useful is that they provide a built-in system of roots, prefixes, and suffixes to use when learning the language. Now, it's true that other languages have this as well (most European languages get theirs from Greek and Latin, for example), however kanji once again provide a distinct benefit here. By having a defined visual representation, kanji provide a specific, unambiguous clue as to the meaning of the word in which they are being used.

For example:

  • 歯医者 = 歯 tooth, 医 medicine, 者 person = tooth + doctor = dentist
  • 文学 = 文 writing, 学 learning = literature

Further, this information is taught as part of learning the language—I've met several adults who speak English natively that were not aware of the concept of Greek and Latin roots. This awareness allows not just for the deciphering of new words you come across for the first time, but also enables someone to make educated guesses when they need access to a word they haven't previously seen or used.

For example (from my own experience):

  • If you're trying to say something happened at the same time as something else, you could combine the knowledge that 同 means "same" and 時 means time to get 同時【どうじ】.

In short, when approached with the right attitude and understanding, Kanji make Japanese a far simpler language than many others, for the following reasons:

  • Japanese grammar is far simpler than most languages in critical commonly-used areas such as noun, verb, and adjective usage (no need for separate conjugations, numerical agreement, gender agreement, etc.)
  • Kanji provide a highly-visible method of guessing the meanings (and in compounds, many times the readings as well) of words that you have never come across before
  • In a similar manner, kanji provide a means of visualizing and constructing new words to fill needs much more fluidly than in most other languages
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    I did see some people write Japanese without or with few Kanji. As a result, they used spaces as people do in Hangul to make the text more readable. e.g. 現代日本における「識字」のイデオロギーと漢字不可欠論 まじめな卒論ですね。 – Yang Muye May 14 '14 at 14:33
  • I've seen that before as well, such as in children's books. As mentioned, Korean is a great example of how it can work. My point is primarily that what would be lost significantly outweighs the perceived benefits. – Kaji May 14 '14 at 14:38
  • Skimming the author's points in his opening, I find I must very quickly disagree with him on something—while it may appear true on its face that kanji aren't applicable in spoken Japanese, I've found myself in many a conversation flipping through several characters in my head to try and determine which word was being used. Further, spoken Japanese uses pitch accent to perform a similar function in a much more limited fashion. – Kaji May 14 '14 at 14:40
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    Japanese without kanji is a bit like English with phonetic spelling -- sure, it can happen, and still kinda sorta make sense, but the loss of information is ultimately so great that any serious effort to go that route quickly bogs down. Ate? Eight? Red? Read? To? Too? Two? etc. – Eiríkr Útlendi May 14 '14 at 15:30
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