People, I can’t freaking take it any more. Everywhere I go, left and right. “Japanese is the hardest language in the galaxy”. “Japanese people themselves cannot read Japanese”. “Japanese uses thousands of characters, TWO syllabaries and even Arabic numerals and Roman letters from time to time”. “Even the Vulcans had trouble with Japanese”. Double u. Tee. Eff.
First of all, if you want to whine about complexity, English isn’t that simple either. A phonetically complex Germanic language using the writing system of its Roman colonial masters (who used a phonetically simpler, Romance language) that itself was a derivative of the Greek writing system which was in turn derived from the Phoenician writing system? If they’d only asked me first, I could have told them that this was a bad idea. There aren’t enough letters in English to represent its sounds: there aren’t. The only reason you and I can even read (reed? riid? ried? reid? rwd?) English successfully is because we do all kinds of pattern-matching and crap to bridge the gap between text and sound (oh my gorsh — just like IN JAPANESE!?!?!). And not only that, but there aren’t “only 26 letters” in the Roman alphabet as we now use it. There are at least 52 (since uppercase looks nothing the heck like lowercase), not to mention punctuation and Arabic numerals. As for handwriting, how many people can correctly spell any English word? I don’t know about you, but “Massachussetts” always trips me up (I think I’ve got it wrong even now) and Matt Claridge and his mum make fun of me for it ;).
More importantly, the Japanese and Chinese writing systems do not use “thousands of characters” as such. A kanji is not just a character or letter: it is closer to a word. Indeed, many individual kanji are words, even though the past couple thousand years have seen a trend toward two-kanji compounds. Each kanji is made up of logical components [all kanji are made from a subset of the same set of 190-200 or so logical components; all those logical components are made up of the same 7 or 8 strokes] those that indicate its meaning and, to some extent, even its pronunciation. And guess what, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan have some of the highest literacy rates in the world. Some experiments have shown that kanji are processed faster in the brain than phonetic systems; I certainly find that kanji pack a lot of meaning-per-pixel. Meanwhile, many countries that use the supposedly simpler Roman alphabet — even Romance-language-speaking countries that don’t have the phonetic gap of English — have crappy literacy rates. Don’t even get me started about adult illiteracy in the US.
So, whoever you are, stop scaring the children! Stop whining about how Japanese is “so complex”. Stop trying to intimidate people with horror stories about all the homophone bloopers just “waiting” to happen to a learner of Japanese. Stop doing the modern equivalent of putting “here be dragons” on a map!!! And stop going on about “thousands of characters”: those characters are WORDS, and English has a ton of words, too — hundreds of thousands — without nearly the recombinative power of kanji. You can’t measure the kanji system with the same ruler as you would an alphabet and then give people the impression that “it’s like having an alphabet with ten thousand letters!”. It’s not; the two systems are entirely different and it’s really apples and oranges to attempt to equate them in any way that would permit comparison. For your own good and for the good of the children, don’t conflate having something to do with having an obstacle; don’t confuse difficulty of task with crappiness of method. This is not Kansas: paradigm shift, people.
Just because someone is (or even a lot of people are) having trouble with a task, that doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically hard — more often than not, it could just be that the method sucks. The method sucks, not the person. Often we can be trying to walk across a tightrope while fencing left-handed and eating steak with a plastic spoon and frying an egg with a magnifiying glass all at the same time and all without even being aware of it. That kind of situation would make steak seem hard to eat, and eggs hard to fry. But they aren’t. So, find your way of making it easy: it’s out there. Find a sharp knife and fork for that steak; get off that tightrope; acquire a pan, some oil and fire to fry that egg. You’re smart enough to do it.