And here's what Wikipedia has to say, with a citation:
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For English speakers
Diplomats and defense language training gives some interesting data [regarding the most difficult languages to learn], although it covers only a limited selection of major national languages:
- The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages. Of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and proficiency in reading (for native English speakers who already know other languages), requiring 88 weeks, are: "Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean", with Japanese being the most difficult.
The program here in Japan has been much more relaxed in that way, and the culture of the International House is much more like what I'm used to than what actual Japanese culture seems to be, though still occasionally it gets to me. Japanese is extremely difficult. I'm learning to appreciate the sheer complexity of the construction of language itself in general, but there's something different about Japan. Even had I been born here and gone to Japanese school, I would still be in a different category because I look different. And now, after nearly four months (has it really been that long??), I've certainly gotten better, but I still can't understand most conversations any more than what the topic at hand is. It's frustrating. And it's true, Japanese culture is very different. If anyone ever said that culture is a mere illusion, that person was wrong; no matter what, I'll be assumed to be "out" in some ways even if I live here the rest of my life.
Still, there are some practical benefits to being a foreigner in Japan, though to be honest it's really the first time in my life I've hit a wall that seems at least in some ways truly impenetrable. Growing up in LA as a middle class white male going to high-powered schools certainly gave me an advantage, and I never knew the kinds of limitations I would hear about in history class--and so I learned to believe that they were all illusions, that they were false, that anyone can really do anything if they have the right interest. Likewise I never understood my privilege. American culture loves the underdog, the success story, the unlikely winner--so Americans are taught that we can do anything. We're taught that every person is unique and special, and that we need those ideas to have self-esteem and be happy people. So much so that real limitations are looked down upon or swept under the rug--for example, when Obama was elected, there were some who declared America a "post-racial society," a supposition that is simply wrong. Some people who are lobbying against healthcare reform seem keen to overlook the real hardships faced every day by millions of people who can hardly (or not at all) afford healthcare. I was always taught that everything was possible, even to the extent that I sort of thought of myself as a "victim of the liberal arts" in that I felt overwhelmed by opportunity, spread out, and distracted all the time--so much that I desperately wanted just to focus. I turned to foreign language and culture to find some of that meaning and focus that I so desperately felt I needed. The fact remains that there are a number of people in America who are not too fond of immigrants, and feel that everyone coming to America should already be able to speak English. And maybe that's not so bizarre to understand; dealing with different cultures is exhausting work, and to not be able to understand or communicate is stressful, even frightening. People fear the "other."
Maybe that's why I stay with this kind of stuff. American culture is full of a desire for instant gratification, a one-hit wonder, results as fast as possible. Infomercials sell 5-minute ab-packs. Conan was kicked off The Tonight Show after only 7 months. If a band is so lucky to get signed by a label, they will likely have a contract that requires success within a certain time frame. I used to think that I would eventually find some sort of occupation someday that would just immediately be easy--I'd just be able to do it, and I'd love it, and that would be it. But I've come slowly and painfully to realize that life just doesn't work like that--it's a series of slow processes, and it just so happens that learning Japanese is one of the slowest. I want to have real values, and I don't want to slip something "other" under the rug.
Last night I bought dried squid at the convenience store down the street. I would never have done that, even three months ago, but last night I ate it and loved it. And tonight at bowling, even though I had a hard time understanding a lot of the Japanese, I learned some new words. And for each of the four games of bowling we did, my score improved every time. That's progress. That's real. That's what I'm doing here.