A lot of people ask me whether they ought to learn Chinese or Japanese, and a key question for them is which one is harder. I don’t believe that difficulty should be a big factor in the equation unless the language is your first foreign language and you need quick success. It is much more important that you’re interested in the culture and that you see yourself using the language in the future. However, for what it’s worth, here’s a detailed comparison of Chinese and Japanese in terms of difficulty.
Note: I know enough Chinese to read modern novels in it and I started learning Japanese in August 2012. This means my Japanese is still weaker, but I don’t think that has influenced me unduly. If you disagree, write me.
So, without further ado…
Harder in Japanese
* Spoken language. In spoken Japanese, as in many languages, a lot of syllables get dropped, while Chinese speakers usually have amazingly clear pronunciation. When had just learned Chinese for half a year, I would sit on a bus near some Chinese students talking to each other and I could have written down every word they said (in Pinyin and sometimes unsure of the tone). I was far from understanding any of it of course, but still.
* Writing system. In Chinese you need 3000+ characters for basic reading fluency as opposed to Japanese's 2100+, but at that level learning some more characters is not really hard, everything is a rehash of parts you had before. What makes Japanese harder is that every character has multiple pronunciations. Also, Japanese characters have more strokes than simplified Chinese characters. Finally, I find it much harder to memorize the Hiragana and Katakana compared to memorizing an equal amount of Chinese characters because the Hiragana & Katakana are random wiggly lines while Chinese characters have meaning and can at least partly be derived.
* Vagueness. A lot of things are left unspecified. Chinese can do that, too, especially in literary language, but it's less common.
* Politeness. This is a non-topic in Chinese.
* Word order. As others have pointed out, Japanese word order is less like English word order, while Chinese tends to be similar. Actually, Chinese word order is very much like German word order, because we also like to put adverbials at the beginning of a phrase.
* Grammar. As someone who has studied Latin, there is nothing I'd recognize as grammar study in Chinese.
* Measure words. In both Japanese and Chinese you have to remember which measure word goes with which noun. In Japanese however, the measure word can also modify the number, so that you have to learn different words for each number and choose the right one depending on context.
Harder in Chinese
* Pronunciation. Contrary to what a lot of people think, it's not so hard to learn the tones; I've taught people in less than two hours. Recognizing the tones is also not so difficult. However, it is hard to remember which tone goes with which syllable, and it is hard to apply that knowledge when talking at normal speed. Also, distinctions like q / ch, j / zh and consonants like r and x are hard for beginners.
* Vocabulary. Chinese has less loan words from other languages, and there's the matter of memorizing the tone with every syllable, and the character. Japanese words can be longer, which makes them a bit harder to remember, but not enough to make up for this imho.
Equally hard in both
* Relative clauses, possibly the most counter-intuitive grammar chapter for a European
* 4-character idioms (Chengyu / Yojijukugo)
(I originally posted this on Quora at What makes Japanese a harder language to learn than Chinese, but Quora is now becoming a walled garden that requires people to register before they can read answers such as these, so I’m re-posting it here.)