People often ask me questions like these:
What's the easiest / hardest language you ever learned?
Isn't Chinese really difficult?
Which is harder, Chinese or Japanese? Sanskrit or German?
Without a moment's hesitation, I always reply that Mandarin is the easiest spoken language I have learned and that Chinese is the most difficult written language I have learned. I learned to speak Mandarin fluently within about a year, but I've been studying written Chinese for half a century and it's still an enormous challenge. I'm sure that I'll never master it even if I live to be as old as Zhou Youguang.
For many languages that I've learned, the level of difficulty between spoken and written is not very great. For example, Nepali. I achieved a high degree of fluency within less than a year, and basically I could read and write anything I could say, and vice versa. Of course, when you get into higher level intellectual discourse, then it becomes more Sanskritic, but for daily conversation that is not normally an issue.
I find Japanese speaking, listening, reading, and writing all to be difficult, although the reading and writing — for obvious reasons — are more difficult than speaking and listening, at least for me.
To see how my own impressions compare with those of others, I invite Language Log readers to list between 2 and 6 "second" languages they have studied according to relative level of difficulty. I'm limiting the number to 6 so as to keep this project of manageable size and also to keep show-offs under control.
Here's my list:
1. Mandarin (spoken)
6. Chinese (written)
After several days, I will attempt to tabulate the results to determine roughly which languages come out near the top (easier) and which near the bottom (harder).
I realize that this is only an impressionistic survey and that it does not possess scientific certitude concerning which languages are objectively harder and which are objectively easier. Nonetheless, it does evince validity about which languages people perceive to be easier and which they feel are harder.