(Original post by miniteen)
The simple fact that most of our words in French are the same as those in English will make French easier to learn for someone who does not have a particular preference for either language when learning these languages. With London being full of French people, and the Eurostar at King's Cross being so convenient, having support to learn French is a lot easier than Japanese.
Most people start Japanese and find it very easy, but they never take it to a higher level. Because the pronunciation is incredibly simple, and the basic grammar is relatively simple as well, Basic Japanese is actually easier than Basic French. But then when you start with kanji, and you have kanji with 12 different possible pronunciations, I'm not so sure you will find Japanese that easy anymore. And even for Chinese people, the kanji can be a hassle in Japanese because of the different pronunciations. Of course they will always understand it, but reading out loud or knowing how to pronounce certain things will take some time to learn. Some Japanese themselves even forget the pronunciation of certain words.
After you progress from basic french and move on to intermediate, it gets easier. The words are virtually the same as in English. Also, since in French you can tell the pronunciation from the spelling (the other way round isn't true though) it becomes quite easy to learn words. You can also guess words in French, which you can rarely do in Japanese (unless you know Korean or a form of Chinese.)
Then comparing the intermediate/advanced grammar (I'm talking written, i.e. newspaper articles etc.) both are relatively difficult, but with Japanese it is sometimes very difficult to tell who is the subject, especially since they tend to omit the subject and passive is a form of respect. French is a lot more straightforward, and the different verb modes are used not as a form of respect but as a way of conveying what is hypothetical (subjonctif, conditionnel) and fact (indicatif.)
I think it is very misleading to say to someone who is learning their first second language (and has no real personal preference) that they are of the same difficulty. It can be really demotivating when they start the language and find it too hard.
The Foreign Service Institute* has ranked different languages according to their difficulty for a native (non-bilingual) english speaker. Japanese, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Korean and Arabic are at the bottom of the list (i.e. hardest to learn.) Japanese is considered here to be the most difficult. I believe they put the languages in this particular order for the exact same reasons I cited above. Of course, I stand by my statement where if you have a particular affinity for a language, you will find it easier, which is why I find Korean harder than Chinese or Japanese. Also, I'd like to point out that whereas at Cambridge or Oxford taking two languages as a BA is considered normal, when it comes to the East Asian languages they rarely let you take two. This is because getting to a certain level in any of these takes a very very
long time. And I said holds for Chinese as well. Go to France for 6 months you will come back with a very decent level. Come to Beijing for one year and you will still be high elementary to lower intermediate.
* Site I talked about
EDIT: I just stumbled across this website and I find it extremely good to understand why Chinese is difficult. It was written by a senior professor in Chinese (of the University of Michigan) I believe and it is quite spot on. Of course he isn't talking basic Chinese, but more why someone who, at the end of 4 years of Chinese, still finds the language so difficult. http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html