Chinese, Japanese, Korean – Which one should I learn?

(Note: “Chinese” technically covers a wide range of related but mutually unintelligible dialects; however, it most commonly refers to Mandarin Chinese. As such, any references to “Chinese” in this post will refer exclusively to Mandarin, unless otherwise stated.)

With the recent increase in the popularity of East Asian pop culture, more and more language enthusiasts have become interested in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. In this article, I will discuss the differences between these languages in terms of difficulty and use. Naturally, I’m assuming the point of view of a native English speaker.

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Grammar

Right off the bat, Chinese appears to have the least intimidating grammar. Let’s take a look at the phrase “My name is Alan.” In each example, the literal translation of each word is placed below:

Chinese

我的名字是阿兰。

Wǒ de míng zì shì ā lán.

  My     name    is   Alan.

Japanese

私の名前はアランです。

Watashi no namae wa Aran desu.

My           name          Alan    is.

Korean

나의 이름은 아란이다.

Na-ui ileum-eun Aran-ida.

My     name        Alan   is.

Chinese has a similar pattern to English, with the order being Subject-Verb-Object. Korean and Japanese, on the other hand, follow a pattern of Subject-Object-Verb, with some grammatical particles to boot. What’s more, Chinese verb conjugation is far less complicated than that of Korean and Japanese.

Don’t be fooled by Chinese’s SVO pattern, however; the grammar is not quite a one-to-one with English. Like Japanese and Korean, Chinese is topic-central, leading to some interesting constructs. Take a look at a line from Guang Liang’s song “Tong Hua,” for example:

我不可能是你的王子。

Wǒ bù kě néng shì nǐ de wáng zǐ.

  I   impossible  be your prince.

Such a sentence would not make sense in English. However, in Chinese, this is valid because the first word, “我,” (me) is accepted to be the topic. With this in mind, the sentence translates to something more like “In regards to me, it’s impossible to be your prince.” Chinese has no particle to mark this specifically, while Japanese and Korean have the 「は」(wa) and “은/는” (eun/neun) particles to designate the topic of the sentence. In all three languages, the sentence “My name is Alan” is translated to something more like “In regards to my name, it’s Alan.” Regardless, native English speakers will still find Chinese grammar to be slightly more accessible than the more complex Japanese and Korean.

Winner: Chinese.

Writing

Chinese characters have had their influence on all three languages, though only modern Japanese and Chinese use them in day-to-day life.

Mandarin exclusively uses hanzi, or Chinese characters. Most characters have one pronunciation that is used universally. The characters 人 and 上 will always have the pronunciations “rén” and “shàng,” regardless of what word you find them in. This means that once you learn a character and its pronunciation, you will know how it sounds in a word just by looking at it. There are exceptions, of course (for example, 了 can have the sound “le” or “liǎo”), but these are far and few and have strictly followed rules about where each one is used anyway. The only real problem here is deciding whether or not to study Traditional or Simplified Chinese, which comes down more to which area of the Sinosphere you are more interested in. Mainland China and Singapore use Simplified Chinese, while Taiwan, Hong Kong, and many overseas Chinese communities use Traditional characters. (For example, the signs in San Fransisco Chinatown are in Traditional Chinese along with English.)

Japanese uses its own set of Chinese characters, called kanji, which are supplemented by two syllabic scripts, hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is used in word endings and native Japanese words with no kanji, while katakana is used to render loanwords and emphasize text. Take a block of Japanese text below:

名前イネプティドゥードこのブロゴいて大学コンピューターたちをゲームびが大好

My name is Ineptidude. I write in this blog and study computers at university. I really enjoy playing video games.

Hiragana – Red

Katakana – Blue

Kanji – Green

Most Kanji have at least two readings, the “kun,” or native Japanese reading, and the “on,” or the reading borrowed from Classical Chinese. However, as always, it’s not that simple. Many kanji can have far more than two readings: in fact, the kanji 「生」has more than 5 unique pronunciations, depending on the word it’s in. After a while, a Japanese learner will find that it’s better to learn how kanji are pronounced in individual vocabulary rather than trying to learn all the readings of each and every kanji. Many Japanese teachers will make the mistake of telling students that Kanji is unnecessary, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The word “kikan,” when typed phonetically into Denshi Jisho, brings up a whole slew of words, all of which mean vastly different things but sound the same. Without the kanji, there is no way of meaningfully distinguishing them. (Think of this as the difference between “here” and “hear”: the spellings allow you to differentiate between the two.)

Here we find that Korean wins hands-down: it has an alphabet called Hangeul which consists of 14 consonants and 10 vowels that snap together to form syllabic blocks. For example, the word “Hangul” in Korean is spelled as “한글.” At first glance, this appears to be two characters, but is actually composed of the letters ㅎ,ㅏ,ㄴ,ㄱ,ㅡ, andㄹ. Because of this, and because of the larger number of unique sounds in Korean, Chinese characters are not needed in order to distinguish homophones the way that they are in Japanese. (Unless you’re a lawyer or a doctor, in which case hanja, or Chinese characters as used in Korean, will be quite common.) This being said, being familiar with hanja can be a big help in learning Korean vocabulary, much the way that Greek and Latin roots help someone in learning English.

Winner: Korean.

Pronunciation

One of the things that scares off many prospective Chinese students are Mandarin’s four tones. Depending on the tone of the syllable, the meaning can change completely. Take the difference between 是(shì) and 时(shí). The first character means “to be,” while the second character means “time,” yet the only difference is that the first uses a falling tone and the second uses a rising one. Tones are hard, and there’s no getting around that without practice: just like the Spanish r and Arabic q, you’ll need to practice, practice, practice in order to get them right.

Korean, while not a tonal language, is a beast in its own right. It has many vowel sounds that are similar to each other, such as ㅐ/ㅔ(e/ae) and ㅜ/ㅡ(u/eu), which can make listening a pain to master. Again, practice.

Japanese comes out as the clear winner. It has a mere 5 unique vowel sounds (a/i/e/o/u) and 18 unique consonant sounds, none of which are particularly hard for an English learner, other than r, which sounds less like the English r and more like a cross between and l. With very little practice you can hop on your feet and pronounce Japanese with ease.

Winner: Japanese.

Conclusion

In terms of the easiest language to learn, all of these languages are hard to learn in some way or another. Everything at this point comes down to your goals.

If you want to be able to communicate with a larger number of people, Chinese is the best way to go. At least 850 million people speak Chinese in the world, giving you the most “bang for your buck,” so to speak.

If you simply want to learn how to speak the language, Chinese wins out again, due to the much simpler grammar. However, it’s fair to mention Japanese as a second-place winner in this regard, due to the accessible pronunciation.

If you are interested in music and media, Korean is probably the best language to learn, with South Korea’s booming entertainment industry which is one of the largest in Asia.

If you are interested in anime, Japanese is naturally the best language to learn, given that anime comes from Japan.

If you are interested in all three languages, Japanese is the best language to start with. Learning kanji will dispel your fear of Chinese characters, and Japanese and Korean have a very similar grammar. What’s more, many “cognates” can be derived from Chinese characters. The word for “university” in all three languages shares the same two characters: 大学, pronounced “dàxué” in Chinese, “daigaku” in Japanese, and “daehak”(대학) in Korean. A knowledge of Japanese gives you a running start in the other two languages, something you may not get as much of by starting in another language.

Which ever language you choose to learn, good luck!

Resources for Learning

Chinese

Japanese

Korean

Ninja edit: Fixed a typo in the graphic. Also added resources.