Asian Languages: Chinese, Japanese, Korean

A comparison of the major East Asian languages of Chinese (Mandarin), Japanese & Korean

These are some initial thoughts from an English perspective. I am most experienced with learning Chinese (having taken courses) and recently started taking some beginner Japanese classes and have read up on my own about Korean. I have learned a fair amount about the pronunciations but can only say really basic sentences in Japanese and nothing significant in Korean. I have read about the basic “correct” sentence structure and grammar that isn’t actually spoken (i.e. devoid of honorifics and conjugations). I have an idea of the different conjugations and how honorifics changes them.

I’m also strictly limiting Chinese to Mandarin and none of the other bazillion dialects. I won’t be talking about the most popular dialects such as Shanghainese or Cantonese. I know nothing about the former and all I’ll say about the latter is that speaking and writing are different which is a pain. It has more tones than Mandarin (also a pain) and because of this I don’t understand how Cantonese people don’t confuse Monday and Sunday where the last character only differs by tone. I have also heard of a Hong Kong tendency to pronounce “n” like “l” which only sounds like it would cause more confusion.

Pronunciation

PinYin makes Chinese easy to learn all the sounds. Some sounds like zi and ci might be a bit difficult to do at first but generally it is straight-forward without many sounds that don’t exist in English. However, there are four tones which can be difficult. I personally hate tones because I have a difficult time detecting them but I think the difficulty of tones will vary greatly from person to person. Tones do exist in English but they do not change the meaning of a word. Instead they indicate emphasis, a command, surprise or transform a statement into a question. For example, a second tone in Chinese is like when you transform a sentence into a question without using the typical grammar for a question by pronouncing the last word with a rising tone. When giving a strong command to someone, it usually sounds like the Chinese 4th tone. The 3rd tone sounds similar to when one expresses skepticism. The fact that a wrong tone can change the meaning in Chinese means there are more serious consequences for not being adept with tones. Personally, I often confuse the 1st tone and 4th tone when hearing spoken speech even if in isolation the difference is obvious. Here’s a video on tones. Sound quality is not great but the explanations are pretty similar to my own.

Japanese sounds seems quite clear and not too hard to pronounce. Other than tsu, which isn’t hard, I don’t think it has any sounds that don’t exist in English. There are no tones although they may have intonations. I recently learned that the hiragana character for fu is really pronounced like hu but for whatever reason is transcribed as fu in Romaji (the use of English letters to express Japanese phonetics). However, it is commonly used for any foreign word that has the letter f in it. There are cases where the u in su is not pronounced. A common example is suki (“to like”) which is almost always pronounced ski. Loanwords that end in s will almost always end with su in Japanese but the last u will not be pronounced. But for a word like sumimasen, the u is very clearly pronounced. I don’t think there are any rules for when the u is not pronounced. While saying Japanese words seems easier I’d say it’s harder to listen to Japanese and discern the words because of the dropped vowel sounds described previously. Also h sounds and clipped sounds (indicated by the small tsu) can be hard to detect. There are also short and long vowels which can be hard to distinguish from each other. Chinese speakers even when talking fast don’t really skip sounds and the main difficulty is catching the right tone.

Korean has no tones but also more unfamiliar sounds. Certain consonants like g/k, b/p, d/t, j/ch have three versions where two of them sound almost the same. I’m referring to the normal and aspirated consonants. The only difference is in the amount of air that is released. To me the normal versions sound like k, p, t and ch while the aspirated ones sort of have a more emphasized trailing h sound as you release more air. In reality, the normal versions are clipped versions. These sounds do exist in English but they tend to occur at the end of a word and not the beginning like they can in Korean. The normal k in Korean sounds much like the k in the English word, “back.” The double consonants are thankfully easier to distinguish since they sound like g, b, d, j in English which are pronounced without any puff of air exiting the mouth. However, I think sometimes it’s hard to differentiate these in actual speech. Here’s a video concerning the pronunciations.

I have also noticed when listening to audio that “n” sometimes sounds like “d” (“ne” the Korean word for “yes”) and “m” sounds like “b” (“mi an he” which is the Korean word or word stem for “sorry”). Notice that these are words where the first letter is n or m. Why the shift in pronunciation I have no idea but it confused me a lot at the beginning.

This is different from the deliberate change in pronunciation that occurs in order to make sounds flow better together. For example, in honorific speech, the ending hapnida is really pronounced hamnida. This I find understandable.

In order of easiest to hardest: Japanese, Chinese, Korean

Reading/Writing system

Chinese requires memorization for every character. There is no alphabet. This can be pretty intimidating, not impossible (billions of Chinese manage it) but it’s not trivial. With the use of computers and cellphones, even Chinese people forget how to write some characters because they don’t have to write them by hand as often anymore. It is a real weakness of the language no matter how you analyze it but it is the way it is. I doubt it will ever change. The most annoying are the characters that represent loanwords since the characters chosen are completely arbitrary. In addition, they often do not sound remotely similar to the English word. You could read these characters in a text and have no idea that they aren’t “real” Chinese words but loanwords or names of places. A friend of mine told me the reason for this is that some of these loanwords are actually taken from Cantonese (which is older than Mandarin) and that these loanwords sound closer to English if spoken in Cantonese. I don’t know if this is true but there are definitely loanwords not taken from Cantonese that still sound almost nothing like the English word. This leads to a slightly related quirk about the Chinese name for the city of Montreal. The characters used are actually different in Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin uses four characters (MenTeLiEr) while Cantonese uses three (MonDayHaw). I wish that Chinese like Japanese had a separate script specifically for foreign names and places. It would clear up confusion. Chinese could even re-purpose ZhuYin (aka bopomofo) for this.

Sometimes, smaller parts of a character or the “root” part can give you a hint on how to pronounce a word but it gives you no hint about the correct tone. Characters can give you an idea of the meaning of a word but this generally only works for simple words. With more advanced words (particularly those that describe abstract concepts) there is no chance to correctly guess the real meaning based on how the character is written. Yes, Chinese characters look pretty or artistic but some are overly complex and only make them hard to memorize. There’s a reason why the government standardized a set of simplified Chinese characters. Different simplified characters had been used in different local communities long before it was ever formalized by the government. Scholars have in the past proposed a switch to a phonetic based writing system but such proposals have remained academic.

The number system is the easiest out of these languages in regards to writing/reading and there are very few exceptions in pronunciation. I can only think of two exceptions that one commonly encounters. The number two (er) is replaced with the character (liang) when you are counting something. When saying a series of digits like in a phone number, for the number 1 (yi), you say yao instead. This is apparently to avoid confusion between one (yi) and seven (qi). There are more complicated versions of certain numbers that are used on cheques and other financial documents in order to prevent tampering. It’s pretty easy to transform the basic Chinese character for 1 into 10 as you can imagine.

Japanese has two alphabet systems, hiragana and katakana which represent the same set of sounds. Katakana being used for foreign and loan words. Katakana does have some additional sounds compared to hiragana to account for sounds that don’t exist in Japanese (although I think in practice the additional sounds of katakana are never used because Japanese aren’t used to pronouncing unfamiliar sounds like v). There are a significant number of loanwords from English that are written in Katakana and luckily a lot of them sound quite close to the English word but just with “Japanese” pronunciation.

The Japanese alphabet system doesn’t represent consonants and vowels with separate, distinct symbols. There is a different character for every basic single syllable consisting of a consonant + vowel combination. It is also pretty random looking without any apparent visual logic due to being derived from Chinese characters and then probably gradually transforming into something very different and simplified. There are also some characters in both systems that look similar to each other which can be easily confused by the beginner. The worst offenders of this are the katakana characters tsu vs shi and so vs n.

Japanese also have Kanji which are Chinese characters. Like China, they also simplified some of their kanji too (called Shinjitai). Some of the simplifications are the same as the Simplified Chinese ones but some are different. Because of the alphabets you don’t need to know as many Kanji as you do Chinese characters but the same Kanji often have two or more different pronunciations based on the “Chinese” pronunciation and the Japanese pronunciation. Because of this, I think the amount of memorization in Japanese is still pretty substantial and if anything requires more effort. Chinese characters do not have this multiple pronunciation issue for the most part. In Chinese, it is quite rare for a character to have multiple pronunciations and it’s generally pretty easy to tell when a different pronunciation is necessary based on the grammar or accompanying character. In Japanese it’s not enough to know the pronunciation of a character by itself you have to know its pronunciation when it accompanies another character to form a word. For example, the Kanji character meaning “Now” on its own is pronounced as “ima” but when the Kanji character for “Day” follows it, the two characters together form a word meaning “Today” but the pronunciation for the first character changes to “kyo”. Lots of commonly used Kanji have multiple pronunciations.

Numbers

The number system in Japanese is similar to Chinese although there are many Japanese pronunciation exceptions for numbers and even days in dates, which I find the most annoying. The small difference between the pronunciation of the 4th day and 8th in Japanese is daft in my opinion. See this video for days of the month.

Korean has one alphabet system, Hangul. It is more similar to English in that separate parts represent consonants and vowels and it is simply a matter of combining them into a single character to get a particular consonant + vowel combination sound. You can have anywhere from 2 to 4 of these parts in one character. It makes Hangul much quicker to learn and recognize than hiragana and katakana. However, there seem to be quite a few different combinations that end up being pronounced exactly the same in Hangul (but English has the same issue too). An interesting thing I learned recently is that Hangul although invented quite a long time ago only really came into common usage in the 70s or later with government initiatives. Before this, Koreans used Hanja (Chinese characters) but today it seems like you rarely see them. It’s not essential to learn them (except if one wants to read some specialized, older texts) whereas it’s mandatory to know Kanji if you want to actually read Japanese. Because of this Koreans do add spaces between words which Chinese and Japanese don’t. Like Chinese characters, Korean characters are single syllables.

Korean has two number systems, one is native and the other is derived from Chinese. Both are commonly used but for different things. Counting is one of the main uses for Korean native numbers. One instance where they are mixed is when telling the time. Korean numbers are used for hours and Chinese numbers for minutes. I also believe the Korean numbering system only goes up to 99.

Reading recognition

Evaluating this is a bit subjective depending on the conditions one sets. Chinese requires the most memorization followed by Japanese & Korean. Although Japanese with its multiple readings and multi-syllabic pronunciation of single characters is more frustrating than Chinese. But when you actually look at a text. To me, assuming I know all the characters, Chinese seems easier to read with its distinct characters, the exception being loanwords and place names. But, of course, if you don’t know many of the characters then you might not even be able to tell what’s a verb and what’s a noun. Japanese looks really weird with its mixture of three different scripts but the distinct usage of each script can give you more of a hint as to the type of word being used. Verb conjugation endings for example are always written in hiragana so that can be easily recognized once conjugations rules are learned. Foreign and loan words are always written in katakana. Although sometimes hiragana words are written in katakana for emphasis which can be easy to miss as a beginner. Korean might have spaces but the script is less distinct and they tend blend together and superficially “look all the same” but this is probably not a fair assessment considering my lack of exposure to it relative to the other languages.

In order of easiest to hardest…

Writing system (excluding numbers, dates & time): Korean, Chinese, Japanese
Numbers, dates & time: Chinese, Japanese, Korean
Memorization required: Korean, Japanese, Chinese

Grammar

Conjugation and tenses

Chinese does not conjugate verbs or adjectives. It is easy to define past and present forms by adding time words to a basic sentence. The verb does not change at all. It’s a bit more vague when not using time words though. The particle “guo’ is often placed after a verb to denote something done in the past. The particle “le” can indicate a completed past action but can also be used to indicate an action that will be completed in the future. The future is more vague, sometimes the verb “yao” which means strong desire or obligation can be used for the future tense. On a side note, I find it interesting that the Chinese language actually uses the same character for desire and obligation (as if they are the same thing). The verb “hui” can also be used for future tense but also has the meaning of being able or expecting to do something. It ends up relying a lot on context.

Japanese and Korean seem to be very similar in that they both conjugate verbs and adjectives based on who you are talking to (honorifics, politeness level). You would use different conjugations when speaking to someone younger (than you) compared to someone older (than you). It’s not conjugated based on the pronouns like in English. Additional constructs like negatives are also part of conjugation rather than adding a simple “not” particle like in English or “bu” in Chinese. My guess is that Korean is a bit more complex because you tend to have different pronunciations endings or particles if the noun/verb ends in a vowel or consonant. Japanese has no real future tense while Korean does.

Word Order & Particles

Many simple sentences in Chinese follow the same word order as English, Subject-Verb-Object. Generally, the basic and most common Chinese grammar is quite simple and straight-forward. More advanced grammar can be tricky with some particles which have way too many uses and nuances. The ba particle can be used to construct a Subject-ba-Object-Verb-Adverb sentence. For more complicated sentences like ones that include a time and place, it’s pretty much always structured as: Subject – When – Where – How – Action.

Japanese and Korean must have the verb or adjective at the end. If there is an object, it always precedes the verb. In Japanese and Korean the common sentence structure is Subject-Object-Verb/Adjective. When the subject is “I” or “You” or somebody already mentioned, Japanese will often drop the pronoun altogether when it is understood based on context (misunderstandings in Japanese movies, particularly those involving star-crossed lovers, often stem from this omission of pronouns). Korean may possibly have a similar tendency. Both languages have particles that denote the subject and object whereas Chinese and English do not (although English does have different pronouns for the subject [I] and object [me]). Other particles, which act like prepositions in English are in reverse order when compared to English. In English and Chinese you would say, “I go to school”/”Wo qu xue xiao.” But in Japanese/Korean you would say, “I school to go.” In this example, there’s no “to” in Chinese. It’s not needed. In a way Chinese is quite efficient in its simplicity when writing simple, straight-forward sentences.

In order of easiest to hardest: Chinese, Japanese, Korean

Grammar difficulty is a bit hard to evaluate, especially without a grasp of advanced grammar but I think the above ordering of difficulty is fair at least for basic grammar. Some Chinese grammar can be pretty vague and there are also their bazillion 4 character idioms. But in terms of basics, Chinese is much easier in the beginning. It’s easier to learn useful and basic sentences for traveling. The time consuming part is more in memorizing characters and tones. A lot of superfluous elements that exist in other languages simply don’t exist in Chinese. The main superfluous feature in Chinese (which also exists in Japanese too) are counters. Japanese grammar has a lot of rules. While they seem to be more clearly defined than Chinese grammar rules, there are so many rules in Japanese that really complicate the process of learning how to say the most basic of phrases. Plus you have to learn the formal and casual conjugations/forms of verbs & adjectives. It’s like twice the work. Even in polite speech you have to sometimes use the casual form for grammatical reasons. Chinese doesn’t have polite and causal forms for the most part, especially for basic conversation.

Japanese particles are also so different from English & Chinese that basic sentences make you dizzy because the way of saying things is often “backwards.” It’s like driving on the right side of the road in North America & China and then on the left side of the road in Japan. Much of what I’ve said about Japanese grammar probably applies to Korean too which has very similar grammar.

Also the fact that you can say “you” in Chinese without insulting anybody helps a lot whereas saying “you” in Japanese/Korean must be avoided like the plague. You have to substitute any number of different words to refer to someone depending on your status or relationship relative to him/her.

Looking up words in dictionaries

Chinese dictionaries allow you to look up either the pinyin or the number of strokes based on the root character and then the remaining number of strokes. Pinyin is quite easy since words are organized by alphabetical order of English. The second method using the number of strokes actually works quite well with a paper dictionary and is useful when you see a character but don’t know how to pronounce it. An ideal solution is using an electronic dictionary with handwriting recognition. I had an early electronic dictionary from the early 2000s but the handwriting recognition was only decent and the number of definitions and examples were limited. It was still useful at least to get the pinyin so I could look up the pinyin in better dictionaries although I hope there have at least been some advancements by now.

For Korean, consonants have a specific order and vowels have a specific order. All Korean words start with a consonant even if the word pronunciation starts with a vowel. Pretty much the equivalent of looking up English words alphabetically when you know the order of the Korean alphabet.

Similarly in Japanese there is a specific order to hiragana characters. I figure like Chinese they likely also have a look-up system based on strokes for kanji.

Typing on a computer or texting on a cellphone.

PinYin makes typing in Mandarin intuitive although it might be somewhat slow going initially since you will have to pick among a list of different character choices that all share the same pinyin (but that’s where predictive text comes in). There are stroke based systems if you have a keyboard with the stroke symbols, which some consider as faster or superior to phonetic based input.

One can input Japanese on a keyboard using Romaji which would be quite easy for an English person. There is also another method based on kana.

There is a specific keyboard layout for Hangul with different keys being assigned to different letters. It’s not at all related to English letters by sound. While several romanization systems exist, I don’t believe any are available as a keyboard input option (like Romaji in Japanese) but I could be wrong. Definitely a learning curve to deal with and even more difficult if you don’t have a keyboard with Hangul letter labels.

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