Which is harder, Japanese or Chinese? For me.

Posted on 22. May, 2011 @ 11:24 pm by in Language Views: 20,498

People often ask me whether I think Japanese or Chinese is harder to learn. The answer is Chinese. Yes, Chinese is harder. Blog post over, have a nice day…

Kidding. I think it breaks down like this.

Which is harder, Japanese or Chinese in terms of…

Becoming conversational: Japanese
Comprehending average-joe native speaker: Chinese
Reading (beginner level): Chinese
Reading (advanced level): Japanese
Writing (on paper): Chinese

Why? Well before I get into this… some background.

I’ve studied Chinese for just about a year now, and have been doing Japanese for more than 10 years non-stop. I lived in Japan for seven years straight. Now I’m in China.

I consider my Japanese to be very good. I majored in it in college, lived and worked in Japan for seven years, and can pretty much read any modern Japanese text without much trouble. I worked as an in-house technical translator for about a year in Japan, and I held a freelance translation job for multiple clients for more than five straight years, so some people seem to think that I understand Japanese well enough to be paid for it. For what it’s worth, I passed, though barely, the JLPT level 1 the first time I attempted it in 2003. Okay, enough about my Japanese.

Lotus Park in Kunming China

My Chinese, on the other hand, is not that good. I’m sorta kinda decent I guess. I studied Chinese seriously for about 9 months, 8 of which were in Kunming China where I took Chinese lessons one-on-one for four hours per day. I was able to pass the intermediate level (Level 4) of the HSK test (basically JLPT for Chinese learners, but the numbers go from beginner level 1 to super crazy advanced level 11), and I also scored at the “Advanced-Mid” level in a telephone-based language proficiency test conducted by ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) when I got back to the states. I can pretty much have fun conversations with Chinese people about basic things, but when the topic turns serious I get lost quick. I also can’t get much out of Chinese movies without the help of subtitles.

I’m a native English speaker, and Japanese and Chinese are the only other languages I can claim to be able to speak. I tried to study French after Japanese, but that didn’t work out… (EPIC FAIL really…)

So, there’s your baseline. So, which do I think is harder?

Which is harder, Japanese or Chinese in terms of…

Becoming conversational: Japanese
Comprehending average-joe native speaker: Chinese
Reading (beginner level): Chinese
Reading (advanced level): Japanese
Writing (on paper): Chinese

So overall, I think I would say that Chinese is harder.

Becoming Conversational: Japanese is harder

It’s actually pretty easy to become conversational in Chinese, because the basic grammar is relatively simple.

Chinese verbs don’t conjugate, and there isn’t an obvious gap between informal and formal speech. This means that you don’t have to be able to recognize that kaimashita (bought, formal) has the same meaning as katta (bought, informal). In Chinese it’s just mai.

Furthermore, there are no particles in Chinese. Particles are an aspect of Japanese grammar that really give beginners trouble, yet they are essential. Chinese doesn’t have any major grammar barriers to keep you from babbling on day one. It’s really pretty straight-forward at the beginner level… you sort of just line up the words and go.

In general (super general), the sentence structure in Chinese is the same as in English. Subject Verb Object. I am Harvey. Wo Shi Harvey. I eat cake. Wo Chi Dangao. But in Japanese it’s Subject Object Verb. Watashi wa Harvey desu. Watashi ha keeki wo tabeasu. Not only that, but you have those tricky particles to worry about.

Yes, Chinese is tonal, so if you say mai in a sharp falling tone it means to sell, but if you say mai in the third tone, which is one that starts high falls low and then goes back up again, then it means to buy. And yeah, that sucks. However, for the most part, meanings and tones don’t mix that much, so even if you speak with pitiful tones you can still make yourself understood if you provide enough context. Having said that, I have been in many situations in China where people have had no idea what the heck I was trying to say until I figured out what tones I should have been using.

Also, for many Chinese people Mandarin is like a 2nd language. There are so many dialects in China that many people “learned” Mandarin as a kid. So in many cases they sort of know where you’re coming from in your pitiful tone-failing foreignness. So their tones and pronunciation might not be all that hot either. For example, here in Shanghai people have a hard time distinguishing their Ls and Rs, and their SHIs and XIs.

Comprehending average-joe native speaker: Chinese is harder

China has an extremely wide variety of average joes. The country is huge, and the dialects are vast. Vast!

To put it into perspective, it probably took me about 6 months, if that, to become completely comfortable understanding the strong Kansai-dalect (Osaka-ben) that my wife’s father speaks. Even when travelling down to Kagoshima for a friends wedding and sitting down with his grandmother who spoke extremely thick kagoshima-ben, after about 15 minutes or so I could more or less figure out what she was saying. It’s different than standard Japanese, but not that different. In fact, the differences usually have structure, so once you figure them out you can start mimicking the style yourself, if you’re so inclined. Note, the native language in Okinawa is an exception to this… that’s another language as far as I’m concerned, not a dialect.

However, now I’m in Shanghai, and I have to say, Shanghainese is not a dialect of Chinese, it’s an entirely different language. I’m sure that even if I were living here for years I would never magically “figure out” Shanghainese. In fact, I have friends here who are awesome at Chinese and are sure they will never figure out Shanghainese. The same goes for the many other versions of Chinese, like Cantonese, and that Kunming local dialect I heard from time to time when I was a student there. Maybe it’s just because I’m new to the language, but I haven’t really found any slight dialects in Chinese that I think are similar in difficulty to the Japanese dialects.

Reading (beginner level): Chinese is harder

I think reading at the beginner level is harder in Chinese than in Japanese for a few key reasons.

Chinese is all characters all the time. Some people may say, “but Japanese is harder because it’s characters AND Hiragana AND Katakana! It’s triple hard!” But I say, there are only like 46 Hiragana and Katakana, they’re phonetic, and even Japanese people use them to help them read Kanji.

I think this example will explain it all.

Say you’re reading a Japanese comic book. You come across a difficult Kanji, so difficult in fact, that it has the hiragana on top because most Japanese high schoolers may not know how to read it either. So, since you know all your Hiragana, you just pull out your Japanese-English dictionary and type in the word you’re looking for phonetically. Done!

Now, say you’re reading a Chinese book and come across a character you don’t know. They never provide the pinyin (romaji type stuff), so you have to look it up using the character. You have to know how to find it by radical, stroke order, or by magically figuring out how it’s pronounced. Annoying!

Let’s talk about Katakana. I love Katakana. In Japanese, North Carolina is like, ノースカロライナ. Once you know your 46 Katakana you can read that and you’ll say, “noo su ka ro rai na.” Sounds like North Carolina right?

In Chinese, North Carolina is 北卡洲. That’s “bei ka zhou.” The last character means “state.” The first, means north, the second… I don’t even really know how to explain what that means by itself. It’s pronounced KA though. This word has the “state” character in it so it’s a tipoff, but otherwise, you really have to be able to anticipate that a foreign word is supposed to be coming up to figure that out. It gets better.

For example, the country Colombia is 哥伦比亚 (ge lun bi ya). The characters mean something like… Older Brother… the next two characters together mean rival… the last character is like “Asia,” I believe. In other words, it makes no sense. So if you’re not anticipating the name of a country you’re going to be very confused all of a sudden. To make matters worse, a formalish document, like a newspaper, could say, 中哥关系历史 meaning The History of the Relationship between China and Colombia. Colombia just becomes 哥! Which is older brother normally… Brain explosion. I could go on and on with stuff like this… give me コロンビア any day.

And before you say, but “ge lun bi ya” sounds like Colombia! Well, Switzerland is 瑞士 (Ruìshì)!

Reading (advanced level): Japanese is harder

Having said all that, I think reading Japanese at an advanced level may be harder than Chinese.

My only reasoning here is the multitude of pronunciations for Japanese characters. Chinese characters usually have one way to read them. There are indeed characters with more than one reading in Chinese, and some are quite common… like 银行 yin hang, which is bank. But 还行 hai xing, is like, “I’m aiiiight.” The same 行 character is xing or hang. However, I could count the number of times that this happens on two hands. As most of my readers know, pretty much every single character in Japanese has at least two readings you have to know right from the beginning. As you get into more advanced Japanese, the stuff you learn becomes more obscure, and more and more obscure readings come up. Time for some hardcore memorization!

Writing: Chinese is harder

Simply put, China uses about 1,000 more characters regularly than Japanese (I didn’t count), and you don’t have the Hiragana or Katakana crutches to save you. You have to write the Kanji – all of ‘em. Another thing is that the “simplified” characters used in mainland China are sometimes simplified to the point that they lose their meaning, and if you’re coming to Chinese from Japanese, that can make them tough to remember.

Summary: Chinese is Harder

So, in closing, overall I think Chinese is harder… Maybe Japanese is close behind?

Then again, I did Japanese first, and I think that may also have something to do with it.

Finally, generally speaking I don’t really buy into the, “this language is harder than that one” debate… I mean look at me… I failed French. At the end of the day the “hard” one is the one that you spend less time working on. But I disgress…

So what do you think?

- Harvey

  • http://www.twitter.com/yumyumsesame Amanda aka yumyumsesame

    I sucked at French too! I studied French and Japanese in high school and found Japanese was so much easier (and more enjoyable). I would still like to speak French one day but I’m not sure it’s gonna happen…

    • someguy

      I’m coming in from the other side of the equation. I am quite proficient in French and curious about Japanese (or possibly Mandarin). Personally I think the reason most people on here have had success in Japanese or Chinese and not in French is because they are so much more interesting. When you learn a new word in French (ex. ordinateur = computer). It’s like, cool I can say computer. When I first learned how to write my name in Simplified Chinese Characters I COULDN’T STOP writing it over and over again. There’s something addictingly satisfying about writing in symbols that does not exist in Latin-based languages.

      In summary it’s all about motivation, stay motivated and it’s possible to learn to read Japanese upside down with a german accent :p

  • constanze

    I coulnd’t agree with you more.
    French was one of the worst language-experiences I have encountered so far. It was a desaster – to put it charitably.
    Shouldn’t the question be “Which is harder, Japanese, Chinese or French?” Maybe we’d all be suprised! ;)

  • buskila

    I wish they made me study French in school – but it was not mandatory :)
    To me Japanese seems to be more “exact”, i mean it allows you to express things more closely to the meaning as you imagine it.

    I have only studied Japanese for close to 6 months now, but i have been speaking Chinese for about 2.5 years (therefore i consider my Chinese as very low level and Japanese as non-existent).

  • http://twitter.com/curryisyummy curryisyummy

    Yeah, I wish I was in a position to say. I know like 10 words in Chinese. But they’re super easy to sling together in different combinations. For Japanese, I’m always uncomfortably unsure about certain things.. Which is just a disaster in the beginning. I can remember my first attempts at writing Emails in Japanese. To put it bluntly, I never failed so hard in my life. Ok, wait, I should give myself a break because I knew my kanji from the start so I didn’t have to write only in kana. But still. *facepalm*

    I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to learning Chinese. I want to, don’t get me wrong. But, Japanese and Korean come first. I’ll just work my way across Asia like Hideyoshi. Only, hopefully I won’t get repelled by Ming China. (Too many history lessons.. *sob*)

    Anyways, nice article. It was a fun read. :)

  • Melissa

    Have you seen the comparison post of Chinese vs Japanese over at Sinosplice (written a couple of years ago)? http://www.sinosplice.com/life/archives/2008/06/25/learning-curves-chinese-vs-japanese

    “China uses about 1,000 more characters regularly than Japanese” — I hope this is true.

  • http://asthebrushmoves.blogspot.com/ Richard

    I think I pretty much agree with all your comparisons. I learned some Chinese before getting started on Japanese, and particularly remember the annoyance of searching for unknown characters in the dictionary.

    On the other hand, I guess what you find difficult depends how your brain is wired. I never found French particularly difficult when I studied it at school. On the other hand, learning two similar languages at the same time didn’t work well for me at all, when I tried to add Korean to Japanese.

  • http://nihonshock.com Lloyd Vincent

    Thanks for this, Harvey. I’ve been considering taking up Chinese myself recently. I want to go to China for a few months to study Go maybe next year or the year after.

    I’m /so/ glad to hear that verbs don’t conjugate. That has got to cut study time basically in half. (^^)

    One question: how much of a head start does knowing Japanese kanji actually give you in learning how to read Chinese? For example, even though I didn’t know 北卡洲, it clicks really easily for me because I recognize 北 and 州 from Japanese, and 卡 = “ka” also makes sense because of 下. Will knowing Japanese give me lots of hints like for this word, or is most of the vocabulary totally different?

    PS. Japanese does that 中哥 thing too. Think of 日中/日米/日豪/etc.

    • http://www.japannewbie.com harvey

      I think knowing Japanese KANJI gives you a huge head start on Chinese. Most people are sort of blown away when they hear that I haven’t studied Chinese for more than a year full on yet. You save tons of time, and can guess stuff, and you have automatic intuition. You can even “imaginate” words into your head. I mean, you can hear a word in Chinese you do not know… sort of know what characters might make those sounds… imaginate them… and then you might know those characters together in Japanese mean blah. It happens to me a LOT.

      The funny thing is… the more formal the Chinese is the more your Japanese will help. The more informal it is… the more uniquely Chinese it is… in my opinion! So like reading a newspaper will be easier than reading a letter home to mom written by some kid.

      • Vivian

        True that! I think it’s because formal Japanese tend to use more kanji too which makes it more similar to Chinese in a way.

  • http://www.deasrichardson.com Deas

    Hey Harvey – loved this post. I am also French-failure who became a nihongophile. I’d like to point out a typo and then ask a follow-up based on it. I think you must have my home state, your neighbor South Carolina, on the mind. Columbia is our capital. Colombia is the country. My question: how does Chinese treat homonyms – especially in place names? With Japanese, since it’s phonetic, it’s pretty simple. Would Chinese people use different characters? Just curious. :-)

    • http://www.japannewbie.com harvey

      Haha thanks for pointing that out Deas! Fixed the Typo.

      Do you mean homonyms in place names for Chinese places? If so, yeah diff characters. If you mean for foreign words… honestly I do not know! I don’t know enough foreign words in Chinese to have a clear picture of that…

  • http://abelchai.smugmug.com Abel

    Hey Harvey,

    I really think it all boils down to which language you are exposed to more often. And I don’t just mean learning the language, I mean being immersed in it…listening to it on the streets, on TV, etc.

    I’m a Chinese (well..not from China but still..) so I have been exposed to the Chinese language since young (I don’t really consider the various dialects Chinese…but one thing about them is that once you get the hang of one dialect…say Hokkien, then cantonese, teochew, etc sounds kinda similar…but that’s just between dialects~ I agree that Shanghainese is a separate language altogether though). I’ve been learning Japanese for the past 7 years, though not consistently. To me, Japanese is inherently more difficult. Knowing chinese helps in getting the meaning of some of the kanji, but I’m not sure it works the other way round.

    Anyway, I’ve been rambling so my point is I think it is the overall time exposed to the language that determines which is easier.

    • http://www.japannewbie.com harvey

      Indeed. One problem I have with Chinese is that I haven’t found enough content that I enjoy exposing myself to…

  • http://www.prowordpress.net/ wordpress premium themes

    I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to learning Chinese. I want to, don’t get me wrong. But, Japanese and Korean come first. I’ll just work my way across Asia like Hideyoshi. Only, hopefully I won’t get repelled by Ming China. (Too many history lessons.. *sob*)

    • http://www.japannewbie.com harvey

      Haha!

  • Grace

    You should write the caveat that your entry is obviously targeting the “average joe”-type English-speaker who only grows up speaking English, but anyway…

    1) Interesting point about how Chinese might be more difficult to understand because of a variety of accents. But I would argue that listening comprehension with Japanese can be extremely confusing because there are so many levels of formality, whereas with Chinese it’s way simpler. Isn’t Chinese also slower than Japanese? (I think you posted about this awhile ago…) Sigh, I am way better with keigo than with listening to wakamono joke around with each other…

    2) I think it’s impossible to say which language is “more difficult” to read at an advanced level. Also, it might be more difficult to be able to *pronounce* everything you’re reading in Japanese, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a pretty good idea of what the kanji mean anyway. When you read a novel or literary criticism or whatever, the point is reading comprehension, right? Not necessarily being able to verbally relate every word you read to someone else.

    Nice post. But I am pretty sure you don’t chi dangao that often. And I’m going to visit you in China. :D

  • http://twitter.com/#!/danielneutrinos Neutrinos

    北卡洲 is the shortened version of 北卡罗来纳洲
    The first character is taken just like 中国哥伦比亚关系历史 shortens to 中哥关系历史

    Personally I think I have an slight edge in japanese because sometimes I can guess the meaning of a japanese sentence just by the kanji words. Having said that, had a few chuckles learning japanese words like 大丈夫, 泥棒 etc.

    加油下さい!^_^

    • http://www.japannewbie.com harvey

      I was just talking about 泥棒 with my Chinese teacher the other day! She was confused. Hilarious :-)

  • James

    Hey Harvey,

    I know you were studying in Kunming but what are you doing in Shanghai now?

    James

  • http://www.japannewbie.com Harvey

    Werkin.

  • Luke

    I’d agree with you on all those, except advanced reading. I’d rate the two equally difficult. You are right that the On and Kun readings of Japanese characters are difficult, but for me, it’s a lot easier to remember different readings of the same character than remembering entirely different characters. I know you and how you never leave your house without your deck of flashcards, so perhaps that’s just our different learning styles coming into play. But when I compare knowing 2500 Kanji with multiple readings, to knowing 7000 different Hanzi, it balances out. But then when you throw in a small amount of contextual help from the phonetic Kana, Japanese may have a tiny edge.

    I studied Chinese formally for 3 years, and lived in Beijing for a year, then switched to studying Japanese formally for 1 year and living in Japan for 3 years. After all that, I could definitely read better in Japanese than I could in Chinese, despite having more formal training in Chinese. Being able to recognize what is a verb and what is a noun in Japanese allowed me to muddle through in some cases where hitting a completely unknown Hanzi in Chinese just proved a frustrating roadblock that left me reaching for a dictionary every minute.

    In sum, for me, Chinese is just all-around the harder language of the two.

  • Henry

    Chinese has particles, for example “了” “吧” “在” …, and it is called “minimal pair” for the two meanings of “行”.

  • Jorena

    writing Chinese also gets harder if you use traditional characters like in Taiwan. And if studying Mandarin/Chinese in Taiwan as opposed to China, they use “zhuyin” instead of “pinyin”, so if you’re learning the language from English, is much more difficult. But as for Japanese, it’s really, really difficult (IMO) to be fluent in because before every sentence i need to arrange the words properly in my head.

  • Crystal Lai

    As a native Chinese speaker, I always find it humorous when I see english translations of Chinese names. Like the “Colombia” and “Switzerland” issue you mentioned, the Chinese names are just that: transliterations, and in many cases, contractions. Distinguishing when characters are supposed to have semantic meaning is quite an art. Also, another issue is that English speaker often assume that Chinese transliterations are from English, when in fact it may be from another language. Which is why Germany is “de guo”, which is a contraction probably originating from the word “Deutsch”, or Deutschland or some variety. As for North Carolina, there is probably a longer transliteration for “Carolina” that starts with “ka” (I’m guessing it has to have 4 characters). But if you don’t contract it, “North Carolina” takes at least 6 characters to write, so we take the FIRST character to represent the whole word, hence “bei (North) ka (Carolina) zhou (State)”. In the same way “mei li jian he zhong guo” (United States of America) became “mei guo”. Chinese can be idiosyncratic and it takes a lot of immersion not to sound “foreign”.

    Which is why a lot of English translations of Chinese landmarks sound hilarious to me. Sometimes people put characters together for no other reason than 1. They sound good together 2. They are evocative of certain imagery/concepts. Hilarity ensues when a translator reads too much into it.

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