Which is harder, Japanese or Chinese? For me.

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