Should I Learn Japanese or Chinese?

japanese or chinese

When deciding whether to start learning Japanese versus Chinese, carefully considering your personal goals, professional aspirations, interests, and motivations is crucial to determining which language is the best fit for you.

This guide is going to look into the difference between Japanese and Chinese across key areas such as writing systems, pronunciation, grammar, sentence structure, and more.

By analyzing the nuances and complexities of each language, we aim to give you sufficient insights to inform your decision when weighing up the decision to learn either Japanese or Chinese. 

Mastering either of these languages demands effort and perseverance but also promises immense rewards in terms of career opportunities, cultural enlightenment, as well as life experiences.

Writing systems: Contrasting complexity in Japanese vs Chinese characters

One basic difference between Japanese and Chinese lies in their writing systems. Japanese employs three distinct scripts in its writing – hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Kanji stems from Chinese characters that were adopted into the Japanese written language. 

Contrasting complexity in Japanese vs Chinese characters

Chinese, on the other hand, uses only one set of Chinese logographic characters known as hanzi.

A key challenge that arises in Japanese texts is that most kanji characters carry multiple potential pronunciations and meaniTaking on an Asian language like Japanese or Chinese as an English speaker requires commitment and dedication. The writing systems of these languages are entirely distinct scripts from the Latin alphabet, and the grammar and syntactic structures differ vastly from conventions in the English language.

ngs depending on the context in which they’re used. For instance, the kanji character 明, which carries the meaning of “bright,” can be pronounced as “aka,” “ake,” or “mei” based on its usage in different Japanese words and phrases.

This complexity adds a significant degree of difficulty in comprehending and utilizing kanji characters accurately when learning written Japanese.

Related Reading: Bright in Chinese – Chinese Character 明 míng

In contrast, Chinese hanzi characters tend to largely have one single pronunciation and meaning associated with each character. While homophones exist, whereby different hanzi can share the same pronunciation but differ in meaning, a single written hanzi usually correlates to one primary meaning and reading.

This consistency provides somewhat of an advantage by reducing ambiguity when learning to read and write Chinese characters.

The intricacies of Japanese vs Chinese phonetics

Pronunciation and intonation also underscore the difference between Japanese and Chinese languages. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, meaning it contains four distinct tones that involve manipulating pitch and voice modulation to change the meaning of words and sentences. 

Japanese does not contain a system of lexical tones. Rather, it relies on a pitch-accent system, where pitch contours impact emphasis and meaning, but to a much lesser extent than the lexically significant tones in Chinese.

This fundamental contrast means that tones in Mandarin Chinese pose a substantial initial learning curve for beginner learners who are native English speakers. 

Since English doesn’t utilize tones and pitch variations in the same way, mastering tones in Chinese requires building up awareness of how to properly modulate pitch and intonation when speaking. 

Related Reading: Tone Change Rules In Mandarin Chinese

Dedicated listening practice, targeted pronunciation drills, and conversing extensively with native speakers are key to eventually grasping tones. While certainly challenging at first, the fixed set of four tone rules makes the tone system manageable to learn with consistent practice over time.

Japanese vs Chinese phonetics

In comparison, Japanese pronunciation presents slightly less complexity from a tonal perspective. While it’s still necessary to learn proper intonation patterns and pitch variance for accurate pronunciation and comprehension, these don’t alter core word meanings to the same extent as tones do in Chinese.

For beginners especially, pronunciation in Japanese will generally feel more familiar and attainable compared to the unfamiliar tonal component of Chinese. Of course, attaining natural Japanese pronunciation still requires extensive immersion, but overall, it poses a potentially lower barrier for novice learners.

Related Reading: The Importance of Pronunciation in Chinese

Grammar and sentence structure

When analyzing grammar and sentence structure, there are some notable differences between Japanese and Chinese. Japanese grammar contains a much more intricate structure, with particles that indicate grammatical relationships, complex verb conjugations, and relatively flexible word order due to the contextual nature of the language. 

In terms of syntax, Japanese sentences frequently follow a subject-object-verb format, which contrasts significantly with English language conventions.

In comparison, Chinese grammar structures are relatively straightforward in most contexts, with a more rigid sentence structure that places the subject, followed by the verb, and then the object.

This format matches the common subject-verb-object pattern found in English. Plus, Chinese lacks features such as verb conjugation, noun pluralization, and subject-verb agreement that frequently trip up English speakers attempting to learn European languages.

Related Reading: Chinese Adverbs: Moving Beyond the Subject-Verb-Object Structure

This comparative simplicity of fundamental Chinese grammar makes comprehending basic sentence structures manageable for beginners. Of course, truly excelling at speaking and writing Chinese naturally and fluently still requires putting in consistent effort over an extended period. 

writing Chinese naturally

But of course, getting comfortable conversing about complex subject matter or using sophisticated literary forms and writing styles demands a deep familiarity with the language despite the approachability of basic grammar.

So, while both languages present their grammatical challenges, Japanese grammar requires early rewiring for English speakers, while Chinese allows building some degree of familiarity through similar sentence patterns before tackling higher complexities.

Related Reading: Chinese Words Are So Easy They Doubled Up

How hard is it to learn Japanese or Chinese?

When evaluating the difficulty level of Japanese vs Chinese, both languages are classified in the highest tier of difficulty for English speakers. The US Foreign Service Institute categorizes both Japanese and Chinese as Category V languages.

This is the most difficult category, and it’s estimated that it takes English-speaking learners around 2,200 hours or more of dedicated study to reach proficiency.

Of course, it’s important to note that individual experiences of learning these languages can vary substantially. Some key factors impact the perception of difficulty. For instance, mastering the pronunciation patterns in Japanese may feel more accessible at first compared to Chinese tones, which require an adaptation period.

On the other hand, Chinese grammar structure mirrors English more closely than the subject-object-verb format common in Japanese. Both languages present unique complexities depending on your perspective.

Related Reading: Is Chinese Hard to Learn?

A breakdown of learning Japanese vs Chinese

Now, let’s take a deeper look into some of the key steps along the path to attaining fluency when learning either Japanese or Chinese.

The journey of learning Japanese

In Japanese, gaining initial literacy presents obstacles as it requires memorizing the stroke order and meanings for over 2,500 kanji characters. Plus, the vast majority of kanji have more than one potential pronunciation and meaning depending on the context they’re used in. So, establishing meaning and usage for each character takes considerable effort.

On top of literacy challenges, Japanese syntax and grammar represent a dramatic divergence from European languages. Fluency requires essentially rewiring your brain if you’re a native English speaker. 

You have to learn how to place verbs at the end of sentences, grasp the contextual role of particles, omit subjects in many cases, and comprehend a format where the object comes before the subject in standard syntax.

This means rebuilding your entire intuitive understanding of how to communicate ideas and express meaning in Japanese compared to approaches used in English or other Romance languages.

While obviously not impossible, the path to literacy and fluency in Japanese poses hurdles tied to memorization of intricate characters, comprehension of layered meanings, and adapting to inverted grammatical structures. 

For some learners, especially those already familiar with key features through experience with related languages like Korean, these obstacles may be easier to overcome. But, for many beginner Japanese learners, these elements require establishing a new foundational understanding of how the language fundamentally operates.

Unlocking fluency in Chinese

Chinese offers some advantages to charting a course to fluency thanks to key areas of consistency. For literacy specifically, only about 2,000 Chinese characters require memorization to attain basic proficiency. Plus, the vast majority have just one single pronunciation and meaning associated with each character.

Related Reading: How Many Mandarin Words Do I Need To Learn To Be Fluent?

While some exceptions exist where characters share a pronunciation but differ in meaning, each written hanzi usually correlates unambiguously to one primary reading and meaning.

This consistency in the writing system provides language learners with more straightforward building blocks for establishing meaning compared to the nuances of Japanese kanji. 

In terms of grammar, Chinese sentence structure mirrors English more closely. While tones do pose a difficulty initially, the fixed system is manageable to grasp over time. Pinyin romanization also helps learners anchor pronunciation.

Certainly, true mastery of the Chinese language equally demands effort through extensive reading, writing, listening, and speaking practice over years of study. However, the consistency in characters and grammar outlines a learning trajectory that allows literacy and foundational structures to be established somewhat methodically, providing a backbone before diving into higher complexities and subtleties within the language.

While both languages necessitate diligent study and practice, Japanese poses hurdles stemming from multifaceted characters and grammatical formats requiring a shift in approach, while Chinese allows scaffolding literacy and key grammar concepts more incrementally.

Related Reading: Best Resources for Learning Chinese

Reasons to prioritize learning Japanese over Chinese

Given its difficulties, you may wonder why someone would choose to undertake learning Japanese over the globally dominant Chinese language. Here are some of the main advantages that motivate students to dedicate themselves to mastering Japanese:

  • Obtaining fluency in Japanese is tremendously useful for career paths that involve frequent travel and business interactions across Asia, as Japanese is spoken and understood widely throughout the East Asian region as the native language of Japan.
  • Learning Japanese provides you with access to incredibly rich, influential, and entertaining aspects of Japanese pop culture, including anime, manga, J-pop music, cuisine, traditions, festivals, and much more.
Flag of Japan

  • If you have Japanese heritage or family members you wish to connect with more deeply, acquiring Japanese language skills can enable meaningful communication and relationships.
  • While not the most spoken language internationally, Japanese still ranks within the top 15 languages worldwide by total speakers, meaning there are over 123 million speakers and plentiful opportunities to practice and utilize your skills.
  • Gaining proficiency in Japanese allows you to access and understand Japan’s extensive history and wider culture and appreciate the country’s contributions across areas like technology, societal values, traditions, and business.

Essentially, if you have strong personal or professional connections to Japan, harbor a deep fascination with Japanese culture, or anticipate frequent interactions in Japan, dedicating yourself to learning the language will provide immense benefits.

Compelling reasons to prioritize Chinese over Japanese

While Japanese undoubtedly provides value, there are also powerful motivations for committing to learning Chinese instead of (or before) Japanese:

  • Proficiency in Mandarin Chinese provides you with opportunities to communicate with over 1 billion speakers throughout Mainland China and the rest of the globe, given that Chinese stands as the second most spoken language internationally.
  • Chinese language skills offer an invaluable advantage in numerous professional fields related to international business, economics, finance, trade, and law. It helps that China’s economy is so vast and influential.
  • Learning Chinese allows you to access and understand foundational cultural history and traditions, as Chinese civilization has profoundly impacted Eastern cultures and philosophies over millennia.
Compelling reasons to prioritize Chinese over Japanese

  • For those with ancestral ties or family members from China that you hope to connect with, learning Chinese can help you communicate and build relationships.
  • Proficiency unlocks doors not only in China but also in regions such as Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and others where Chinese is widely used by significant populations.

For anyone with aspirations in global business, a desire to comprehend China’s cultural history, or ties to Chinese-speaking communities, dedicating yourself to mastering Chinese clearly has tremendous professional and personal advantages.

Related Reading: Why Learn Mandarin Chinese?

Top strategies and tips for conquering Japanese or Chinese language learning

Learning Japanese or Chinese both represent monumental undertakings for English speakers but are certainly achievable with dedication and effective strategies:

  • Maintain a passion for language learning by constantly exploring and immersing yourself in the entertainment, media, and cultural elements that interest you most about the language. Passion fuels progress, and immersion is the key to language learning. Watch TV shows in your chosen language, listen to songs and podcasts, or have movies on in the background as you do the washing up.
  • Learn one language at a time. Attempting to learn two drastically different languages simultaneously will almost certainly cause confusion, slow overall progress, and diminish your comprehension of each language.
  • Employ diverse learning resources — textbooks, multimedia content, classes/tutors, cultural immersion trips, exchange partners, etc. Varied inputs strengthen skills.
  • Persist through inevitable failures and setbacks. Language learning means making constant mistakes. Progress comes from keeping a growth mindset.
  • Identify concrete ways you can apply your language skills early on, whether conversing with friends or colleagues, consuming media, or traveling. Establishing relevance provides motivation.

With dedication, effective learning strategies tailored to your strengths, and (most importantly) passion, consistent efforts to learn either language will give you immensely valuable skills and cultural insight.

Related Reading: Can You Learn Chinese In 5 Minutes?

Key considerations when choosing between Japanese and Chinese

Deciding whether to start your language learning journey with Japanese or Chinese means careful deliberation on some key factors:

  • Honestly evaluate your personal and professional goals, interests, and motivations. Pick the language that most resonates with you on an individual level. Passion matters.
  • Recognize the difference between Japanese and Chinese in terms of writing systems, pronunciation patterns, grammatical structures, and more that distinguish the two languages. Set realistic expectations around required efforts based on these nuances.
  • Identify specific career, academic, travel, or cultural advantages gained by proficiency in Japanese or Chinese that sway your decision one way or another. Envision concrete benefits.
  • Maintain curiosity, patience, and passion throughout your journey. Immerse yourself extensively in the language and culture. Employ varied learning strategies catered to your needs.

Related Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Learning Chinese Online 

Language mastery unleashed

Are you on a journey to master a new language and immerse yourself in a new culture? The rich and intricate languages of Japanese and Chinese are waiting for you! But the road to fluency can be daunting. Choose the language that speaks to your heart, align it with your goals, and dive into cultural immersion.

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