Chinese | Japanese | Korean | Language

How similar are Japanese, Korean & Chinese?

The popularity of these East Asian Languages has risen quite a lot through the years, because of culture and globalization, but exactly how similar are these languages? Is it worth it to learn all of them or should you rather focus on only one of them?

Disclaimer: When we talk about Chinese here, we’re referring to Mandarin Chinese unless otherwise specified.

First of all, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are not related to each other in any way, but are particularly influenced by each other (Especially Chinese influence on Japanese & Korean). Japanese is in its own Japonic language family, Korean is in the Koreanic language family and Chinese is in the Sinitic (Chinese) language family. There have been efforts in the past to link these three languages to each other, but as of today, the consensus is that there is zero evidence that these families are connected to each other (at least as far back as we can trace them).

Tones & Pitch Accent

Chinese is famously known for being a tonal language. What this means is that language is less consonant dense, but words are distinguished by the tone they’re pronounced with instead. A typical example is how you can mispronounce mother (mā) as horse (mǎ) by saying ma with a low tone instead of a high flat tone. There are four tones in Chinese and they’re usually referred to as Tone 1, 2, 3 and 4. When romanizing (writing using latin letters) Chinese, you usually either write tone marker accents on vowels: mā má mǎ mà, or using numbers: ma1 ma2 ma3 ma4. For instance the word China is Chinese (中国) can be romanized as either zhōng guó or zhong1 guo2.

Japanese and Korean however are not tonal languages, but Japanese and some dialects of Korean use Pitch Accent. In Japanese and Korean, words are not stress accented, meaning that words are not stretched out in one syllable, like in English and many other western languages.

Examples of stress accent: Piano has stress on the a. Computer has stress on the pu.

Japanese is a language with pitch accent, meaning that words are equal in length and stress, but one syllable is accentuated with contrasting pitch rather than volume. Listen to how 雨 (rain) and 飴 (candy) sound different even though they’re both pronounced あめ (ame).

Guide on Japanese Pitch Accent will be released later this year.

Chinese Characters

Chinese Characters were imported from China to Japan and Korean at different points in time and are still used in everyday Japanese, but have fallen out of use in modern Korean. Chinese characters are called the same in all three languages, but are spelled a bit differently:

JapaneseChineseKorean
漢字
Kanji
漢字
Hanzi
漢字
Hanja

Very similar to how a lot of academic or advanced words in English come from French/Latin, many advanced words in Japanese and Korean come from Chinese, with their pronunciation adapted to their respective sound systems.

Chinese characters used in Chinese are easier to remember because they mostly have only one reading or pronunciation. In Japanese, Kanji have two categories of readings known as Onyomi (Chinese reading) and Kunyomi (Japanese reading). The onyomi is based on how the word was pronounced in Chinese at the time it was imported, while kunyomi is how the word is said in native Japanese.

The onyomi of Japanese Kanji are often very similar, if not identical to the Korean counterparts. Even though Korea is not using Hanji anymore, many words borrowed from Chinese are exactly the same as the borrowings into Japanese, with their spelling being done in the Korean alphabet instead.

Hiragana & Katakana

In addition to Kanji (Chinese characters), Japanese also has two separate syllabaries (alphabets with syllables) called Hiragana and Katakana. Katakana is mostly used for foreign words and names and hiragana is used for everything else, but written Japanese uses a mix of Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana and Romaji (Latin letters).

Check out the Hiragana & Katakana page for more information.

Hanja & Hangeul (Joseongeul)

Korea used to use Hanja (Chinese characters) for a long time, but nowadays they use their own alphabet called Hangeul in South Korea and Joseongeul in North Korea. Hangeul is made up of consonant letters and vowel letters that are put together to make new syllables used to write Korean. When Korea imported the Chinese characters, they also made a lot of loan words that are used today in modern Korean, but their connections have been lost as many people don’t know the Hanja that once represented these words.

Kanji

In Japan, unlike in Korea, everyone still uses Kanji in everyday writing. Japanese can actually be written fully in Hiragana or fully in Katakana, but most words have some syllables represented with Kanji instead.

Usually if a word consists of two or more kanji, they’re a compound word borrowed from Chinese and therefore use the Onyomi (Chinese reading). If you see a kanji followed by hiragana, that usually means you’ll read the kanji with its kunyomi (Japanese reading).

Example: 食べる (taberu -> to eat) consists of the kanji 食 (eat) plus the hiragana べる (beru) indicating its grammatical tense. In this case the kanji is read with its kunyomi た (ta) because its a verb.

Example 2: 食堂 (shokudou -> cafeteria) has the kanji 食 (eat) plus 堂 (hall). This creates a noun meaning cafeteria and is read using the onyomi because its a compound of two kanji.

Pronunciation

Chinese, Japanese and Korean all have some similarities when it comes to pronunciation. If I were to rank them from easiest to most difficult, I’d say it goes:

EasyMediumHard
JapaneseChineseKorean

Most of the Japanese vowel sounds exist in English except for a few that take minimal time to learn. Japanese consonants are also mostly the same, except for a few palatalized consonants which are again marginally different from English.

When ranking the difficulty of pronunciation, we’re not talking about tones, as they’re in a category of their own. We’re only talking about consonants and vowels. Chinese is more medium difficulty because there are a few vowel sounds Chinese has that are hard for English speakers to pronounce as well as having to distinguish words by consonant aspiration. An aspirated consonant is a consonant (Usually T, P, B or K) that has a small burst of air together with it. English by default adds aspiration to every single first syllable, but loses aspiration on many consonant clusters.

Example: Top (aspirated /t/) vs Stop (unaspirated /t/) or Car (aspirated /k/ sound) vs Scar (unaspirated /k/ sound).

Korean is very difficult as it has even more vowels that are hard for English speakers to pronounce, as well as not only having consonant aspiration, but also consonant voicing and devoicing. Consonant voicing is what we do in English with words like Cage (unvoiced /k/) as opposed to Gage (voiced /g/).

Grammar

Chinese grammar is similar to English in many ways. Both English and Chinese are what’s known as SVO (Subject Verb Object) languages, referring to how sentences are structured. In English you would say “I eat apples” and in Chinese you would say 我吃苹果 (wo3 chi1 ping2 guo3). The Chinese sentence is word by word I eat apples.

Korean and Japanese are SOV languages, meaning that the verb comes at the end instead. In addition to this, both languages also use something called particles to mark the grammatical function of words rather than using prepositions.

EnglishJapaneseKorean
I eat apples私はリンゴを食べる
Watashi wa ringo wo taberu
저는사과를먹다
Jo neun sagwa reul meogda

Both the Japanese and the Korean sentence are literally “I (subject marker) apple (object marker) eat”. Most of the time, Korean and Japanese can be literally translated from and to one another and most Korean and Japanese speakers find the other language quite easy to pick up compared to Chinese or English.

Summary

According to the Foreign Service Institute, Japanese, Korean and Chinese (Mandarin & Cantonese) are all in the hardest difficulty group of languages from a native English perspective, with Japanese having a + next to it. Personally I’d recommend starting with the one you find the most interesting. If you’re into Korean drama or K-pop, then Korean is an obvious choice. If you like anime, manga, or Japanese culture or history, then Japanese is your best bet. If you’re more business oriented and would rather learn a language that has the possibility of giving you even more work opportunities in the future, then learning Mandarin might be a good choice as most Chinese people speak it either as a first or second language.

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