There’s a great diversity in the main Eastern Asian trio of languages: Chinese, Korean and Japanese, yet some intrinsic links do exist also. It’s useful to focus on grammar, speech, reading and writing to gain a comparative view on this triad of languages which can help you make a decision about which you’d like to learn and which best suits your existing language skills.
Grammar – There aren’t too many exceptions to the fundamental grammar rules in Chinese and the organisation of sentences is similar to English (subject, verb, noun. E.g. subject – I am, verb – reading, noun – a book). It’s one of the easiest of the trio to learn in its conjugation and syntax and follows a logic that Western language speakers will understand relatively easily.
Speaking – Speaking Chinese involves intonations which can be very difficult. Intonation in Chinese changes the meaning of words and phrases and this can seem confusing, but in English, we do similar things – though the tone mostly reflects mood than meaning. Still, there are English tonal differences like rebel (ra-bell) and rebel (reb-all), which make English speakers better prepared than many for speaking Chinese. Chinese intonation is a help and hindrance for those learning it from another language because if Chinese was spoken atonally, it’d be very hard to differentiate between many phrases. Once you’re used to the tonal structure of Chinese, it becomes easier to speak very quickly.
Reading/writing – This is by far the hardest part of learning Chinese, as everything is in characters, and there’s a lot of them! Learning each one can be difficult and because of the traditional/simplified divide between Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, knowledge of multiple sets of characters is needed to read all Chinese. To understand Chinese writing completely, a knowledge of 4000 characters is needed!
Grammar – Japanese grammar has big fundamental differences when compared to Western language, and also subtle differences which have great effects on sentences. Japanese grammars’ syntax is inverted compared to English, with the verb coming at the end of the sentence and there are conjugations based on honorific tiers which differ depending on who you’re speaking to and in which tone you want to speak to them, – e.g. very respectfully, or rudely. This socio-linguistic component to Japanese makes it a tremendously fascinating language to learn, but also a very tricky one in regards to its grammar.
Speaking – There is a particular mastery of pitch differences that comes with native Japanese speakers but for the most part, it is a relatively easy Eastern Asian language to speak. There is never a difference in how consonant-vowel combos are spoken either. For example in English, we have the famous ‘magic E’ that determines whether an ‘a’ is pronounced ‘ay’ or ‘ah’. Phonetically, there are only 5 vowels in Japanese and their sounds all feature in English. It’s reportedly one of the most natural Asian languages to speak for an English speaker.
Reading/writing – Hiragana and Katakana consist of a little less than 50 letters, which are actually simplified Chinese characters which have been altered slightly to form a phonetic script. Hiragana features every sound you can make in Japanese language, Katakana is mainly for imported words, especially from English. This can be confusing, as English speakers have an expectancy about the pronunciation which is going to be incorrect! Chinese characters, called Kanji in Japanese, are also heavily used in the Japanese writing. These are much harder to write and have their own pronunciations. Many say Japanese reading requires knowledge of fewer characters than Chinese to achieve literacy, but also that the multiple sets of characters need to be combined often, which is tricky.
Grammar – Korean grammar is most similar to Japanese, so it is hard to get your head round some conjugations and honorific differences. Most Korean sentences have words with a particle attached to them. These signify what the word’s role is in the sentence (subject or object). Korean, like Japanese, places the more important components of a sentence, like the tense and verb, at the end of a sentence. Every Korean sentence ends in a verb (like walk, wash, etc.) or an adjective (like nice, shiny, hungry, etc.)
Speaking – Korean doesn’t have tones, but instead has difficult sounds like “eo” which is hybrid of oh/uh, and the “er” sound which is quite guttural. Many words end in ‘l’, a Korean ending to a word “l” sounds like an English beginning of a word “l”. So more of a ‘Le’ sound than an ‘el’.
Reading/writing – Hangul is easier to read and write than most Asian languages, as the characters don’t represent short phrases, but individual letters instead. Instead of different characters for ka/ki/ku/sa/shi/su/etc, there’s one character each for the k, s, a, i, u, etc. It’s far easier transferring to this from most Western languages, and there’s no difficult Kanji. Korean is the clear-cut easiest to read and write when compared to Japanese and Chinese, as its alphabet is easier to remember and more logical to Western language speakers.
It just depends on what you already excel at as well as what you feel you’d like to delve into most in learning one of these languages. If your visual memory is good and you like revising alphabets and their fundamental dynamics to help you learn a language then Chinese is tremendously interesting, and once you’ve made in-roads into its written form, speaking it will become easier quickly. Japanese has no intonation but instead, sociolinguistic differences in speech and writing feature heavily. Korean has a simpler alphabet which strikes more similarities to most European Romance languages, and whilst there are difficult sounds in its speech, there’s no intonation.
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Also published on Medium.