Japanese or Chinese?

Ok, what language is more difficult to learn for western adults -- Japanese or Chinese? The consensus seems to be that Japanese grammar is more difficult than Chinese grammar, but Chinese pronunciation is more difficult than Japanese pronunciation. I would agree. Now, can you imagine a language that combines the most difficult aspects of Japanese and Chinese and includes the complexity of their character-based writing systems? I still think telepathy is the way to go.

I would agree, they both present problems of English speaking people. I did always enjoy trying to get Japanese speaking people to say "Squirrel", the QU sound always throws them.

The Japanese language is very rhythmic, while I find Chinese very harsh and not as easy to understand.

Posted by David Vasta on July 28, 2008 at 11:53 AM JST #

(keeping in mind I'm probably biased because I tried to learn Chinese, and have never learned Japanese...)

I've heard Chinese is harder due to the lack of an alphabet. I've been with Japanese friends, who even though they don't know the word, can at least pronounce things correctly due to the alphabet. While this may not be useful for daily conversation, it's a huge benefit for navigating things like a subway.

The tonal system in Chinese is hard, and the lack of an alphabet makes literacy really hard.

Posted by stevel on July 28, 2008 at 06:22 PM JST #

I heard Japanese is rather easier. Japanese grammar is somehow complicated, but, there are few exceptions. Kanji or Chinese characters are so many and that is the same in Chinese and Japanese.

Agglutinative language like Japanese or Korean would be difficult for non agglutinative language tongue people. Finnish and Turkish are also Agglutinative languages.

Posted by Toru on July 29, 2008 at 07:04 AM JST #

Japanese is easier - both languages are really rather practical in their worldview. For instance, try to literally translate "ohayoo gozimasu," "irashaimase," "tsao shang hao" and so on. Statements are practicalities which are simply uttered. Some people will have difficulty with either language because they cannot re-shape their perceptions to match the new lexicon, other will stumble on the phonemes and pronunciations (I personally think a tonal language is much more difficult to pick up than a pitch language, but that is probably shaped by my personal background and familiarity).

The sheer volume of kanji is daunting to many (ever browse through the 大漢和辞典? [link below]), but if one gets past the dissimilar strokes and begins to comprehend the component pieces, they are, like the languages, rather practical and simple.

Obviously Chinese might be easier to learn than Japanese for a Naxi person or a Mongolian, and Japanese would be much easier to learn for most Koreans; it all depends on where you are coming from. For Western speakers, I happen to think Japanese is much easier - as a language - to learn. However, Japanese language a social protocol is more difficult for Westerners to learn. ;-)

Posted by BZ on August 15, 2008 at 05:33 PM JST #

Having studied both, I'd have to say: it depends.

Spoken Japanese is far easier to learn than Chinese. As often mentioned, the tonal nature of Chinese is particularly troublesome. That isn't to say it can't be overcome; it just takes more time to get used to. Another problem I hear mentioned less often is that -- ignoring tones -- there are several distinct sounds in Chinese that would frequently be considered interchangable in English. Learning to distinguish these sounds, and to accurately produce them, takes a fair amount of time. Until you become comfortable with these two things, they are a constant distraction and get in the way of learning vocabulary and grammar. In contrast, Japanese pronunciation is mostly a subset of English and is therefore very easy to pick up.

Japanese grammar is indeed more complicated than Chinese, but basic usage can be picked up very quickly and employed with much less effort than it takes to overcome the phonetic hurdles of Chinese. Though both Japanese and Chinese are at a disadvantage to European languages due to the lack of cognates, I have to say I found learning Japanese grammar to be easier than, say, German. I think the fact that it is as different as it is makes it easier: you're less likely to misremember an English structure as being a Japanese one. (The old adage regarding the importance of knowing what you don't know comes to mind: with Japanese it is easier to remember what you do and don't know how to say, making it easier to speak confidently.)

Additionally, there are many frequently occurring "markers" in Japanese speech which help a speaker keep their bearing within a sentence (common particles and word suffixes) and between sentences (copula, verb endings) even if the vocabulary used isn't known. I found in Chinese it was much easier to get completely lost once unfamiliar vocabulary entered the picture.

When it comes to reading and writing, I have to say Chinese probably has Japanese beat. The biggest problem when it comes to learning kanji is that fact that a particular character may represent multiple sounds. This makes reading aloud difficult, and useful repetition much harder to come by (for quite a while, each use of a character feels like a special case). In Chinese, most characters have just a single (or at least, a single commonly-used) pronunciation. This makes picking up their pronunciations and meanings much, much easier. The one thing Japanese has going for it here is that the cues I mentioned in the last paragraph are also visually obvious, making parsing text that uses unfamiliar vocabulary easier.

Regarding phonetic alphabets, pinyin works just fine. Hiragana is just as easy. Both suffer from the same problem that you need to have material written in them for either to be of use. So I'd argue their benefit is not so much a function of their languages, but of the popular conventions and public policies that determine how often they are used.

Posted by Dave on August 20, 2008 at 11:47 AM JST #

Please, David Vasta, I am chinese and you are like sooo uncool because I find chinese smooth and rthymic as I find japanese harsh.

Posted by Emily on August 23, 2008 at 08:13 PM JST #

Such interesting views. Thanks. You know, my daughter is picking up Japanese and English quite easily, but we also have some Chinese friends here who talk Chinese to her, and so she's picking up Chinese too! It doesn't seem to matter to her. Amazing. I wish I were 3 again! :)

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on August 24, 2008 at 12:41 PM JST #

Well -- to Emily and David Vasta, it may be that David simply knows Chinese as the Cantonese dialect, which is indeed rather harsh. I'd know, being a native speaker; Mandarin is a far mor lyrical and rhythmic language; it may also be perhaps a regional accent.

I do, however, find Japanese relatively pleasing to the ears also.

Posted by Kenneth on October 25, 2009 at 03:53 PM JST #

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