Chinese, Japanese or Korean language?
August 3, 2022

Here’s Inchin Closers 5 step guide to help you choose which East Asian language to learn

You might be taken in by k-pop stars, the upbeat music of BTS or swoon over Korean Drama Tv serials, or you might be fascinated by Japanese anime, their soul searching films and cute yet fierce characters, or the glittering city lights, promise of big business and trade with China might catch your fancy. Professionals and students alike are often perplexed over which East Asian language to learn? Inchin Closers guide will help you differentiate and then decide which language is best for you to learn.

Along the way, we help bust some language myths and point out the easy and tough parts of each language to help language learners make a more informed decision.

Chinese, Japanese or Korean which language to learn?

Origin

While all Asian languages might look and sound the same, they are not. Japanese and Korean have borrowed many words from Chinese (Mandarin) as historically, they were all one land. However the origins of their language are different. Chinese stems from the Indo-Tibetian language family which is a family of more than 400 languages and includes Burmese.

Japanese and Korean on the other hand originate from the Altaic family which has no defined origin, but covers areas from Turkey to Japan, essentially following the  Altai mountain range in Central Asia.

Tones

Mandarin is a tonal language. It has four main tones. Each Mandarin character (there are no alphabets) has its own unique tone. When spoken, each character in the word and each word in a sentence needs to be spoken with the correct tone, else the listener will not understand what is being said. Unlike English, where the tone of a word demonstrates the speakers emotion, Mandarin tones determine the meaning of a word, Unfortunately many feel Mandarin is difficult to learn predominantly because a learner needs to start from tones, which is hard to grasp for a novice whose ears are not attuned to listening, distinguishing and speaking different tones.

Korean and Japanese on the other hand don’t have tones. However Japanese has intonations which are important while speaking.

Grammar

Mandarin grammar is super simple to learn. Unlike English where verbs conjugate depending on when an action has taken place – in the past, present or future or Hindi where the verb changes based on masculine and feminine genders, Mandarin verbs do not conjugate regardless of tense, plurality, or gender. This not only makes Mandarin easier to learn than English, but much easier than French, German or Spanish too!!

Having originated from different language families, Mandarin’s sentence structure follows the Subject + Verb + Object structure which is similar to English. This makes Mandarin grammar super simple for English speakers.

Korean and Japanese on the other hand, both follow the Subject + Object + Verb sentence structure which is similar to Hindi and many Indian languages. Additionally, Korean and Japanese both have a wide range of grammatical function, lots of post positional particles and formal and non-formal versions which makes both languages slightly more tricky to construct grammatically.

Written script

Mandarin doesn’t have an alphabet, rather it has characters. Most character have their origins in pictures which have subsequently evolved to form characters, each with their own distinct sounds and meanings. Characters have a defined way to write, each following a specific stroke order system. There is also a logic following most characters. Objects originating from the same element for example, will have the same radicle. This makes it easy to identify and write characters once you have a basic understanding of the first 100.

Korean uses an alphabet system called Hangul. it is also the only language amongst the 3 to put spaces between its words. Hangul has five basic consonants which represent the shape of the speech organs used to pronounce them and are phonetically modified. Similarly, vowel letters are systematically modified for related sounds. Hangul was created in 1443 CE by King Sejong the Great in an attempt to increase literacy in the country and became the primary Korean script only in the decades after Korea’s independence from Japan in the mid-20th century.

The modern Japanese writing system uses a combination of logographic kanji, which are adopted Chinese characters, and syllabic kana. Kana itself consists of a pair of syllabaries: hiragana, used primarily for native or naturalised Japanese words and grammatical elements; and katakana, used primarily for foreign words and names, loanwords, onomatopoeia, scientific names, and sometimes for emphasis. Almost all written Japanese sentences contain a mixture of kanji and kana. Because of this mixture of scripts, in addition to a large inventory of kanji characters, the Japanese writing system is considered to be one of the most complicated in current use.

Foreign word usage

Japanese uses the maximum number of loanwords from foreign languages. Everything from coffee to computer – usually objects that have originated in the West retain their original word in Japanese too.

Korean uses substantially fewer foreign language words in its language. While Mandarin uses the least foreign language words. In Mandarin most foreign language words have also been localised to suit the Chinese tongue. For example coffee is kā fēi. Most brand names, like all proper nouns (names of people or countries) also have their own Chinese version. Therefore India is Yìn dù and Samsung is sān xīng.

We hope this 5 point guide is able to help you decide between which East Asian Language to learn. While they borrow heavily from each other, their origins are different and therefore the basis of the languages differ. The best way to stay motivated to learn a language is to have a specific purpose or goal in mind.

Do also check out these links to help you learn the language of your choice better –

4 Fun and Easy ways to learn Mandarin

Learning Mandarin from Indian languages

10 Chinese mobile apps every entrepreneur should know!

Jobs for Mandarin language speakers

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