Whenever people speak of language learning, or more specifically, difficult languages, two languages are almost always mentioned more than others.
Chinese and Japanese.
Everybody and their aunt know that these two languages are two of the most complicated tongues out there, at least from the perspective of an English speaker. They are notoriously difficult to master, and if you hope to reach even a moderately high level in either language, you’ll need to keep studying for years!
Many call Chinese and Japanese “the hardest languages in the world”. Whether this is true or not is debatable. While they’re definitely time-consuming, there are a few others, like Arabic or Korean, that might compete for the title.
But focusing on Chinese and Japanese – which one is actually the more difficult language?
Both Japanese and Chinese are extremely complicated languages for an English speaker, but in different ways. Japanese grammar and word order is a struggle, whereas Chinese is easy in that regard. Japanese pronunciation is not a big deal, but Chinese tones will take a long time to learn. When it comes to writing, Japanese uses three separate scripts with different pronunciations and complicated rules, whereas Chinese uses only one which, despite the many characters, actually is logical.
In the following, I’ll try comparing some of the specifics of both Japanese and Chinese in order to try and illustrate what the challenges are in each language.
Writing Systems In Chinese And Japanese
In principle, Japanese and Chinese use the same writing system. The Chinese characters, Hanzi have been in use since the bronze age, meaning that it’s one of the oldest writing systems that’s still being used today.
And Japanese Kanji are practically the same thing.
Kanji have been in use for around 1500 years, and they’re a Japanese adaptation of the Chinese Hanzi system. The characters have mostly similar meanings, but there are differences to how they’re used in the two languages.
While Hanzi was made for Chinese and have very consistent pronunciation and grammar that goes hand-in hand with the individual characters, in Japanese, they’re much more of an adaptation.
Japanese doesn’t have the same logic when it comes to its writing system, and several characters have several different meanings and pronunciations. Most Kanji have at least two on’yomi (音読み) “sound-readings” or pronunciations while Hanzi only have one per character.
The Chinese Hanzi characters were created specifically with Chinese grammar in mind, which means that they work ideally with the Chinese language and which makes them them wonderfully simple to figure out. In Japanese, this is clearly not the case, meaning that the Japanes had to be inventive when it came to writing their language with its distinct grammar system in this script.
This is why Japanese hasn’t just got the one script that makes up the Kanji characters, but also two phonetic scripts, Hiragana and Katakana, which are used to write Okurigana, which are suffixes and modifications that are added to Kaji, in order to inflect verbs and adjectives as well as denote specific meanings that aren’t clear from just the Kanji.
Hiragana and Katakana are much simpler than Kanji (and Hanzi) because they’re basically phonetic alphabets that are pronounced exactly like they’re spelled (and because you only need to learn 46 letters).
But even though, they’re simpler, this doesn’t help you a lot, because they’re seldomly used independently of Kanji characters. This means that you should consider them an addition to Kanji that is necessary in order to make Chinese characters work for the Japanese language. They’re not an alternative as such.
Japanese and Chinese Pronunciation Compared. Which One Is Worst?
When it comes to pronunciation, Japanese and Chinese are as different as they come. Japanese is known for being monotonous and simple in terms of pronunciation. Chinese has its tones, where each syllable is pronounced with one of five different pitches, making the language sound very melodious.
Aside from the interesting sound, tones also make Chinese pronunciation a great deal more complicated. (Again, for an English speaker).
For each new word that you learn in Chinese, you also have to internalize the one of the five tones that correspond to it, or you will definitely not be understood. And that’s just Mandarin Chinese. Cantonese and Taiwanese Chinese have up to 8 tones. (And Mandarin isn’t spoken by everyone in China, mind you!)
Japanese, on the other hand, has no tones. Add to that that it has very few phonemes, or sounds, meaning that the language will seem repetitive and monotone when spoken. While this helps in terms of pronunciation, it might make it more complicated to distinguish between words in the spoken language, as well as figure out where one word ends, another begins, and which parts are suffixes, conjugation, and so on.
Chinese And Japanese Grammar Compared
There are some fundamental differences between Chinese and Japanese grammar, that people who know neither language probably wouldn’t imagine being there.
In a way, you could say that the two languages are close to being complete opposites in terms of grammar!
Japanese is what you call an agglutinative language. Agglutinative languages are characterized by “gluing” prefixes, word stems, suffixes, and different morphemes together. The word is actually derived from the Latin “agglutinare” which means to glue something together.
Agglutination has the effect of bundling information together into words instead of phrases, meaning that you get a language that has short phrases with few words, but the words will seem long and there’ll be a new variant for each grammatical declension or conjugation.
Especially for beginners, it can be hard to tell the words apart and figure out which part is the actual word you’re looking for, and which part is just grammar-additions (and then you need to figure out what they mean as well).
The fact that Japanese is an agglutinative language is also the reason why it needs the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets. You simply need to be able to build on root-words to form meaning in Japanese, and in Chinese, it just doesn’t work like that.
Chinese, as I mentioned, is grammatically another story.
Chinese words are short and simple. While you do need to learn a lot of characters, each word consists of about two characters and rarely more. The Chinese Hanzi script was made for the Chinese language, meaning that there exists a character for each common linguistic action.
For example, if you want to negate something, you add the character “不” to a word. “Fortunately” is “幸” whereas “unfortunately” is “不幸”. And this works for nouns, verbs and adjectives alike. “不” is a little like the morpheme “un” in English. Adding it to “fortunately” makes it “unfortunately”. The thing is, however, that in Chinese, this logic is ever present in the language, and that all words and phrases are constructed in similar ways. Learning a few morphemes, in a way, is a short-cut to knowing thousands of words.
Chinese (like English) is an isolating language which means that individual syllables are almost always unchanged when words are conjugated, declined, changing time and so on. Words, in themselves, are unaltered, and they’re made more detailed by adding morphemes instead of modifying existing words.
Add to that that there are very few things in Chinese grammar that actually modifies the word itself. There are no gender to nouns, no cases like it’s the case with, for example, Slavic languages, plurals are rare and simple and verbs remain unchanged no matter the conjugation.
Japanese, on the other hand, is extremely dependent on most of these factors, and there are many forms of words that need to be learned and used correctly depending on time, conditions, different politeness-levels and so on.
In terms of word order, Japanese is a “SOV” language, or a language that organizes its phrases by first the subject, then the object and finally the verb. So instead of saying “Peter eats apples”, you’d say “Peter apples eats”. This might not seem like a big deal, but as sentences get longer and more complicated, this will become confusing.
Chinese uses the SVO (subject, verb, object) word order, much like English, which doesn’t require the learner to completely re-organize the information that he or she tries to convey before speaking.
Words And Vocabulary In Chinese And Japanese
When it comes to vocabulary, both Chinese and Japanese are very exotic, very different languages from English. This means that it’ll take some time to learn vocabulary, and you might need to use some different memorization techniques to remember the words.
So both languages represent a challenge in terms of vocabulary, but Japanese has the advantage of having quite a few loan-words (or “gairaigo”) from European languages, notably English. While these loan-words are strongly modified in the Japanese forms, like the word “esukarētā” (escalator) or “ribenji” (revenge, meaning “rematch”), they can still be a help when learning Japanese words because they bring clear associations to words you already know.
While some English loan-words obviously exist in Chinese they’re not close to being as common and casually used as in Japanese, which means that you need to learn a lot more “purely Chinese” words.
Add to that that the Chinese language is extremely rich in idiomatic expressions. There are literally thousands of 4-character idioms commonly used in everyday speech, and although these are both fascinating, poetic and carry some wisdom, they’re a great deal of extra things to learn by heart.
While these types of idiomatic expressions also exist in Japanese, they’re not as plentiful.
Verdict: Is Japanese Or Chinese More Difficult?
Finally, which one is the more complicated language? Chinese or Japanese?
As I’ve discussed in the above, there are numerous facets to this question. Some aspects of the one language is easier than the other and vice versa, and this obviously makes it difficult to just pick a language.
While both Chinese and Japanese are complicated in terms of writing, I’d say that Japanese represents the bigger challenge. Not because learning to read and write Japanese is harder, but because you’ll need to learn a lot more than just a writing system.
Japanese writing requires not one, but three different scripts, one of which, Kanji, is almost exactly the same as the Chinese Hanzi. And while Katakana and Hiragana aren’t difficult to master, they’re an added charge to a language that already represents a lot of challenges.
And while on the subject of writing, there’s no denying that Japanese grammar complicates the way the language is written.
When it comes to pronunciation, there’s no doubt that Chinese tones are a huge challenge that Japanese doesn’t have. Japanese is actually so simple in terms of pronunciation that the biggest challenge might be to focus on the speech, which has a tendency to become a little monotone.
As for grammar? Here Japanese takes the bill. While it isn’t true that “Chinese hasn’t got any grammar” like some people like to state, its grammar is delightfully simple, especially when compared to the agglutinative Japanese.
Add to that that Japanese has a lot of different politeness levels with their own vocabulary and rules. You’ll need to change your way of speaking depending on who you are, and who you’re speaking to. (And it goes far beyond the English comparison of “his dog died” and “his uncle passed away”).
Vocabulary is almost a tie. Wile Japanese has more loan-words from English, these aren’t so significant that they make a big difference when it comes to learning vocabulary. And while it might be easier to distinguish between Chinese words because of tones, the advantage that this provides isn’t really that important.
Both languages are very different from English when it comes to learning vocabulary.
So which one would I pick as the most difficult language between Japanese and Chinese?
I’d say that it depends.
If you generally have no problems with grasping foreign grammar concepts, Japanese is the easier language. If you find tones easy, and getting used to using them correctly when speaking, Chinese might be easier.
But what’s even more important is one simple question:
Which language do you like the most?
If you’re choosing between learning Japanese for your love of its culture, its people and everything Nippon, and learning Chinese in order to add an impressive competence to your CV, Japanese will be much easier. And vice versa.
The language that you’re most motivated to learn, will no doubt also be the easier language for you.
And those were my two cents. Or one Yen and a Yuan. What do you think?