Chinese vs Japanese: How Different Are They?

Thinking about learning either Chinese or Japanese but can’t quite decide which is the best choice? Are there too many burning questions in your mind regarding how different these two languages really are?

Let’s start getting some of those questions out of the way.
 

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Chinese vs Japanese: A contrast between two fascinating languages

Chinese

  • Number of speakers: 920 million (as of 2021).
  • How popular is it?: it’s the most popular language in the world.
  • How old is it?: Chinese is one of the most ancient living languages in the world, with roots dating back to 1000 BC.

Chinese is the most widely spoken language globally, with the number of native speakers growing in millions at breakneck speed. Taiwan, Singapore and, of course, China, all have Chinese as an official language. It’s also one of the oldest living languages in the world, with proto-Chinese writings dating back nearly 3,000 years. These documents mainly consisted of oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang dynasty era and ancient poetry from which Ancient Chinese phonology can be reconstructed.

Though we are dealing with Chinese as a single language, it is strictly a group of related languages or, at least, variants of the same language which, in many cases, are mutually unintelligible. Local Chinese variants are traditionally classified into seven dialect groups, mainly on the basis of the evolution of Middle Chinese voiced initial sounds. These groups are Mandarin, Wu, Gan, Xiang, Min, Hakka, and Yue.

Japanese

  • Number of speakers: 2 million (as of 2021).
  • How popular is it?: It has the sixth-largest number of speakers globally.
  • How old is it?: Japanese is an evolving language with almost 2,000 years of recorded history.

The main difference between Chinese and Japanese is that the latter is more recent. Though not much is known about its origins, it is believed that Japanese emerged as a result of China’s dominance and the emergence of Buddhism. In the 3rd and 4th century AD, during the Kofun period, a few Japanese words started to appear in Chinese history books, and Japanese characters (known as Kanji) started to flow in along with the Chinese writing system.

Chinese Versus Japanese: Which One Is Easier to Learn?

Though learning about the history of Chinese and Japanese is very interesting, in order to make the best choice, we will need to dive deeper into a few key elements of both languages. Are their writing systems the same? Can Chinese people understand Japanese? Are Chinese and Japanese characters very different? Let’s take a look.

The Writing Systems

Japanese Writing uses three sets of writing systems. These are Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana. Chinese, on the other hand, has one set of characters known as Hanzi.

The reason why Japanese might look similar to Chinese is that the great majority of the Japanese Kanji symbols are derived from Chinese Hanzi, to which many of them are still identical.

Chinese Writing Japanese Writing
Writing system Chinese characters: Hanzi Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana
Language family Sino-Tibetan Japonic or the Japanese-Ryukyuan
Number of consonants Twenty-five Eighteen
Vowels Ten Five
Way of writing Writing starts on the right side of the page and then goes to the left side. Writing starts in the center and then goes downward.

Chinese Writing vs Japanese Writing

Vocabulary

When it comes to vocabulary, both Chinese and Japanese are very different from English. Though different learners might find one easier than the other, mastering either of them will definitely take time, patience, and a nice set of memorisation techniques.

Having said this, it is true that Japanese has an advantage over Chinese for English learners. If you’ve ever watched an anime movie on Netflix, you might have noticed that a few isolated words sound strangely familiar.

It turns out that, out of the 45,000 loanwords frequently used in the Japanese language, 90 percent come from English. While many of these loanwords are slightly modified in the Japanese forms, like the word ribenji (revenge) esukarētā (escalator), they are still a big help for English speakers, as they allow us to make associations to words we already know.

Chinese, on the other hand, is almost completely made of purely Chinese words. Add to this that all Chinese variants are filled with very culturally-specific idiomatic expressions, and you wouldn’t be mistaken to assume that learning any Chinese dialect will require a lot of willpower and perseverance.

Now, are Chinese and Japanese similar? Yes and no. Though these two languages have plenty of shared words, many of them have shifted their meanings throughout the years, so they do not mean the same in both languages anymore.

Let’s see a few examples:

Chinese characters Japanese characters Chinese meaning Japanese meaning
mother; woman daughter; girl
to wait upon; to serve samurai; servant
王妃 王妃 princess queen
wrist arm
pig boar
小人 小人 villain little people

Pronunciation

In Chinese, tones come first. Mandarin uses intonation to convey not only attitude but also meaning.

Tone is so important in Chinese languages that the word Ma, for example, can have five different meanings depending on the intonation pattern that a speaker uses.

  1. 妈 (mā) — mother
  2. 麻 (má) — hemp or flax
  3. 马 (mǎ) — horse
  4. 骂 (mà) — to nag or verbally abuse
  5. 吗 (ma) — an interrogative marker

Japanese, on the other hand, does not use tones. Once you know the meaning of a word, it will always be the same, no matter how you say it. What is more, each syllable in Japanese has the same length and is made up of a consonant followed by a vowel. As a consequence, Japanese is noticeably more monotonous than Chinese languages.

Grammar

If you thought Japanese was going to be easier than Chinese in every aspect, you are up for a surprise. When it comes to grammar structures, it turns out that Chinese is much simpler. First, since it only uses Hanzi characters, you will only have to learn how to spell grammatical concepts in one system. But the differences don’t end there. In Chinese, verbs are not declined for gender or number and they always have the same form.

Japanese, in opposition, has a much wider range of conjugations. Though Japanese is not a tonal language, Japanese verbs are phonetically modified to change the purpose, nuance or meaning of the verb, which means that words can have different pronunciations (not tones) depending on the context in which they are used.

Secondly, Chinese and Japanese follow different sentence structures. Whereas Chinese is an SVO (subject, verb, object) language, Japanese follows an SOV (subject, object, verb) language, which sounds alien for English speakers (think something like “I burgers love”).

All in all, it seems that, when it comes to grammar, Chinese is much easier than Japanese.

Chinese or Japanese: Which One Is Better for Business?

In recent decades, China has become the second-largest economy in the world after the US. Though it’s nominally a communist republic, it produces and exports more goods and services than any capitalist country in Europe. This means a lot of incredible working opportunities for language learners, as new Chinese companies that operate internationally are set up literally every day.

Japanese, on the other hand, might be extremely useful if you’re planning to get a job in Japan or deal directly with Japanese people. At the moment, Japan boasts a booming economy based on the automotive, communications, and financial sectors. But if you’re looking to keep your options open and try different experiences at an international level, you will find Chinese to be more useful.

As you can see, there are no easy answers when you attempt to compare Chinese and Japanese. Similar but different, easier and more difficult in different key aspects —in the end, which one you decide to learn will depend on where you want to go and what you want to do.
 

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