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Japanese, Korean, Chinese: Which Language is the Easiest to Learn?

One does not simply put “easy” and “Kanji” in the same sentence.

By 12 min read

Like the majority of people attracted to Japan’s culture, I grew up with manga and anime. At that time back in 2006, Korean or Japanese weren’t really popular languages. Chinese, on the other hand, was marketed as THE language of opportunity. Many high schools in France, including mine, offered it as an “extra-foreign” language.

Because I was in a weeaboo denial phase, convincing myself that I liked “Asian culture in general” and not just the Japanese one, I chose to study Chinese for my whole three years of high school in the hopes that it would prepare me for my ultimate weeb goal: study Japanese at university—which I did next.

Everything was going fine until a third element joined the group: the Hallyu or Korean culture wave which spread K-pop, K-beauty, and K-drama all over the world. My weeaboo-ism, combined with the stress of learning Japanese “the hard way” (aka you must score 100% on all exams otherwise the rest of your life is pretty much doomed), mutated into a koreaboo-ism because of it.

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I was stuck between my Japanese major (or at least the end of it), barely keeping up with three years of Chinese study so that I could make something of my life AND indulging myself completely in shiny new K-culture. My genius solution? Study Korean, Chinese, and Japanese at the same time. They’ve got to be pretty similar, right?

As it turns out. Yes and no. Luckily I made it out of that linguistic black hole with a few ideas on which one is easiest that I’m going to share with you.

Let the battle begin!

Round One: Reading

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Kanji, Hanja, and Hanzi. No, these are not the names of The Three Musketeers translated into Japanese but the labels for logograms—characters that symbolize a phrase or word—respectively in Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

Hanzi is the derivative Chinese term for Kanji and Hanja. It literally means the characters of the “Han,” the most powerful ethnic group at the time when China began to export its culture beyond its borders. The Hanzi is a collection of more than 7,000 characters you’ll use for everything (if you exclude the variations and ancient forms written in old books that make the total number over 100,000 characters). You have to learn each of the 7,000 characters one by one to be able to navigate the Chinese world efficiently.

On the other side of the sea, there are 2,136 commonly used Kanji characters in the Japanese language, called the Joyo kanji which are derived from Chinese Hanzi. Along with those are the kana, characters for vocal syllables that include 46 hiragana, also derived from Chinese characters but KonMaried to their most minimalistic forms, and 46 katakana (which are mostly there just to make foreigners cringe).

Each Kanji also have two different readings: the ON-yomi, from Chinese origin, and the KUN-yomi, purely from Japanese origin. An easy way to know when you should use which is to remember that KUN readings are usually used when the word is alone or combined with kana. The ON reading is only used when kanji are combined together.

That said ON and KUN are not limited to just one reading. For example, a simple kanji like “ue”, meaning above, can have three ON readings (jo, sho, and shan) and six KUN readings (ue, uwa, kami, noboru, agaru, tatematsuru). Yup.

Because of these three “alphabet” systems, you can get away with learning only some of the Joyo kanji plus kana and still be able to understand what you read without going back and forth on your dictionary.

Korean has 24 letters, namely Hanguls, with 14 consonants and 10 vowels. That’s it! The Hanja are not used as much as before nor taught in school anymore. You’ll find Hanja only for abbreviation or for stylistic reasons (to save space for example), or in specific professions such as law or medicine.

On top of that, the written system has spaces. You can, therefore, look up a word more easily than in Japanese or Chinese where in most cases you don’t know where the word ends or begins, or even how to spell it.

Verdict: Korean is the easiest to read

Round Two: Writing

There is a popular belief that Chinese is the origin of both the Japanese and Korean languages. While it’s true that ancient Korean and Japanese texts were solely written in classical Chinese, and Chinese characters were only studied by the elite of both countries for ages, they were actually read in the language of each country following the same grammatical rules we know today.

The current writing systems were only created later on, for the common people, or to stand out from Chinese written books. So, Japanese and Korean populations created their own reading and writing systems completely separate from the Chinese one.

The first thing you learn when you study Chinese is how to write the characters. And I’m not just talking about the stroke orders. When I was studying in school it seemed to me that calligraphy was a huge part of the language as my teacher spent so much time and effort to teach us about the radicals (a setlist of graphical elements that compose a Hanzi), their meaning, how each stroke is traced and most importantly where your pen should begin and end.

The radicals are actually similar in Japanese, so if you’re learning Japanese and want to study Chinese instead, there shouldn’t be much confusion between the two. You still have the kana on top of the Kanji, it just involves a little bit more memorization. I mean, at this point, learning 46 more characters is not going to kill you.

However, since Korean is the easiest language to read due to its letter-based reading system, that also means Korean is the easiest language to write. You still need to know the grammar, though. Soz.

Verdict: Korean is the easiest to write

Round Three: Speaking

Chinese, or Mandarin Chinese, has 25 consonants, 22 vowels and 19 diphthongs (a combination of two sounds within the same syllable) that overlap four distinct tones. Fortunately, you’ll be helped by the pinyin, the official romanization of Chinese characters for your pronunciation and tones like this: mā, má, mǎ, mà.

Still, that is A LOT of sounds for your mouth to remember and pronounce correctly to make yourself understandable.

Note also that China has 56 distinct ethnic groups and more than 200 dialects within its massive borders which include Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and Koreans. So it is very, very, very likely that you will encounter regional specificities.

For Japanese, if you were told that it doesn’t have intonation like Chinese, you were lied to. Almost every Japanese word has its own 発音hatsuon  or intonation, when alone, and a different one when put together with other words. The rule is pretty easy to understand once you get it, but you still have to remember the “tones” for every other word.

It’s good to bear in mind that the way you pronounce Japanese words won’t really affect your communication ability to the same extent that Chinese does. In Japanese, every sound is pure without any alteration based on surrounding “letters.” Exceptions though are things like 新橋shinbashi which becomes shimbashi when said aloud.

And what about Korean? Well, it’s not as difficult as Chinese, but you will definitely experience more tongue twisters than in Japanese.

Unlike Japanese, Korean does have the “L” sound, ㄹ, but it can often come at the end of a word. It’s like starting a classic “L” but stopping your tongue just before you can hear the vowel that follows. There is also something called double consonants ㄲ (kk), ㄸ(dd), ㅃ(bb), ㅆ(ss), and ㅉ(jj) which are harder versions of their single counterparts.

In practice, it goes like this: You’re at a local market and you want to buy pants. Let’s take 사다sada which means “to buy” and 싸다ssada which means “to poop.” If you’re not being careful with your pronunciation you might end up saying “I want to poop my pants,” instead of “I want to buy these pants.”

If you’re not being careful with your pronunciation you might end up saying “I want to poop my pants,” instead of “I want to buy these pants.”

Verdict: Japanese is the easiest to speak

Round Four: Listening

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Chinese is hard to speak because of its many sounds combined with its four tones. The other way around is also true. Listening to Chinese is hard and when the tones are nonexistent like in songs, it’s almost impossible to understand what the person means unless you read the lyrics—if you can read Chinese well enough!

Japanese is comparably more understandable when listening mainly due to its total 14 basic consonants (k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w, g, z, d, b, and p) and 5 vowels (a, i, u, e and o).

Perhaps the only trouble you’ll encounter in Japanese will be with words using “ん”, n, or the long “う”, u sound. For example, 禁煙kin-en, “non-smoking” and 近年kin-nen, “recently” or the distinction between a “hospital,” 病院byo-in and a “hair salon,” 美容院biyou-in.

Following the previous point about speaking, you will find many diphthongs, homophones and subtle sounds in the Korean language. The key is to get used to those new sounds, and I must admit K-dramas and K-pop music was a big help for me but I still have difficulties producing song, seung and seong.

The four tones of Chinese are crucial for listening to the language adding a level of difficulty on top of the new sounds. With many vowels being close to each other in the Korean language, the pure syllabic sounds of the Japanese language means it wins this round. Is it time to head over to your nearest karaoke to practice? Yes!

Verdict: Japanese is easiest to listen to

Round Five: Grammar

The Chinese grammar system is very similar to Western languages as it’s built around a subject + verb + object structure. And guess what? No conjunctions! The past tense is just one character, le. If you already have a time indicator word, like 昨天zuó tiān or “yesterday,” you don’t even need le. #dealwithit

The Chinese grammar system is very similar to Western languages as it’s built around a subject + verb + object structure.

There is a different counter for different objects, but you don’t have particles to indicate the subject or the direction like in Japanese or Korean. Such particle concepts can be very confusing for foreigners as there’s nothing similar in most Romance and Germanic languages.

In Japanese, depending on which particles you choose, the word preceding it will have various meanings and functions. 海がumi ga, 海をumi wo or 海にumi ni uses the word umi, the sea, but ga will indicate the subject of the action, wo will be for the object or the action and ni will be the location or the direction of an action.

That said, if you already know some grammar in one language, learning the others should come more smoothly. For me, grammar books in English for the Korean language like Talk to Me in Korean were OK, but I found that Korean learning books in Japanese were much more effective for re-learning grammar concepts I’d already grasped in Japanese.

Concerning the verb conjugation, Japanese and Korean both have honorific differences and stems when conjugating verbs, but I found the latter much more difficult as conjugation rules are influenced by how the word is written.

For example, in Korean, 마시다masida is the dictionary form of “to drink,” just like 飲むnomu in Japanese. Where in Japanese you can use the dictionary form as it is like 水を飲むmizu wo nomu (“[I] drink water”), you can’t in Korean. You have to conjugate it.

In the example 마시다masida, the last letter of the stem 마시masi is the vowel “i” so you need to add eo. This is optional here but you can also add yo, the polite particle. There is a vowel contraction when you try to put si, and eo together, resulting in the final verb looking like this: 마셔요masyeoyo. Congratulations, you just conjugated the verb “to drink” in the declarative present polite form!

The same thing happens with most particles such as eul/leul, and the wo particle in Japanese (the object particle). In the example, “I drink water,” mul is water. eul is used only when the word before ends with a consonant and leul when the word ends with a vowel. The last letter of mul is ㄹ (l), a consonant, therefore you’ll use eul. The final sentence is 물을mul-eul 마셔요masyeoyo.

It’s pretty hard at the beginning to think first about how the word is written to be able to put together a sentence or conjugate a verb, but it will come naturally with plenty of practice.

Korean tenses include the future tense, which is not the case for Japanese. They both have different levels of politeness in the verb conjugation, which is absent from the Chinese language.

The familiar grammar structure Chinese has makes it easier for us Indo-European language-speakers to understand.

A win for Chinese in the final round!

Verdict: Chinese has the easiest grammar

The upshot?

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I regret nothing.

Chinese introduced me to one of the most difficult aspects of Asian languages: Kanji characters, their writing, composition, and meaning. Learning this pretty early gave me a good head start when I began my Japanese major. On the other hand, studying Japanese helped me a lot with getting a job in Japan and with learning Korean grammar.

Which is the easiest to learn IMO? It really depends on the particular skill you’re tackling and what you personally find stimulating to learn.

I can definitely say that there are real benefits to learning Chinese, Japanese and Korean (at the same time, or separately!) and that the languages complement each other really well. So if you’re stuck deciding between them, know that you’re not actually limited to just one throughout the course of your learning.

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Of course, here at GaijinPot, we specialize in studying Japanese right here in Japan. You can explore more below:

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