Should I Learn Chinese or Japanese?


“Should I learn Japanese or Chinese?”

As a Japanese/Chinese interpreter and translator, it’s a question I get asked a lot.

Those that are crazy or masochistic enough to venture into the realm of Asian languages often stop and pause when it comes to choosing from the two giants of the East Asian languages: Japanese and Mandarin.

Choosing a language is important. Gaining fluency will take you hours, months, and perhaps years of your life. It’s not something to take lightly and, if used for future work purposes, is definitely worth consideration.

Here are some important questions to answer when choosing Japanese or Chinese:

Which Language is More Difficult?


 Chinese is easier than Japanese.

Hands down.

No argument.

While Japanese and Chinese both use those crazy ‘kanji’ (hanzi) characters, Japanese poses a tougher challenge with its multiple readings for each and every character.

Chinese characters (usually) only have one reading, while Japanese characters have multiple readings.

Let’s take the character 明, which means bright in both languages.

In Chinese, 明 is read as ‘ming‘.’  That’s it.  Even if it’s paired with other characters, such as the word tomorrow 明天 (ming2 tian1), it’s still read as ‘ming.’

In Japanese, this character can be read as ‘aka,’ such as in the word 明るい (akarui), which means bright.  It can also be read as ‘ake,’ like in the word 明け方 (dawn).  Yet again, the reading changes when we pair it with another character 明朗 (cheerful), where the character is read as ‘mei.’

For that one character in Japanese, we already have to memorize not one, not two, but three readings (and total, there are 13 readings for this one character alone).  You can read more on  here in regard to the history of why Japanese is so stupid complicated when it comes to reading Chinese characters.

On top of hard characters, Japanese has extremely complex grammar.  In order to process Japanese grammar, you’ll have to rewire your entire brain to learn a whole new way to communicate.  Chinese, on the other hand, has a very simple grammar system that is somewhat similar to English.

Japanese also has a far more complex set of words and grammar principles for polite and humble speaking forms. Learning to speak keigo, or honorific Japanese, is almost like learning a new language entirely.

Gaining proper fluency in Japanese is a lot of work. While neither language is ‘easy,’ Japanese has far more hurdles to overcome.

What Language is Harder to Pronounce?

Calligraphy practice

My calligraphy mess

The most difficult part of Chinese is, without a doubt, the tones.

It’s a unique linguistic trait that is non present in English or Japanese. While tones may be intimidating for some learners, dedicated practice with a native speaker will make you a pro in no time.  I found the tones to be more of a fun challenge than an impossible obstacle.

Still, it’s not easy.  I am not exaggerating when I say my first two months of Chinese language study were learning tones—and that’s it.

Japanese pronunciation is, actually, quite easy. Japanese is so easy to pronounce, it can make the language seem deceptively simple—but trust me, it’s not.

Which Language is More Useful?


To answer this question, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each language:

The Pros & Cons of Chinese

Pro: Chinese is the most widely spoken language on Earth. More than English. If you speak English and Chinese, you will be able to communicate with a vast majority of the world (throw Spanish in, and you’re gold).

That makes Chinese pretty darn useful, eh?

Con: The abundance of Chinese people have created a fierce amount of competition in the mainland. In order to get ahead and win the money race, many Chinese parents have made English fluency a priority for their children. Thus, much of China’s youth have quite a good handle on English and speak it fluently. Believe it or not, more than 60% of international students at U.S. colleges are Chinese. That means on U.S. campuses alone, one out of every three international students is Chinese (and they most likely speak English better than we speak Chinese).

And what does this mean if you’re trying to work as a translator or sell your skills as a Chinese speaker?

Well, it means you’re competing with hard-working, English speaking, young Chinese people that are willing to work for half of your salary.

Yeah. Bad odds.

View from Kiyomizu Temple

View from Kiyomizu Temple

The Pros & Cons of Japanese

Pro: Japan fell behind Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea in terms of English proficiency.  For TOFEL scores, they placed dead last.  While Japanese students may be book smart with English, they are trailing far behind their Asian neighbors in terms of conversational skills.

This means finding someone that speaks an impressive level of Japanese and English is extremely hard. And since Japanese is such a ridiculously difficult language, finding a native English speaker with Japanese skills is even more challenging–which means more jobs for a candidate that is proficient in Japanese.

Con: You’ll most likely have to work at a Japanese company.

My Two Cents: Although China’s economy is booming (somewhat), speaking Mandarin alone will not guarantee you a good job. Since there is so much competition with English speaking Chinese natives, it’s hard to find a job that will hire you for language skills alone.

Japanese, on the other hand, has less supply and more demand—thus making it a potentially more useful language.

Of course, the ‘usefulness’ of any language really depends on your unique situation—this is just my personal experience.

Which Language Has a Better Learning Environment?


Japanese Countryside

Japanese people are kind and considerate, which means when they see your foreign face they automatically assume you can’t speak Japanese and will try to help you in limited English. Even if you attempt to speak with them in Japanese, they will still reply to you in English. While the gesture is kind, it makes practicing Japanese extremely difficult. When I lived in Japan, getting Japanese people to speak Japanese was sometimes like pulling teeth.

Japan is also the most homogenous society on Earth. While they are friendly to outsiders and love introducing Japanese culture to others, they will have a hard time accepting you as one of their own. You will always be viewed as a foreigner, and you will always be treated differently.

Huai Hai Road

View from Huai Hai Road

China, on the other hand, has been invaded hundreds of times over and is an ethnic hob-glob of cultures. While most Americans think that people in China are all “Chinese,” they are actually a mix of different races. Most of China belong to the ‘han’ ethnicity, but there are also a handful of minorities such as Tibetans, Mongols, Miao and more.

In fact, most Chinese people are not even ‘native’ speakers of Mandarin.  Most of China speaks their local dialect as a native language, then go on to learn Mandarin in school as a secondary language.

Therefore, you’re not the only one in China with imperfect Mandarin—actually, most of the country is struggling to speak the language with you. Since most of China is using an ‘unfamiliar’ language to communicate with one another, they’re used to mistakes and discrepancies. The locals won’t give you a hard time for missing a tone or even using wrong grammar—in fact, they are guilty of it themselves.

Chinese people are also unaccommodating. They will not go out of their way to help you nor will they try and speak English to make your life easier (if they do, it’s actually more suspicious!). While this makes China sound like a difficult and rude place to pick up a language, it will actually force you to hone your language skills.

Personally, I felt China was a much more suitable environment and culture for learning a language.

And the Final Answer is…?

STreets of Shanghai

Streets of Shanghai

Choose the language you love.

Don’t worry about the money, the practicality, or even the level of difficulty. If it’s something you truly love and you’ll dedicate yourself to it, then that’s a language worth studying.  And really, both Japanese and Chinese (and even Korean) are extremely useful.

I especially emphasize this for Asian languages. While some Americans may be able to ‘pick up’ Spanish with part-time language classes here and there, this is simply not possible with Japanese and Chinese. These languages require a huge amount of time, dedication and love.

I especially emphasize this for Japanese. Japanese is hella hard. It still makes me cry myself to sleep. It’s such a linguistic and cultural challenge, I think pure dedication, love, and borderline obsession is the only way for a foreigner to speak fluent Japanese.

In other words, you won’t learn Chinese or Japanese unless you REALLY love the language. If you’re learning Chinese for the practicality, but Japanese is your one true love, then let’s face it—your Chinese is going to suck. Just learn what you want to learn, and figure out what you’re going to use it for later.

I tried to learn Korean because it’s similar to Japanese (and I was into the dramas and boy bands), but in the end I found myself gravitating to Chinese. And I’m glad I did.

Did you ever have a hard time choosing between a language? Why are you glad you did or didn’t pick that language?

89 thoughts on “Should I Learn Chinese or Japanese?

    • rubymary says:

      Autumn, dang girl, you comment super fast! I am impressed! And thanks for the nice comment 😀

      You’re so cool you don’t need to learn Chinese or Japanese. You can dance. And you graduated with the highest honors in 12 majors or something–not to mention you grew up with 8 siblings! You’re so amazing!

      • autumnashbough says:

        Are you kidding? I zoom over when I see a post pop up. I know it is going to be good. “Sorry, Andy, you look super hot and all, but Mary has a new post!!”

        If I ever get a super power, I want it to be the ability to speak to any person in their native tongue. So, you’re like, already a super hero! Which is way cooler than useless majors and useless high honors.

  1. R Zhao says:

    I once read an article about which languages are considered “hardest” for native English speakers. Japanese was the only one in the first (hardest) tier. Mandarin was in the second tier, I believe with languages such as Russian and Arabic.

    Sometimes speaking a less popular language fluently is more useful (career-wise) than one such as Mandarin or Spanish. It depend where you live, but you might be competing with people who can speak two languages, such as English and Mandarin, at a near-native level.

    I have to say, I rarely come across people in China who speak English at any level near fluency. I think it is probably more common in the largest cities where education is a bit better and parents have more money for private classes. Where I live, everyone studies English, but few have ever been taught any skills to actually be able to speak it.

    • rubymary says:

      The “hardest” language for native English speakers to study statistic seems to vary by the data. Many say Japanese, while others say Chinese, and some even say Finnish…? Either way, Japanese and Chinese are both crazy hard. I just think Japanese has more hurdles that make it more frustrating rather than difficult.

      I think I have this stigma about Chinese people speaking great English because, when I was job hunting in Shanghai, I’d always be up against some kid that just got his masters degree at Oxford/Cambridge/Harvard, could speak perfect English and was willing to work for 7,000 rmb/month. It was hard to find a job in China that not only had a semi-decent salary, but was also willing to sponsor my visa (and not be an English teaching position). In Shanghai I was blown away by the number of young Chinese people that spoke English with near perfect fluency. It was really frightening. In Japan I think I’ve only met one or two people that even come close to the English fluency I experienced in China.

      When I lived in Beijing, though, it was a completely different story. Not many people fluent in English–at all. I guess it really depends on the region. Since Shanghai and the surrounding area is the financial center, maybe that’s why there are more English speaking folk.

      • DarkWhite says:

        I am not expecting an answer from something posted a year ago, but I’d like to ask you something: do you think that tryiing to earn your living as an english- japanese translator a reasonable choice? I’d be glad to work as such, but I’m unsure as to whether or not it is possible for me.

        • rubymary says:

          Hello! Of course I will reply! This is actually my most popular post, haha, so I’m very happy to get a comment on here, even one year later.

          I think earning a living as a Japanese-English translator is totally possible. I’ve met some translators that make well over 6 figures. However, they are usually specialized (in law, patent, or both) and they do INSANE amounts of work. So, if you’re prepared to live as an English-Japanese translator, then get ready to spend many days and nights glued to a chair and by yourself, translating day and night for days on end.

          I also have a friend that works as an in-house law translator and while she doesn’t make 6 figures, she has a comfortable salary and life and still gets social interaction at the office.

          So, it’s TOTALLY possible! I think that if you’re ok working on your own and not having much social interaction, then it’s good. But trust me, it is a lonely job.

          Let me know if you have any other questions!

          • Lee says:

            I need ur 2 yr old is about to start school..she is advanced already reading in English…this is a trilingual school where she will learn either Japanese or Chinese, Spanish and English..i have to pick one help

          • rubymary says:

            I think this is purely a personal choice. If you choose Japanese or Chinese it is highly likely that the child will forget these languages later in life, unless you or your spouse can speak these languages. Language is just like any skill–if you don’t use it often, then you will forget it. I have a few friends that went to Japanese/Chinese language school growing up, but since they didn’t speak the language with their parents after graduation they have almost completely forgotten the language.

            Spanish, on the other hand, is EXTREMELY close to English and thus will be harder to forget. Also, if you live in Latin America, the US or Europe then your child will have more opportunity to use Spanish.

            So really, it all depends on you but I think Japanese/Chinese is harder to retain without constant reinforcement.

  2. Kelly says:

    So interesting! I’ve studied both, Japanese for two years and Chinese. . .minimally. I’m kind of in awe that you’re fluent in both! I totally know what you mean about Japanese. At first, the grammar just seemed like a fun puzzle, but honorific Japanese is so crazy. And the reading, wow. I actually debated between Chinese and Japanese for a while in college, but went with Japanese because I loved my J. literature class. Also, anime.

    In contrast, learning to read Korean was so refreshingly easy. Even though I didn’t know WHAT I was reading, I could look it up on my phone dictionary easily and get around because the buses had the major stops printed on the side. I really should have made more of an effort with Korean in hindsight, but I was always comparing it unfavorably to Italian (which I also studied in college).

    • rubymary says:

      Haha, well, since moving back to the USA I’m forgetting both languages so I don’t know if I would still consider myself “fluent,” although I try to do translation work to keep myself from getting rusty. Japanese is fun the first year but when you get into the nitty gritty it really gets frustrating. I think being able to speak Japanese (even a little) is a HUGE accomplishment, I still wake up feeling proud that I learned it (even though it took me six years, haha). And yes, that’s the thing… Japan has SUCH a lovely culture. The literature, the history, the pop culture, even anime.. (are you an anime nerd too? I still watch anime, I’m sure my 15 year old self would be proud..).

      You have me beat with Korean, I super struggled learning that language for some reason (it took me forever to spell things out!). It seems like you have a knack for learning languages as well, I bet if you did a study abroad program you would be fluent in Italian/Korean/Chinese/Japanese in no time! haha

      • Kelly says:

        I’m not an anime nerd, but a bunch of my friends are. I mean, I like the things that I’ve seen – like Studio Ghibli movies and a few series whose titles I can’t remember right now – but I don’t really follow it on my own.

        I really like learning languages (and linguistics), but I just dabble. I can’t imagine putting in six years! I probably got the best at Italian, but then I moved to Asia, and didn’t keep up with it so it’s all gone. I’m pretty bad at getting myself to study, or seeking out people to practice with.

  3. Marta says:

    I am gold! Thanks, Mary! 😛

    I think it is weird that you would get this question. It is like if someone asked you, “Should I marry John or Peter?”. Come on, learning a language is very personal and it will take a fair part of your time, so it is always better to follow your heart when choosing, haha. Even if you heart tells you to learn Icelandic or some “not useful” language. There are jobs for all kinds of skills!

    BTW, I come across Chinese people trying to talk to me in English quite frequently. Even if I talk to them in Chinese they keep replying in English (and sometimes with a very bad accent which I don’t understand). With the especially annoying ones I have sometimes said that I could not speak English, haha.

    • rubymary says:

      Haha, when I wrote that line I thought of you 😉

      Well, usually they’re worried about how practical the language will be or even the difficulty. Many people ask me if Chinese is better because China is an economic powerhouse now, while Japan’s economy is in a slight slump. I also get asked which one is more difficult (all the time) and useful, which impacts their decision as well. But I think in the end they end up studying what they want to study.

      I had a lot of people in China try to speak to me in English, too. But usually for basic necessities, such as buying a train ticket or ordering food or even getting a phone–usually in China the clerk isn’t nice enough to switch to English, so you have to do your best to get by. In Japan, even if you speak fluent Japanese, your face doesn’t compute with the words so they still speak Japanese. It’s really frustrating argh! I know in China it happens but in Japan it happened allllll the time.

      • El says:

        Have you considered the different levels of education between the two countries? I don’t have the figures for it, but the Japanese are more literate as a whole and most would have studied some English at school. In contrast, in China, the people you encounter while going about your everyday necessities may not be very educated, much less know any English. Why do you seem to expect them to speak some English so they can entertain foreigners, and feel that they’re not “nice” when they don’t?

        • rubymary says:

          I think you misunderstood my post. I said that even though Japan is MORE educated they have worse levels of English than the Chinese. Since Chinese people have better English, they have less need for a translator and thus Japanese is a much more in-demand language for a translator/interpreter (even though Chinese seems like the hot item right now, it’s not a huge money maker).

          Also, I speak fluent Japanese and Chinese so I did not speak to anybody in these countries in English. I am not expecting any country to speak English and entertain foreigners. In fact, I write in this post that I was upset and frustrated in Japan because Japanese people REFUSED to speak Japanese to me. Since they saw my “white face” they assumed I couldn’t speak Japanese and pushed their broken English on me. Imagine for a moment that you are fluent in Japanese and have lived in the country for 30 years… yet somehow, someway, at least once a day someone comments on how well you speak Japanese or is shocked that you can use chopsticks. It’s cute the first few times, but after you live in Japan for years and declare the country your home, these “compliments” become quite patronizing.

          On the other hand, the Chinese tend not to push broken English on a foreigner (especially a foreigner that speaks excellent Chinese) and it’s AMAZING. in fact, I don’t think either country should accommodate the English speaking westerner… and I get frustrated when they do.

          In this post, basically, I am saying that since China is less accommodating to the foreigner it is easier to learn Chinese there. Japan treats all foreigners like we’re too stupid or simple-minded to ever understand Japanese/Japan. This has nothing to do with the country’s education level–it’s all cultural.

          • Todd says:

            The Chinese I know tend to have a more international and open mind than Japanese. Its hard to detail in words but Japanese cant seak English because they feel Japanese is superior to everything else and English is kind of like a hobby or some additional skill but Japanese always takes priority in any communication. thus they dont really need it, but are constantly trying to study it. come back to japan in 50 years and nothing will have changed. this strangeness can be difficult to comprehend but its just a fact of life in japan. eigo dekinai, eigo benkyo shitai, teach me english, eigo eigo eigo. its the default go to catch all phrase when a forienger is met and I get a sharp pain in my forehead when I hear it. i cant remember anyone in my country, upon encountering a Japanese, going into ah, let me see, I cant speak japanese so embarassing for me. of course there is the usual japanohile thats trying out their japanese but in japan this fascination ith english is at a national cult level. its something I have never been able to process because in other countries that study english as a second language, they usually arrive at some level of competence then get past that but in japan they stay in this perpetual cycle of learning english

          • El says:

            I understand English just fine. I am basing my comment on your own previous comment – “But usually for basic necessities, such as buying a train ticket or ordering food or even getting a phone–usually in China the clerk isn’t nice enough to switch to English, so you have to do your best to get by.”

            I’m saying that for such a situation, it’s probably not so much about niceness as about whether the Chinese clerk has ever got the opportunity to study a little English at all.

            Of course, there are many factors at play here for why one may or may not choose to speak to an obvious foreigner, just as there are many different reactions on the part of said foreigner stemming from different experiences and backgrounds.

            This whole discussion is a complex one. The Eastern way is to acknowledge possibilities rather than flat-out reject them. (This is something westerners fluent in eastern languages sometimes never master.) I think I haven’t misunderstood you, but merely addressed one sentiment you let slip, among the many different things you have addressed. While I do think culture is an important factor in this, I cannot agree that it’s 100% cultural, as you have said, and divorced from the level of education of the society. Education plays a crucial role in shaping culture.

            By the way, I feel that white people tend to swallow this narrative of “The Patronising Japanese”. But Japan is not one entity and every individual who encounters for the first time a white person who speaks the language and is culturally fluent would, quite reasonably, be impressed. Would it be fair to blame the 50th Japanese person for voicing the same astonishment as the 1st, especially if most foreigners they have met tend not to be able at either?

            Anyhow. I speak both Mandarin and Japanese, and I do think your post has done a good job in addressing the main concerns people may have.

          • rubymary says:

            I’m very happy to meet another Mandarin and Japanese speaker! I don’t meet many, so it’s great to hear about your thoughts and opinions.

            I apologize, I didn’t know you were referencing my previous comment (thought it was the post). My comment was not very well written, I apologize.

            “But usually for basic necessities, such as buying a train ticket or ordering food or even getting a phone–usually in China the clerk isn’t nice enough to switch to English, so you have to do your best to get by.”

            I’m sorry, I wrote this wrong. What I wanted to express was that Chinese people aren’t as accommodating/helpful as the Japanese (regardless of English ability). Both Japanese and Chinese clerks usually cannot speak English, but Japanese clerks are more willing to help people than a Chinese clerk.

            And even though Japanese have limited English ability, they still insist on speaking to foreigners in English (even if the foreigner speaks fluent Japanese). For example, last year I lost my luggage on the bullet train and I was in a frenzy. I ran to the ticket gate and asked in perfect Japanese: “where is the lost and found?” Instead of respond in Japanese, the man used broken English to tell me how to get there. I don’t know if he was trying to practice his English or was pulling the ‘ol “she has a white face so I can’t talk to her in Japanese” racist mind trick, but I really wasn’t in the mood. I had to catch a connecting train and I was frantic to find my luggage. I ended up walking away from the clerk in frustration and I had to ask a cleaning lady downstairs where it was. It was absolutely ridiculous.

            In China, most of the time, if you don’t speak Chinese well enough they just plain ignore you. They don’t hold your hand and try to speak broken English to you. If I asked a worker in China where the lost and found was, they’d probably grunt and point. Often in China, if you don’t speak Chinese no one is going to help you–which is great motivation to learn the language. In Japan, people will always help you even if you speak crap Japanese, just because they’re more considerate.

            Also, I know not ALL Japanese people are patronizing. I have Japanese friends who have highly intellectual conversations with me in Japanese and they don’t treat me like a foreigner–but finding people like this is EXTREMELY RARE. I think you have to agree with this.

            And even though I get fed up with being asked whether I can use chopsticks or not, I don’t hold it against them. Perhaps that person has never met a foreigner and just doesn’t know what else to say. Perhaps that person thinks it’s a compliment to the foreigner. You know, I have no idea, but I take it with a smile and always say thank you.

            The only time I get upset is when Japanese people who have personally known me for a long period of time ask those stupid questions. I worked with a Japanese elementary school teacher for two straight years. I told this teacher that I passed JLPT 1, he’s seen me read books in Japanese at work, and I always talk to this teacher in Japanese (because he can’t speak English). For one of our last lesson plans he faxed me a lesson plan in advance, and he wrote THE ENTIRE PLAN IN HIRAGANA. No kanji. It was extremely difficult to read. I was infuriated beyond words. If that’s not patronizing, I don’t know what is–but I still didn’t get upset with him or hold it against him. I’m sure he had his weird reasons for doing that.

            So anyway, that’s my two cents. Japanese = nice and thus bad for language learning. Chinese = rude and thus makes language learning more necessary.

  4. Eileen黃愛玲 says:

    My husband can speak Mandarin and Japanese. For him, Japanese was easier – writing and speaking. He said that the Japanese Hanzi is much easier to write than traditional characters. He told me why but I forgot yet I do remember it made a lot of sense. xD It took him a few years and he doesn’t even have accent when he speaks. We were at the Tokyo airport and people who worked there thought he was from there. xD It also did help that he mainly spoke to Japanese people during that time when he was learning. He has met more foreigners speaking Japanese very well than say, Mandarin Chinese. He has heard more butchered Mandarin Chinese than Japanese. He also did say for other foreigners, though, it is very tough. I think it depends on your mother tongue. For English speakers, Japanese is hella hard. He did find English to be very hard to learn.

    I am born mostly deaf so I have even more hurdles to overcome when learning a language, especially like Mandarin Chinese. I really do want to learn Hebrew and I am also very interested in the Ladino language and Taiwanese. Choices. Identity purposes or simply interests.

    • Eileen黃愛玲 says:

      Oh, my husband told me a little history bit that is pretty interesting:

      When Japanese lost WW2, they partly blamed it on the traditional Characters – they say it took them too much time to learn. Slowly, they start to “simplify” their characters.

      My Japanese friend said that they know how “educated” you are by how many traditional characters you know. I found that to be interesting.

      • rubymary says:

        Wow, I did not know that!! I was always wondering why the Japanese characters were slightly different from traditional characters. Interesting.

        In Japan they actually have a kanji certification test, called the kanji kentei. It’s an insanely hard test that I won’t even attempt to try. The hardest level is 1… if you pass kanji kentei level 1, people will drop to their knees and worship you. Or think you have way too much time learning kanji, haha.

        I’ll have to ask my Japanese friend about the kanji=educated thing. Hmmm!

        • Eileen黃愛玲 says:

          My husband was so interested in Japan. lol He kept learning about the history, and everything. It goes to show how different one generation after the next. My husband’s father saw Japanese soldiers kill his parents and got shot himself – he merely survived. My husband had to hide the fact that he was learning Japanese. I can’t imagine what his father went through. <3

          My husband said that once you know traditional characters, the Japanese hanzi are very simple in comparison. 😀

          • autumnashbough says:

            Ooo, yeah, sad story, Eileen. One of many. There are some Korean-Americans that can bring home a significant other of any race to parents and grandparents, and they will be welcomed into the Korean family with open arms — unless they are Japanese. Too many Korean grandmothers remember too many atrocities during the Japanese occupation. 🙁

    • rubymary says:

      I’m so impressed with Taiwanese people and your husband… they speak Japanese so well!

      Yes, traditional characters are crazy. I can’t write them, and I can only read some of them (that’s why when I see your posts in traditional characters I’m absolutely floored–so amazing!!). I like to think Japanese characters are the happy middle INbetween traditional and simplified hanzi. Simplified characters are, to be blunt, kind of ugly. Like the character for dragon 龙…. how do you get that out of 龍!?! Still, simplified characters do make life a lot easier and I simply adore pinyin. It blows my mind to see Taiwanese people texting on their phone using radicals (I’m not even sure how that works exactly).

      Japanese is very easy to pronounce so to get around in the language I would say it’s not too bad, but if you want to speak it correctly and well I think there’s sooooooo much work involved (even culturally, like knowing when to speak honorifics and knowing when to keep your mouth shut. even now, I’m still learning). It’s true, I’ve met few foreigners that can pull off a Chinese accent well, but they still manage to speak fluently. Have you ever watched those Mandarin competitions CCTV has sometimes? Seeing those foreigners speak Chinese really blows me away, so amazing!

      Well I think you’re simply amazing for picking up Chinese with the deaf factor–you’re soooooooooooo awesome!!! (And Mandarin must be a VERY hard language to learn since it deals with tones and pitches!). I’m always impressed with your Chinese–I remember you wrote some of your posts in traditional characters and I was in awe. You’re awesome.

      • Eileen黃愛玲 says:

        Japanese is a very interesting language (and yes, it is a hard language). Dawen and I thought about going to Japan someday. I mean, my husband worked his butt off to learn the language, after all. xD Come to think of it, the people who learned Mandarin the fastest was my Japanese classmates, but even they said that the traditional characters are much harder than they’re used to.

        I don’t like simplified characters. xD The simplified character for ai in my name is just…no. I don’t like it. They took out the best part! The heart! Where is love without the heart? Kidding aside, I can understand why other foreigners like it but I do roll my eyes when they say, “I am so interested in 50000 year history! I want to engage in the culture!” Uh….well…..

        My husband have seen foreigners speak Mandarin on those shows – a lot of times without him even looking at the tv, he would say, “Foreigner is speaking.” lol It is not an insult, we ALL have accents. 🙂

        I think learning a language other than your mother tongue is a huge accomplishment. Whether it is Spanish or Mandarin. (My husband wants to learn Spanish).

        I’ve been away from the States for so long, my English SUCKS! I had an American man tell me where I am REALLY from. Ahahhaahah. He is from San Diego, or something. He gave me a disbelief look on his face. It was priceless.

        I’m pretty sure you are a better speaker than I am. My accent is so thick, not even Americans think I am American. lol Can a American say “fringe” instead of “bang?!” (face palm) Actually, he thought I was French…so I let him live…even though I can’t speak French…(cries)

    • yankel says:

      Ladino is basically dead and useless, unless you want to read old manuscripts. Either way you should have a strong understanding of spanish and hebrew before attempting. Good luck.

  5. Fernanda says:

    Oh my god, Mary, I felt like this post spoke directly to me! hahahahaha
    This is very useful advice on the pros and cons of learning Japanese or Chinese as a foreigner. But just like you said, at the end of the day (as cheesy as it may sound), you must choose the language you love. Choosing a language you aren’t passionate about will not be productive, since Asian languages demand crazy amount of effort. I laughed at the “borderline obsession” part so hard because that’s exactly the truth. That’s the only way I have been able to carry on my Korean studies, since it’s a completely different language. It drives me crazy, but in a good way (if that makes any sense…). hahaha
    I hope I can start studying Japanese soon! I just need to find some time and a good teacher.
    Great post as always, Mary. 🙂


    • rubymary says:

      Hahaha, well, believe me, many people have asked me about Chinese and Japanese (especially in regard to which one is more difficult/useful etc..).

      I’m so happy to learn that you’re learning Korean!! Korean is really, really hard. That grammar is tough, eh? I tried to learn Korean but it was just too much for me, I really respect your drive!! I wish I could learn Korean because I love the dramas and they would make such good practice material, haha. Let me know when you start studying Japanese, I’m always happy to give you some tips or maybe practice! 😀

  6. carolina says:

    Hi Mary san!!
    Im really in love with your blog.. <3
    Congrats girl you are/were living my dream….. (i dont know if you stiil living in China)
    its amazing you can speak both languages…

    im also learning both languages but im really amateur in both languages…
    i also get that question often, and i hate it because there is not exactly reason for me —my answer is.. because i´m loving it 🙂 but people is always expecting to answer something more profesional… hahah

    my experience learning chinese and japanese is the other way around yours.
    I have more than 3 years learning (but i really suck!! 🙁
    And the last year 2 months after passing the hsk 3 I started to learn japanese … I still don´t know how it happens.. but Im glad it happens 🙂

    So I can say that what you wrote is the truth.. as my point of view
    In my case chinese hanzi had help me allot while learning japanese specially for tango i can memorize easily if I look up first of the hanzi even if they are not traditional as japanese they look similar.
    But yes kunyomi and onyomi is a headache… chinese is so much easier to learn new vocabulary you can just your imagination (and what you know so far) and easily get the meaning of the new words. (a point for Chinese)

    On the other hand pinyin is so hard for pronunciation ….that is my frustration
    Comparing with Chinese, japanese is so much easier to speak (a point for Japanese)

    In grammar I think is a tie
    some particles in chinese are very complex to understand (了for example) when you have to use it in different grammar structures, as they don´t have conjugation for verbs
    also i think japanese particles are difficult to know which one is the right one to choose…
    (は,に,が,を,と etc.)
    For susre keigo is so hard that I don't wanna even comment about it …..hahhahahah lol

    I didn´t know about the competition of speaking chinese for english native speaking. In my case is different. Im a spanish native speaker (by the way sorry if there is any mistake….)
    I´m from Ecuador. I have a friend that in 2013 went to study to semester in Tongji Daxue, now his chinese is very fluent and he have had so many opprtunity jobs since he came back to Ecuador (thanks to the good relationship our goverment has with chinese goverment).
    And yes… it seems that is also because there is are few chinese people that can speak spanish very fluent (I get my chinese classes in english due to that..)
    and we don´t have that much translators here so i think the competition in south america is not the same as in USA

    I wrote to you because i also read your post about taking jlpt in shanghai that was so funny hahhaha..

    So im wondering if you can tell me the exactly place you took jlpt (which university, or institute??) because im planning to go a year to tongji daxue in shanghai since this september and i wanna try jlpt 4 (but im not really sure about it yet)

    I already check this webpage a little bit
    and im a little bit "very" lost….
    why there is no an option in english?????.. (now i have to use google translator…. haha)

    this is pretty much what i have to say.. (write)
    Im really glad I found this blog is very useful all the experience you share to us

    Really TAHNKS!!

    i hope we can keep sharing our experience to each other 😀

    • rubymary says:

      Hi Carolina!!

      Wow I’m so happy to see your long comment! Thanks for all of your nice compliments, it gives me more inspiration to update my blog, haha.

      And by the way, your English is amazing! Spanish, English, Japanese, Chinese–you could conquer the world! I’m glad you enjoy Chinese and Japanese; these languages are so hard that, without passion, I don’t it would be possible to learn. I have a feeling you’ll pick it up in no time.

      I agree with all of your comments. Japanese and Chinese are equally hard, but I think Japanese is a little more of a headache because there’s so much linguistic AND cultural barriers to overcome. Speaking Japanese with your boss versus speaking Japanese with your friend is almost like two different languages entirely. In Chinese, however, it’s kind of like English in how we’re just a little more formal, but the grammar and vocabulary are still largely the same. I wish I had more tips to help you with onyomi and kunyomi, but I think it’s really just brute memorization. For the Chinese readings, try to memorize words that are only used frequently. Memorizing every kunyomi for every kanji is near impossible, but memorizing the frequently used kunyomi is definitely doable (and effective). I think mastering Chinese and then moving onto Japanese will be a nice transition!

      I’m also jealous that Chinese is a hot skill to have in Ecuador. I came back from America hoping to be a hot commodity, but many American companies don’t really need Chinese and Japanese. Sigh.

      Tonji Daxue is a great school! It’s one of the top schools in China and one of the best in Shanghai. I’m so excited for your studies there! Are you going through an exchange program with your university? Make sure you apply for scholarships if you don’t have any, it’s so easy to get them!

      Believe it or not, signing up for the JLPT in China is easier than in Japan (Japan makes everything complicated). The only problem is navigating the horrible website, and doing it in Chinese. First off, you’ll have to choose the school you want to take it at. Here’s a list for the December test: Sadly, I don’t see Tongji on there, but Fudan University is on there (it’s close to Tongji) so you can sign up for that location. After you decide what school you want to go to, you’ll have to sign up on the main page, so hit the button that says 注册个人消息. Right now the JLPT is not open for registration (it’s the same time worldwide), so you can keep checking JLPTs official site (in English) about when registration will open: Once registration is open, you can try to apply on the Chinese website.

      Let me know if you have any troubles when you register later, I’m always happy to help!

      Best of luck!!! Thank you!!!

  7. ianthe says:

    Hi Mary,

    I find your blog posts very interesting and fun to read! I’m interested in learning both Mandarin and Japanese, but I’m going to start with Mandarin. The thing is, I’m having doubts whether or not I can handle learning the language. Not only the characters, but also the tones are pretty hard to master.

    Because Mandarin is such a time consuming language (I self-studied it for about a month), I started learning some Korean two days ago, and it was much easier to remember and write words and sentences. I don’t know if you have any experience with the Korean language, but my choice is now between learning Korean or learning Mandarin. Both have a lot of pro’s and con’s (and both aren’t easy). Which would you say is best to learn?

    My pro’s and con’s:
    – I’m really into kpop, and it would be nice to be able to understand what the idols are saying without subtitles. The hard parts about Korean are maybe the grammar and formalities. But in other languages, I don’t have much trouble learning those (of course I still make mistakes). On the contrary, I have heard a lot of negative feedback about South Korea (circulating racism, sexism, rude people, etc.), so if that is really that bad, it wouldn’t be a place I’d be thrilled about to visit.
    – I think Chinese is a beautiful language, and I would love to travel to China one day. The thing is, I find the tones very hard. Also, I prefer the Korean television and music industry, so I wonder if there really is any purpose in learning Chinese. But I’m attracted to the country itself.

    Summarized – I’d like to learn both of the languages, but I can’t choose. So I was thinking you could maybe help me with my choice?
    I apologize for writing such a long message, I hope it didn’t take too much of your time.

    Oh, I forgot to mention: I’m a 15 year old (Dutch) girl, which means I can only study an extra language (outside of school) certain amount of time due to my homework. Sadly, they don’t teach Chinese or Korean at my school!

    • rubymary says:

      Hi Ianthe!

      Thank you very much for your comment, I’m glad you enjoy the blog!

      When I was around 19 years old, I also started to teach myself Korean. I thought it was great having an ‘easier’ alphabet to learn, and the pronunciation wasn’t as bad as Chinese. However, like Japanese, Korean is deceptively easy at first–and gradually becomes harder and harder. I know that Korean has extremely similar grammar structure to Japanese, which will definitely make it a hard language to learn.

      Still, I think you should learn whatever language you’re into! It sounds like you’re very much into Korean culture, which automatically makes me think that you should be studying Korean. I also agree that media (TV, music, movies) has a huge influence on language study, and to be quite blunt Chinese movies/TV are not that great. I think with Korean, you’ll have more enjoyable entertainment to help you practice your studies.

      Focus on one language at a time. You can learn Korean first, then perhaps move into Chinese later. Doing both at the same time will be difficult.

      So my advice to you is: Go with the language you love, which sounds like Korean 🙂

      I can’t believe you’re 15 and have such amazing English and are so motivated to study such difficult Asian languages! I’m so proud of you! At my high school they also did not offer Japanese/Chinese or any foreign language other than Spanish, so I taught myself the basics of Japanese. Perhaps you can teach yourself the basics of Korean, then in university move into a more advanced class 🙂

      Good luck!!!

      • ianthe says:

        Thanks a lot for answering, your reply was very helpful!

        You’re right, I think Korean is the language I love, so I’m going to focus on Korean from now on. And I can even consider watching dramas studying, haha!

        I hope I’ll be able to speak both languages eventually, but I’m glad that I chose Korean for now. I’m not very good at deciding, so thanks again 🙂

  8. Anonymous says:

    I know that feeling about being a translator( I am Malaysian Chinese), when people look for a translator for Chinese to English,they would most likely choose someone from mainland China and Malay to English/Chinese, they would most likely prefer a Malay…anyway it is wise to choose a language you love(Russian and other Europeans in my preference)….

    • rubymary says:

      Thanks for the comment! I am very envious of Malay people, they grow up speaking so many languages and Malaysia is such a multicultural place. Great food ;D Anyway, yes, it is important to choose the language you love–I think if you get good enough and immersed deep enough in a certain culture, you’ll eventually find a way to make it a passion or find a job which it involves said language (if you so desire).

  9. reeniestp says:

    Hi Mary,

    I’m just about to start uni in the UK and I can’t decide whether to study Japanese and Chinese together (both from scratch) as my degree or carry on with Spanish and start Japanese with it (I’ve been learning Spanish for a few years and I’m advanced but not completely fluent). I’m decided on Japanese (I love Japanese literature and the culture) but I can’t decide whether to pick up Chinese as well or carry on with my Spanish. Any advice from you would be so appreciated as I’ve been struggling with this decision for months and I have less than a week to decide!


    • rubymary says:

      Thank you for the comment! I’m always happy to answer any questions.

      This is a tough one and I’m afraid I don’t have a simple answer for you. If you’re a complete beginner at Japanese and Chinese I DO NOT recommend taking them at the same time. However, if you’re intermediate-advanced Japanese but beginner Chinese, then I think this might work out (since you already built a strong foundation in Japanese, or vice-versa). I think if you start off with these two at the same time you might get confused, especially with the character readings. I suggest you study Japanese and then work on your Spanish on the side.

      Still, it’s not impossible to learn Chinese and Japanese at the same time (I’ve known people to do it), but I think starting out from scratch with both languages would be immensely confusing. Plus, it’s good to attain fluency in one foreign language first (which will probably be Spanish for you). If you give up Spanish now you might lose it.

      I hope that helped? Let me know if you have any further questions! I’m so excited for you!

      • reeniestp says:

        Hi Mary,

        Thank you very much for your advice – sorry for replying so late but it’s the start of exam season here in the UK. I have some basic Japanese but nothing more than a few verb conjugations and basic grammar/vocabulary. I’ve decided to go with Japanese and Spanish after careful consideration. With the degree programme I’ll be taking, I can either go to Tokyo for a whole academic year or split this time between Japan and a Spanish speaking country (in the 3rd year of the degree). Do you think it would be more beneficial for me to go to Japan for the whole of this year or would I benefit just as much from going for 5 months instead of 10?

        Thanks once again.

        • rubymary says:

          Hello! I apologize for the late response, I’ve been traveling like crazy and I haven’t had time to sleep much less update the blog…!!!

          I think that you should go the whole year to Japan. When I studied in China I only did it for 6 months and I REALLY wish that it was 12 months. It would have helped my Chinese immensely and I would have learned the language much better. Again, go all the way Spanish or all the way Japanese but I dont recommend doing a little bit of both. One language is always going to be better than the other, so right now choose which language you want to excel in first.

          I hope that advice helped, good luck!

  10. Jordan Wu says:

    Hi Mary, actually I am a Taiwanese, I am so lucky that i discover your blog : D , i saw some of your articles which is very interesting, meanwhile, it makes me think over and over. especially, I’m pretty interested in the article that you mentioned about the majority of Chinese women think about and what they are chasing for. and some of your experiences in China or Japan, the different point of view makes it interesting and thought-provoking. It is very impressive !
    by the way, I highly suggested with you visit Taiwan for next time, It pretty different from both countries china and japan, you will explore something here ~~ : D

    • rubymary says:

      Hi Jordan, thanks so much for your comment! I’m glad you enjoyed my blog, please keep reading!

      Actually, I’ve been to Taiwan and I LOVE IT! I considered living there for a while because it’s the perfect blend of China and Japan (although, to be honest, I would really struggle with 繁体字!!). I hope I can go back to Taiwan soon and visit more of the countryside… that would be so amazing!

      Thank you!!!!

  11. Lilah says:

    Wow, nice post! I’m interested in learning Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (that order seems logical, yeah?) This article was very interesting, ahh I love it! Thank you for the advice~

    • rubymary says:

      Hmmm I don’t know what order would be best?? But I do think Korean last is the smart way to go about things. Go you for attempting to learn 3 languages! Hopefully I can pick up Korean sometime soon, too… aaaaa.. Email me if you have any questions!

      • Todd says:

        sorry for my many post on this, your blog is very interesting )
        Your thoughts on Japan and China are almost parallel to mine.

        “Japan is also the most homogenous society on Earth. While they are friendly to outsiders and love introducing Japanese culture to others, they will have a hard time accepting you as one of their own”

        Very true, and if I might add, the deeper you go with that, the worse it gets. The initial kindness and consderation can almost feel sureal, but once you realize
        whats behind it, you kind of wish you didnt and could return back to that
        naive and ignorant state.

        “China, on the other hand, has been invaded hundreds of times over and is an ethnic hob-glob of cultures. While most Americans think that people in China are all “Chinese,” they are actually a mix of different races. Most of China belong to the ‘han’ ethnicity”

        Ive had limited experience with Chinese, but from what Ive experienced, they are allot like Americans; they only care about themselves, immediate family, and making money. They say whatever they feel also. I dont want to live there, but Ive never had any problem with them. They do seem to be a bit closed to outsiders, sort of like they dont care if your in their space or not. I guess they are too concerned with Kiatsu and in the moment. Ive only been to West China, and I know that country is huge. Then there is HK SG MY and Tawain Chinese. They dont seem to have the inward looking, introverted, paranoia about outsiders groupism you see in Japan, but my observation is just one of an outsider.

  12. Lynn says:

    Great article! I’m trying to decide between Korean, Japanese, or Mandarin Chinese and the struggle is real. Your article focuses a lot on reading and writing. While I know I’ll have to learn regardless of which language I pick, I’m much more concerned with conversing, so I’m trying to decide purely from a listening and speaking standpoint.

    Japanese is so extremely easy to pronounce. I’m also learning German, which is very similar to English, and Japanese is still even easier than that! But I’m worried about grammar structure because I know Japanese is super complex and I’ll essentially have to train myself to think backwards.

    Meanwhile Mandarin has such an easy grammar structure, but those tones! I am so massively intimidated by tones. I feel like a basic grammatical slip up in Japanese can be forgiven if the meaning still comes across, while if I miss a tone in Chinese I’ll lose all meaning and that terrifies me.

    • rubymary says:

      Hey Lynn, I hope I don’t sound like a stick in the mud but I do think that to learn a language properly, you need to read/write and not just converse. If you want to really just *get by* then yeah, maybe foregoing the reading/writing bit is fine… but if you want to have actual conversations with people and be engaged, I highly recommend learning the characters. Learning Chinese characters sucks, so if you want to save *a lot* of pain, maybe learn Korean?

      Japanese is easy to pronounce, but grammar really, really sucks (like you mentioned). Japanese, like German, has a lot of intricacies that make it a really hard language to master.

      I honestly don’t think tones are so bad.. I was intimidated at first, but if you get a good beginner Mandarin teacher and learn pinyin, you should master the tones in no time. Remember: PINYIN IS KEY! A lot of people forego pinyin and they usually have terrible pronunciation. I learned pinyin and pronunciation for 4 weeks straight before my teacher let me learn anything else. It was frustrating, but now I’m eternally grateful. And don’t worry, even Chinese people mess up tones (because most people are native fluency in Mandarin) and they’re usually quite happy to correct you.

      Right now, I say go for the culture you love the most. If Chinese people drive you nuts, then maybe Chinese isn’t a good option. If you can’t stand all the mannerisms in Japanese, then perhaps that’s not a good fit for you either. Find the culture that fits for you and the language will soon follow.

  13. Eloise says:

    Hi Mary!

    I’m currently a college student, and now I’m struggling between choosing Japanese or Chinese for a foreign language class. I have 12 units for this class and I will be learning about my chosen language and culture all throughout my years in college alongside the degree that I have.

    After reading your article (great article btw!), I was wondering what language I would be learning from most considering the short time given and what language between the two would I be close to being quite fluent from, if not fluent, considering the short time in college!

    Thank you! Hoping for your response! 🙂

    • rubymary says:

      Hi Eloise!

      Thanks for your comment and I’m happy to hear from you!

      I think if you’re only concerned about the language aspect (and you’re not leaning toward any particular language with a cultural preference), then Chinese is definitely the easier language. If you study Chinese very diligently for four years in college, and do study abroad, I’m very confident you can pick up Mandarin.

      However, liking a language is really the most important part. I had a friend in college that took Mandarin AND Japanese. She was a total otaku and loved Japanese culture, but learned Chinese because it was “useful” and thought it would be a skill to pay off later. Basically, she really didn’t like Chinese culture and when she went to study abroad there she was so miserable. In the end, she dropped Chinese and moved to Japan and now Japanese is the only language she knows. So, if you have a cultural preference for one language then I suggest to go with that language. A strong love for the culture/language is the strongest motivator.

      I hope that helps? Anyway, good luck with your studies and let me know if you have any other question!

      • Todd says:

        “I tried to learn Korean because it’s similar to Japanese (and I was into the dramas and boy bands), but in the end I found myself gravitating to Chinese. And I’m glad I did.”

        Its interesting; I never hear of any non Japanese wanting to learn Korean, but plenty of Japanese taking Korean lessons. Go to shin okubou (behind the kabukicho slum area) and all you see are Japanese visiting Korean shops. Well of courseoccasional the right wing demo as well, for your mental health and safety, please steer clear of that. The thing is, from what I hear, South Korea is now the place to be. Im not speaking from experience because I havent been there recently, but met many who have. I hear they pay English teachers quite well there, without the mickey mouse games and salaries of Japan. Seems (from what I hear) they are making effort, and progress, towards integrating their immigrants.
        I remember taking the JLPT way back, at some university, I want to say in Noborito, but I cant remember. I just remember it was an extremely rigid and cold process. They treated us all like convicts or in boot camp. Everyone so eager to conform, we obeyed every command. “do not lift your pencil until told to!”
        I put allot of effort into it, and now I regret it. Japan has a long ways to go to catch up, but most could care less. I talked with some Japanese lady recruiter in the U.S., I might as well of been talking to somebody in Japan. She was asking my age, my japanese level and other personals, just like they do in Japan. I told her why I need to work for Japanese in the U.S.? Unlike you I have passport and citizenship. I guess they think of you as a gaijin even if your in your own country!

  14. Todd says:

    Actually learning Japanese is the easy part, its what comes latter. I dont even bother with it anymore. Its like taking something already clearly explained in English, turning it inside out and upside down, then into Japanese and after making all that effort, being answered with an annoying giggle, “I cant speak engrish” . Why bother, the original meaning is still the same so all that effort and stress was for nothing. I guess you can fool yourself into thinking your now part of the Japanese family, but your a fool if you really believe that.. Japanese expect you to find your way through all their mazes and mindgames, only to be left at the same place you started at; your a gaijin.

    So, I now use English and avoid all that. Well, most of the time. What a pleasant experience ( the default in most countries) to find a Japanese who can communicate in English. I had a frustrating experience once, however. I called and asked for an English speaker at this company. After about a 10 minute wait (thought they had forgot about me) some lady got on the phone and started with the “Haro” crap. I said, do you speak English? ” a rittle” Ok, great. Do you know about this service offered….blah blah? Answer.. “Haro”? “a rittle” Me: ok great, thanks. Click. I could of broke out in the Japanese but from my experience it would of made it worse, more giggles, more chotto matte loooking for some useless mindless drone or sempai that would of started with the “cant speaku engrish” crap. So I just find a compentent person who put in the time and effort to learn English, if he/she isnt there, its usualy not worth the effort anyway.

    I think Japanese is just used as a kind of mind control or method to bring minna under one umbrella so its one mind. Getting into that heavy stuff nobody likes to get into, but thats where Im at, so I avoid it as much as possible.

    Take it or leave it…just keepin it real as always )

  15. Todd says:

    Also “Chinese is easier to learn than Japanese….hmmm, would have to disagree with that one. The Chinese “pinyu”? (its been awhile) is acutally quite difficult to master, for me anyway. I think grammatically Chinese is easier than Japanese, but Japanese is acutally quite simple to learn to speak and understand. I find it to be a language built around heiarchy and control, a holdover from the samurai days. I think its application in todays world is limited, whereas Mandarin doesnt have the same honorific obstacles and feelings to overcome and latter endure; you get your point across without hangups about the others feelings. I dont know why anybody would even need to study Japanese anymore unless your going to work for them, which isnt reccomended. Most of their companies have an English speaking bridge engineer or translator anyhow, so IMO, Japanese is for Japanese people, period. I guess there was a time when Japanese empire or Japan Inc hoped for a world where Japanese was the lingua franca, but that dream collasped twice. Just ask any older guam, singapore HK or Korean under what conditions they were forced to learn Japanese.
    I think English has become the first choice for people of the world to learn, perhaps followed by Chinese and German, maybe French.

  16. Nesty says:

    I would appreciate if you reply. Here in Cyprus Chinese is getting popular and i am thinking of learning them. They might help me with my business since i also know Russian which is also common here. My true love is japaneese but they will be useless for me here. I dont know what to do

    • rubymary says:

      Are you sure Chinese would be useful? Is there demand for Greek/Turkish-Chinese bilinguals? Because I know for English-Chinese, the market is over saturated and it is not that easy.

      I think you could find work if you learn Japanese, it won’t be completely useless. If you don’t like Chinese I promise you, you won’t learn it very well. Choose wisely!

      • Nesty says:

        Thx for replying. Yes Chinese is very useful for business here. I already started learning the language and i love it so far. The pronunciation is tricky but I’ll do fine. Thanks for your time and i am planning to learn japaneese aswell when i have spare time since i have the ability to leaen fast. Take care

  17. Manuel Martínez says:

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write this. I didn’t know whether to go for Japanese or not given that EVERYONE is saying that you must study Chinese. I’ve always loved Japanese culture and language (from a linguistic point of view it’s rather interesting), so I wanted to learn something that I liked but did not want to ignore all the other views advocating for the study of Chinese. At the end I was thinking of also studying Chinese even though I don-t really like but after having read your blog I’ve decided to study something that I like if I’m still going to suffer at the end hahaha. I’m a native Spanish speaker who also speaks French and German and, hopefully, Portuguese. Thanks a lot again and have a great day!

  18. Eli says:

    Thank you for writing this! I am planning on going to Japan in July 2017 to study Japanese for 2 years, I always found Japan so beautiful and the culture and food is great. I read some other websites and they say “No point learning Japanese since only really Japan uses it, it would be a waste of time, etc. Learn Chinese or a European language” It gave some doubts because I wasn’t sure what I’ll do with the language if I don’t live for Japan forever, but at the end of the day I want to have the study abroad experience and even if Japanese alone won’t do much for me it still looks great for you that you learned another language and put the time in. And who knows maybe in the future (and too the 2020 Olympics) Japanese will become a much bigger language hopefully!

  19. Ibraheem says:

    Thank u , that’s some badass article I just read , I’m gonna choose chinese despite my addiction to japaneese anime .

  20. Todd says:

    “Imagine for a moment that you are fluent in Japanese and have lived in the country for 30 years… yet somehow, someway, at least once a day someone comments on how well you speak Japanese or is shocked that you can use chopsticks. It’s cute the first few times, but after you live in Japan for years and declare the country your home, these “compliments” become quite patronizing”

    if you stay in japan long enough, that mess still comes around, but allot of it depends on how “broken” you are If they see your a nippon nagai desu ne gaijin, they wont ever speak english to you but only japanese, in a superior tone of course. there is no winning in japan for the foriegner ) at this stage of the “game”, some of it is out of respect or commonality because you have done the hard time, (as they say, there is time, then there is hard time) other times its out of disdain or superority as you now know your place. heavy stuff indeed to process and experience so. you cant bring out the english in those situations as you disturb the harmony that is so sacred so now your in a catch 22 situation and most just succumb to the system in order to survive. the holy grail of being accpeted by japanese and spoken to in japanese has suddenly become an unholy experience, and you long to go back to day one of the race. so maybe I found the answer in all that as to why Japanese are always studying english but never really using it; its to momentarily escape the race and connect with humanity?

  21. Todd says:

    sorry I didnt know what catagory to put this under;

    on the youtube ADVChina channel How bad is PIRACY in China vid, at 1:46

    he talks about why its acceptable in East Asia to copy products made abroad. Ive seen this done in Japan, and could not process the logic behind it. Sometimes I would be doing a process or something and everybody copied exactly what I did. This guy really summed it up nicely. Even though Japanese arent as direct like Chinese might be about it and practice Kaizen (continuous imrovement) they still dont invent much like you see in the west and not allot of original stuff comes out of Japan. Sure there are exceptions, but not like we can see in the west. Ive seen them copy products from the US, and it as almost like it was his right to do so and I must never ask as to why.

    So the individual is less imortant than the group, therefore what the individual creates must be shared by the group, a sort of means to an end….)

  22. Alise Fekete says:

    Your article is really good! Thank you for sharing your experience!

    I am also thinking about which one to pick and even if it’ll start as a hobby I want to learn it well and to practice it in the future. Who knows? Maybe in the work field. I started to learn chinese on my own (bought books and watched youtube) and I really love it but right now I wonder which would be my best option (I want to be able to use it in the future), before I start an academic course.

    I’m studying psychology and I speak 5 languages (romanian, spanish, catalan, swedish and english) but I would like to learn a difficult language and I thought about chinese even if japanese sounds good as well. I know that i´ll have to practice it otherwise it will be a dead language (it happened with hungarian in my case). In case you see my comment, which one would you recommend me to learn ? 🙂

    Good luck with everything! 🙂

    • rubymary says:

      Thanks so much for your words!

      I would so go ahead with Chinese since you already started on it. Japanese is fun, but it’s a lot more work than Chinese–plus you have a head start on Chinese.

      Good luck with your studies!

      • Alise Fekete says:

        Thank you!

        Sorry for the delay but I started with my studies and I have a lot of work and tasks to do! Next month I’ll start a chinese course so I’m really excited (5 hours a week for 5 months)! I also think it’s best for me, as I don’t plan to work in any of these countries haha but to learn a new and difficult language! Chinese is more globally expanded so I’ll get better chances to practice it 🙂

        Good luck to you too with your work! 🙂

  23. Barbara says:


    I hope you still reply to this post after so long. By the way, i think your blog is great! It motivated me to think more carefully about the languages i want to study. I’ve always been interested in languages ever since i was young, and eventually Asia really attracted me as a culture. So therefore i started thinking whether or not i should study chinese or japanese as my second/third language. My problem with chinese is that people in China don’t fluently speak mandarin, but in fact speak more of a variation of it with different accents depending on the region you’re currently residing in. So my question is: is it still usefull to learn Chinese (Mandarin) when barely any chinese people understand it perfectly? As for Japanese i’ve heard there are some accents which of course is normal, every country has them, (just not as much as China), however, are these accents a similar problem like in China when trying to talk to people?

    • rubymary says:

      I do reply to posts! And thank you so much for the praise, I really appreciate it!

      It’s true that most people in Chinese speak a dialect, but Mandarin has been a mandatory class in school for decades, so most young people (and future generations to come) will speak better and better Mandarin. I think now only the uneducated and the older generation have poor Mandarin. So yes, it is VERY useful to learn Mandarin (much more than Cantonese) because it is the official working language of mainland China and Taiwan. If you want to use Chinese for work then it will help immensely. I think the dialect thing only becomes a problem when you study Chinese in a very dialect heavy environment and people refuse to speak Mandarin.

      Japanese dialects aren’t that bad. Almost all Japanese dialects sound similar to “standard” Japanese unlike the Chinese dialects, which are completely different languages and sound nothing like each other (Shanghainese and Mandarin have absolutely no similarities). For example, Tokyo-Japanese and Osaka-Japanese (Osaka-ben) have slight differences, but does not impose any barriers on communication. The only dialects that are crazy different in Japan are the northern dialects near Aomori–I heard that those are nothing like standard Japanese. Furthermore, ALL Japanese people have to speak standard Japanese for work and they learn it well.

      I think accents are not a big deal when it comes to learning Chinese and Japanese. It’s kind of a pain in China because, for example, if you get stuck in a room of Sichuan people they will probably speak Sichuan dialect and you’ll have no idea what’s going on. In Japan this kind of thing usually doesn’t happen, and even if it does, the dialects are so similar to standard Japanese you can still understand the conversation.

      So again… choose the language you love! Mandarin is SUPER useful and will continue to be the primary language of China; and standard Kanto-Japanese will allow you to go communicate with anyone in the country.

      • Barbara says:

        Thank you! This helped a lot! I think i’m starting off with chinese then and perhaps later on i will try to learn japanese. I’m not the best with grammar to be honest, i’m more of a ‘feeling wether it is right or not’ person and while that sometimes works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I read that japanese grammar is a whole new level of difficulty in comparance to chinese that is apparently supposed to be simpler grammar wise. Anyway, thank you again!

  24. Alex says:

    I am a first year student of Chinese at British university. And now I am having a hard time trying to choose if I should stay on this course or transfer to Japanese and Spanish from the new year.
    I like both Chinese and Japanese, though I love the sound of Japanese more. The simplicity of Chinese grammar actually is something that makes it less interesting for me than Japanese. And the fact that I could also study Spanish, which I truly adore, is making it even more exciting. But I know that it would take a lot of work to learn proper Japanese. My native language is quite complicated when it comes to grammar, so I am not worried as much, but still – I know it would be extremely difficult.
    It also seems that the Japanese and Spanish course would work better for me in terms of my chosen future career, though I don’t want to make a decision based only on this.
    I need to make a decision within a month and it’s seems impossible. I’m currently summing up all pros and cons and trying to understand my motivations. If only I knew what would be the best decision…
    Anyway, the article is very interesting, I really like your style of writing and I think I’ll have a look at your blog 😉

    • rubymary says:

      Hey there, sorry for the late response! There’s a lot of feelings in your question here and I think you really need to sit down and consider what you want to do for your future career…. it’s rare where language+language combo would result in a lucrative job career, so as I suggest to other people: try to pair your languages up with a hard skill. Language + engineering, language + medicine, language + business… don’t just do language.

      Seems like Spanish is your favorite language so I would prioritize that. I don’t know how British universities work, but in the USA we are allowed to ‘sit in’ on classes for the first 2-3 weeks of the quarter. *IF* you have free time after Spanish study, maybe you can sit in on Japanese and Chinese for the first few weeks and determine which one you like more–and drop the one you don’t pick up as quickly. I think I mentioned that I was torn between Chinese and Korean essentially, but I took 2 weeks of each class and realized I had way more fun learning Chinese. So, maybe you can go that route.

      Either way, prioritize Spanish. I prioritized Japanese for the first three years of my time in university (and in life) and I don’t regret it at all. I think simultaneously learning two languages as an adult is just not a good idea. Get fluent in one language first before you consider the next 😉

      Hope this helps! And thanks for stopping by the blog!

  25. Alex says:

    Hi, thank you for the response 😉
    I was considering language+something else, as you suggest. Though my dream is to do translations and maybe interpretations in the future. My problem is that I like too many languages, but I know I can’t learn all of them at the same time and should focus on one or two. I will have a possibility to learn additionally one more language, but from the new semester and that’s the time when I should’ve already made the decision and apply. I was also thinking about staying on Chinese course and started learning Spanish by myself.
    I’m giving myself a month to make a decision, I know that rushing is the worst option here.
    Anyway, thank you once again 🙂

  26. Raymundo CX says:

    I am a native Spanish speaker, I’ve been learning English since I know, to be honest I didn’t even care, until now. I was very excited with the idea of learning Japanese, I love how it looks like and practical that’s it, just for that I wanted to learn it. I began with apps, videos, and everything was fine but one day I decide to investigate how could it be if I decide to go to Japan. This blog it’s just one of tons I found, all of them screaming like a warning in my mind. So, I decide to give up and put all my effort in English. That decision was possible for people like you who take their time to write their experience.
    But I loved your blog and I will follow it, glad to find it.

  27. Roo says:

    Congrats for your post! Read it with the comments has helped me a lot to make up my mind about which language should i go first. My initial enthusiasm has always be Japanese because it’s the third language I see most (thanks to music, anime, manga and some other games). But Chinese has been for me a mystery and despite I tried several times to study Japanese (mostly kanji, and I always ended up beating) I want to start again this coming year. I’ve heard a lot about the importance of Chinese in economics and in jobs, but recently I have more attraction to it because of culture. Despite that, and, again, thanks to your post, I will try again (and hopefully the last) Japanese. Because, for me it’s love, and it’s going to be useful for me. But, just like you, I will try Chinese after. Although I have to admit that for someone interested in both languages, which one is more helpful to start with? I have to ask, because it keeps unclear to me. Also, what advice would you give for new learners? Thanks for all!!

  28. J Jones says:

    Hey! Really like your post. I’ve applied to university to study Japanese – I love the language more than any other, but I’m wondering if it’s the right choice. In particular I’m interested in what you said in your post about Japanese being potentially more useful than Chinese. Do you genuinely think that it’s easier to get a job and make more money career-wise with Japanese and is there anywhere online where I could read more about this? Moreover, do you think it’s realistic to expect to be able to be in a job other than translation (e.g. finance)?

    I was considering trying to change my course to Chinese because I thought it would have better career prospects due to its economic growth and I’d quite like to have a charitable impact on the world in the future (working for an NGO which deals with serious poverty, making money to donate to charity) and I’m not sure how possible these things are in Japan/with a Japanese degree.

    • rubymary says:

      Hey! Thanks for reading the post, I’m always happy to get comments like yours 🙂

      If you want to work for an NGO, then I think knowing Mandarin is not that helpful (sorry to ruin your dreams, haha). As you know, mainland China is not a champion of human rights and therefore does not allow many NGOs to even operate or go to the country. In fact, working at an NGO in/associated with China could even be a dangerous venture. Only the true champions of justice risk their lives to help people with human rights issues in China–if you’re that committed and ready to risk your life for a good cause, then go for it. Otherwise, you might want to rethink your choice. If you are going into environmental studies/environmental NGO, however, I think China would support your cause.

      Japan actually does a lot of work with developing countries (they’re heavily invested in Southeast Asia). The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is like the peace corps of Japan, and they have an office in almost every country. Knowing Japanese could potentially help you get a job at this organization.

      From a US perspective, I think Chinese language skills are more attractive to the public sector/government arena, while Japanese skills are better suited for private sector. Japan is still the third largest economy in the world–I know China dominates the news, but Japan is also still a huge player in the global economy.

      Finally, if you are passionate about development or NGOs, I think learning French/Spanish/Arabic/Bahasa/Vietnamese/Thai/other SE Asia languages will be better suited for those fields. Those are countries that need the services of NGOs, so speaking those languages is a huge help.

      • J Jones says:

        Hi! Thanks very much for your comment, it was very helpful.

        To what extent do you think it’s realistically possible to get a job in finance or a similarly quantitative career with a degree in Japanese? I wouldn’t necessarily be restricting myself to Japan but I assume that’s where the bulk of the jobs would be.

        This might seem to be in contrast to my desire to help charity but occupying high-paying jobs in order to increase personal donations to charity is seen as a very valid option in the altruism community so it’s something I might be considering 🙂 Evidently a maths-based degree would be quite a bit better for jobs in finance/business, but I would have evidence of very high-level mathematical ability from my school qualifications (I know these are nowhere near as useful). I now have an offer to study Japanese at Oxford University. However, in the back of my mind I’m considering changing

        It seems from some basic research that animal welfare is a relatively neglected issue in Japan, yet quite an important one. Working in a job which allowed me to work either directly on this issue or encourage others to work on it would be ideal for me, and I am highly motivated for it – I don’t suppose you have any remarks on how realistic it is to expect to be able to do this?

        I am essentially interested in Effective Altruism (EA), which is essentially centred around promoting charitable donations and doing as much good as possible through one’s career. This cause has its main support in the US/UK/Australia, but from what I can tell essentially none in Japan (apart from a single man in Tokyo who I’ve been emailing!). Promoting this cause in Japan seems like it would be very worthwhile if done effectively – would you have any insight as to how I might do this in Japan and how hard it would be to do it successfully as a foreigner?

        Thanks again 🙂

        • rubymary says:

          Hi there,

          I think getting a finance job that uses Japanese is not that hard to get. I know two Japanese international students who received good offers from two big, big banks. I also got hired by a huge firm. Japanese helps in finance, that’s for sure.

          I wish I could provide more assistance about your animal welfare issue, but unfortunately I don’t have any contacts and don’t know much about that area.

          As for effective altruism… is that like philanthropy? Or is it more like CSR? It sounds like a great idea and one that is probably more efficient and useful than over-inflated organizations like the UN or Red Cross that promotes good values but wastes an insane amount of money (did you know the Red Cross only donates 20% of its receivables? 80% goes to overhead… ridiculous). There are also great organizations like Kiva and Grahmin Bank that give loans to individuals in developing countries so that they can actually start their business/revitalize their farm/set up trade etc… Again, I don’t think these skills require Japanese, but you might want to partner with JICA to launch an initiative like this.

          What’s your alternative to Japanese at Oxford? My good friend got a Chinese degree from Cambridge and many of her friends were able to work in finance later on. I do think a finance/math degree would be more useful. Maybe talk to Oxford and ask about what their Japanese alumni have done and get some ideas there.

          • J Jones says:


            Effective Altruism is philanthropy 🙂 It’s to do with evaluating the efficiency of charities and either donating to the most efficient charities (in the most pressing cause areas e.g. global poverty, animal welfare) or organising one’s career so as to work for an organisation (such as an NGO) which works (efficiently) in one of these cause areas. You should check it out 🙂

            My alternative to Japanese at Oxford would be Chinese at Oxford, if they allow me to change course (which is looking perhaps a little unlikely). I know there are many issues with NGO work in China surrounding human rights, but there seem to be more EA organisations in China, and they say there is a need for translation work. For example, in an email I received from the Humane League (animal welfare organisation), they said:

            “I think that there will be more opportunity to work for animals in China over the coming years. It’s likely that a bilingual activist would be very beneficial in building collaborative relationships.”

            So this is an option I’m considering.

            What Japan has over China is that (from what I can tell) much less charitable donation goes on in Japan than in other Western countries, and effective altruism has essentially no influence there as an entity in itself. This means that there’s the potential for me to promote altruism there (having developed a good network, reputation, etc.). There are several EA ‘Hubs’ in China (EA Beijing, EA Hong Kong, etc.) but none so far in Japan – EA Tokyo is currently being developed. I don’t suppose you have any remarks on how easy/difficult it would be for a foreigner to do something like this in Japan and introduce new ideas?

            Thanks 🙂

  29. Angela says:

    Well, to answer your question. I think my passion is Japanese but Chinese is more useful in my country. I don’t know what to choose if I really have to choose.

    • rubymary says:

      You know what, I just got a really high paying job that values my Japanese language/experience and didn’t even blink an eye at my Chinese skills (once again, Japan gets me a job). It all depends.

      I don’t know how it is for your country, but in the US, Chinese skills are more in-demand for government work. For the private sector I think Japanese is still very highly-valued. I’ll write a post on this soon.

  30. Eli says:

    Hey, I know it has been like three years. I highly doubt that you will ever answer this question, but I decided to ask you anyway. I am in highschool, and I just have a love for Asian languages. I am possibly planning to go into international business. Which language should I choose?

    • rubymary says:

      Well.. I think you’ll be fine either way. Choose the Asian language you like best. Japanese is the hardest, but if you like that language the best for go for it. If you don’t care much for Japanese, then go for Chinese or Korean as an easier option.

      Chinese = hard pronunciation/easy grammar/strenuous writing system
      Korean = easier pronunciation/hard grammar/easier writing system
      Japanese = easy pronunciation/hard grammar/EXTREMELY hard writing system

  31. Nancy says:

    I just want to say that this article was very nice and detailed, but one thing I need to add is that in Mandarin, lots and lots of words are pronounced differently even if the character is the same. The character does not need to be paired up with another character to change the sound. The other thing is that some words can be pronounced different ways but both of those ways are always correct no matter the sentence or phrase, it all depends where you are from in China. Don’t get me wrong, Japanese and Chinese is both really hard to learn like any language. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them…ask a Chinese friend to help you improve your vowels and wording. “Pleco” is a really nice Chinese and English dictionary to use, and a good way to learn Chinese better and faster is using “pinyin”.

    • rubymary says:

      Thanks for your compliment, Nancy!

      Yes, I guess I should say “which language is easier, MANDARIN or Japanese?” The pronunciation of characters change depending on dialects, but at least there’s usually only one reading for each character in that certain dialect. I mainly wanted to contrast how in Japanese you have to learn how to read a character ten different ways, which is so frustrating.

      Pleco is a great dictionary! I wish Japanese had an equally good dictionary out there (all I got is Imiwa, and it sucks).

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