“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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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…?
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?