Chinese or Japanese? This is the most common question when it comes to food, fashion, music, brands, companies, and even in learning a language — and you are here because you’re definitely one of the curious ones. Even Westerners are confused if someone is Chinese and Japanese based on their looks. We know that both countries are lovely, successful, surrounded by the nicest people, and have really great (and popular) languages.
But being a language learner, you cannot just choose “anything” between Chinese or Japanese. Learning them both is a big YES! However, you will definitely come to the point where you need to choose on which of these two languages should you learn first, and the answer “always” differs from one person to another.
Before we continue analyzing, I would like to mention that this article refers to Mandarin Chinese. We know that there are several varieties of Chinese, but the most common is Mandarin. As you read on, I will make sure that you’ll come up with an answer to the trendy question “Chinese or Japanese? Which Language Should I Learn First?”
Factors to Consider
There are important factors to consider which will help you choose between Chinese and Japanese. After reading this article, you’ll surely have an answer. (And thank me for that! Lol.) Remember, you are choosing on WHICH ONE should you learn first — so basically, you’re planning on learning them both. Hence, whatever your answer might be, it’s still a win-win situation.
1. The Number of Speakers
If I ask you the question, “Which one between Chinese and Japanese have a higher number of speakers?” what will be your answer?
Because of the big picture on the world map, you’ll probably answer Chinese. The number of native speakers is 917.8 million, and 198.7 million for non-native speakers, with a total of 1.116 billion speakers worldwide, making Chinese the 2nd most spoken language in the world according to the 2019 edition of Ethnologue. English ranks number one having a total of 1.132 billion speakers around the world. Japanese is also one of the most spoken languages. With 128.2 million native speakers and 121,500 non-native speakers, the language ranks 13th on the list. Comparing these numbers, it’s obvious that the Chinese language has a bigger number of speakers than Japanese.
Does it matter? Yes, this really matters. Why do you study English (as a second language) in the first place? Because it’s the universal language of the world. If you already know English, what’s next? Of course, the one hanging in the second place.
The huge population proves that there’s a wider range of business opportunities for you, and you are most likely to meet one Chinese out of every three Asian people. But if you prefer a quiet living, then you can choose Japanese — especially now that the country population is decreasing and have very strict immigration rules.
2. Your Field of Interest
If you’re dreaming of working on international businesses, banking, manufacturing, and trading, Chinese is your go-to language. China has a massive presence throughout the world and has an excellent stronghold on exports to the US, UK, and several countries which makes it a valuable trade partner. Maybe it’s a great investment if you learn Chinese, right? Having the title “can speak Chinese” on your resume is a big impact on these industries. There are various kinds of Chinese languages, and the most common is Mandarin Chinese. Learning this language is a “great skill” for business sectors.
If you’re into the field of automotive, communications, technology, cosmetics, financial sectors, and tourism industries, then Japanese is the one for you. We all know that Japan’s economy has been remarkably strong — the country is one of the biggest producers of automobiles and mobile technology. According to Forbes, Japan is home to some of the most powerful companies such as Mitsubishi.
Don’t skip this part when deciding. Take note that this factor has a big impact on your long-term career. But if you can read this article, then I bet you can understand English. So, as long as you know the English language, then you’re good to go! (No pressure! You will still be successful!)
3. The Difficulty Level
Linguists believed that there is no spoken language more difficult to learn than any other when it comes to absolute terms. To begin with, we have learned our mother tongue right when we were kids — without even complaining about how difficult it is! But since we were talking about which one is easier between Chinese and Japanese, then obviously we’re talking about which one is easier as a second (or third, or fourth) language to learn.
Whether you’re an English speaker, Spanish, Arabic, or Hindi, there’s no shortcut in learning Chinese or Japanese. Both are either easy or difficult — depending on the learner. Even the best polyglots and linguists have probably had a hard time (or easy time) learning any language. Chinese have its easiest and most difficult areas as well as Japanese. I think it’s better if we discuss them one by one:
The Writing System
If you’re used to using the Latin or Roman script, it’ll be quicker to learn the languages that also use the same script such as Spanish, Italian, or French. But Chinese and Japanese have their own writing system — those alphabets that look like alien codes to you!
Talking about the writing system of these two languages, Chinese is easier to read and write than Japanese because most of the Japanese Kanji characters have more than one pronunciations. But in Chinese Hanzi, most of the characters probably have one. Also, in Japanese, you need to learn the two syllabic scripts namely Hiragana and Katakana — both are used in addition with Kanji to form a complete sentence. That being said, you need to learn THREE sets of characters for Japanese and ONE for Chinese.
But Hiragana and Katakana are both written phonetically, making some Japanese words and word endings easier to read. In Chinese, all words are written with Hanzi. So if you don’t know the correct pronunciation of the Hanzi, you will guess the word based on the similar Hanzi you know.
Most learners are confused between the Chinese Hanzi and Japanese Kanji. To understand them better, read the article What’s the Difference Between Kanji and Hanzi?
The Sentence Structure
When it comes to word order, to some extent, Chinese is closer to English and other European languages. So if you’re an English speaker, Chinese would be easier for you from this aspect. The word order in Japanese is closer to that of Korean, Mongolian, and Turkic languages. So if you’re one of them, then Japanese is easier for you.
Ah, finally, grammar. Chinese is an isolating language — no verb conjugations, noun cases or grammatical gender, and plural forms aren’t a big deal and only used to a limited extent, often optional. On the other hand, Japanese is an agglutinative language — several verb, noun, and adjective conjugations. That means, Chinese grammar is way easier than Japanese.
For English speakers, Chinese grammar is fairly simple. Some learners even say that “Chinese doesn’t have grammar.” But of course, there are a few difficult points to learn and master in Chinese — that’s why it’s one of the most difficult languages to learn, my friend! Overall, the grammar isn’t too rough.
And for Japanese grammar, it seems like a set of unknown codes for every learner. (Unless you’re Chinese or Korean.) But if you’re really determined to learn the correct Japanese grammar, the difficulty will be as easy as ABC. Once you get over the first stages of learning Japanese, then you’re more likely to survive the rest.
The Pronunciation and Tones
Japanese has no tones and uses a limited number of phonemes. The words have different intonation patterns that are needed to follow to make sure that people can understand you when you’re speaking Japanese. No worries, just a few words are distinguished by intonation, so if you make a wrong sound, people can still understand you.
But in Chinese, there’s a larger inventory of phonemes and each syllable has its own tone. So if you make a wrong sound, the meaning of the word will change. When it comes to pronunciation, Japanese is easier than Chinese.
The pronunciation in Japanese is kind of easy at first. Some learners usually have problems pronouncing the “tsu” sound and some vowels like “mae.” And to be honest with you, the Japanese pronunciation will be a little harder to an English speaker. If you’re an absolute beginner in Japanese, you can memorize a few words for about 20-30 minutes until you get used to them. Yet the good news is that the only “real” crisis in learning Japanese is to sound like a native speaker — the sentence intonation and basic sounds aren’t really obstacles.
And for Chinese, the pronunciation is aggravatingly difficult right from the start. And it’ll get worse if you want to make yourself clearly understood by just using three syllables. But if you have enough patience, things will get easier. And after a few months of learning, the accent won’t be a big deal anymore.
4. The People and the Country
Always choose the one that you’re more passionate about. Two factors that may help you in deciding are the people and the country — would you like to visit China or Japan? Imagine that you MUST to choose where you will live forever, where would you go? Where would you like to raise your kids? Do you want to meet a Chinese or a Japanese partner?
I know that this may sound silly, but, why not? If you someday become fluent in “that” language, there will be a chance that you’ll also visit or live in that country.
5. The Culture
I’m not saying that one culture is better than the other. However, this is an important factor, too. If you don’t like the culture, you will lose interest in learning the language. Anyway, this isn’t a real problem because Chinese and Japanese both have wonderful cultures (and have some similarities, too).
6. What Experts Recommended
It’s always best to ask for some help when having big decisions like this. You can ask the experts — those who have tried (and failed) learning Chinese, Japanese, or both. The ‘experts’ I’m trying to imply here aren’t the ‘best among the rest.” All you need is those who have experienced learning any or both of these two languages. If you don’t know anyone, then the internet is a big help. Read some blogs, forums, and reviews. You’ll surely come across several websites about this topic.
But before doing that, let me give you a head start. Most learners have suggested that you should learn Chinese first before Japanese. Why is it exactly? Because once you’ve mastered Chinese, you’re already halfway conquering Japanese. As we’ve talked about earlier, Japanese has three alphabets — Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. The hardest one to learn is Kanji, and Kanji is almost exactly the same with Chinese Hanzi. That being said, if you’re done with learning Chinese, then you’re probably done with learning the most difficult part in Japanese. Kill two birds with one stone!
If you want to see more similarities and differences between Chinese and Japanese in details, here’s a video you’ll probably enjoy watching:
How Similar Are Chinese and Japanese?
The Final Verdict
One final thought, don’t worry about the practicality, the level of difficulty, or even the time you’ll spend studying a language. If it’s something you really love, then that’s the language worth studying. Really, both Chinese and Japanese are a hundred percent useful.
Each language has its own beautiful aspects. So if you choose one between Chinese and Japanese, you won’t lose in any way. Before finalizing your decision, do extensive research about China and Japan. I believe that you’ll come up to the language that matches your personality, aspirations, and desire. Finally, let me ask you this question — “Chinese or Japanese? Which one inspires you the most?” The first thing that comes to your mind is probably the one that you like.
1. How long will it take to finish learning Chinese/Japanese?
There’s no specific amount of time when it comes to learning Chinese, Japanese, or any other language. if you’re learning overall — reading, writing, and speaking, then expect that you need more hours of learning the language, roughly about 2,200 hours. You might want to check the article “How Fast Can You Learn Mandarin? (With Sample Timeline!)”
But it depends on your determination. Some people took a lifetime before being fluent in either Chinese or Japanese, and some just easily mastered it for a few months.
2. What Chinese language should I learn?
A good question. There are so many varieties of Chinese language, and the most popular (and common) is Mandarin — the standard Chinese language. It has over 1 billion speakers making it the language of the government, media, and education in China as well as in Taiwan. Mandarin is also one of the official languages in Singapore.
So looking at the various Chinese languages, Mandarin is probably the best choice. The next ones in line are Cantonese and Shanghainese.
3. What is the best way to memorize the Chinese and Japanese characters?
Flashcards. This might sound childish but yeah, flashcards will wonderfully help you memorize and enjoy learning both Chinese and Japanese characters. In each flashcard, the character(s) should be written on one side, and the sound, meaning, and usage tips on the backside. Make sure that the size of the flashcards are handy so you can easily carry them around.
And if you try to ask the people who have tried learning Chinese or Japanese, they will also suggest the “flashcard trick” (Did I make it sound effective?)
4. How would I know if I’m already fluent in Chinese/Japanese?
That’s a nice question. If you can continue the flow of a face-to-face conversation without pausing too often, then you’re probably fluent in the language. You might still have some grammatical errors (that’s normal, though) and a limited vocabulary list, but at least you still have correct responses. Being “fluent” in a language simply means that you can converse fluently as if it’s your native language.
To know more about the Chinese and Japanese languages, take a look at these detailed videos:
Chinese—The Sinitic Languages