When I used to travel, Westerners would often ask me if Koreans, Chinese or Japanese were native speakers. But now they ask how the languages differ.
Korea and the Korean language have become much better known in recent years.
Korea and Japan have been influenced by China since ancient times, so Chinese characters are still used in Korea and Japan, but now Chinese, Korean and Japanese are very different. Which of these languages is easier to learn, how do they differ, and which of these Asian languages suits you? We’ll find out together in this article.
First, let’s look at how Korean, Chinese, and Japanese differ.
How Korean and Chinese differ
Although 60% of Korean words originally come from Chinese, the two languages do not have much in common today. While Chinese grammar is easy and Chinese writing is very difficult, the opposite is true in Korean. Korean has the simplest alphabet in the world, but the grammar gets more complicated the more advanced you are.
Chinese is a tonal language
When it comes to pronouncing Chinese, tones are without a doubt the biggest hurdle. Mandarin has 4 tones and Cantonese 6, but in practice Cantonese uses 9 tones. In fact, in German we also use tones, for example when we raise the pitch at the end of a sentence to make it a question.
In Chinese, however, these tones are used with every syllable and change the meaning of the words, not just the nuance. There are no tones in Korean. If a word is spoken differently in tone, it does not change the meaning.
Because German and Korean are not tonal languages, most beginners find it difficult to distinguish between Chinese words at first. Even if they are completely different words for native Chinese speakers. So next to the characters, the tones in Chinese are the most difficult to learn.
Dialects in Korean and Chinese
High Korean is based on the language of Seoul. Even in Korea, there are dialects in each region, but in fact, communication between dialects is possible without any problems.
Mandarin is the standard language for Chinese and the language with the most native speakers in the world. However, because China is larger and has more people, there are many dialects in China. However, these dialects tend to be languages in their own right, such as the “most widely spoken dialect” Cantonese.
Cantonese is spoken in southern China and in Hong Kong, but unlike Mandarin, it is a separate language. Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers cannot communicate with each other.
Of course, people in southern China also learn Mandarin in school, but they speak Cantonese in this area. So if you want to live or work in the Chinese province of Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, etc., you should learn Cantonese.
So you have to choose either Mandarin or Cantonese if you want to learn Chinese. You don’t have to worry about that when learning Korean.
How is the Korean alphabet different from Chinese?
Korean writing is phonetic, that is, it represents the sounds produced in speech, while Chinese writing is ideographic. Ideographic means the signs have a meaning and are not abstract.
If you see a Chinese character and know the meaning, you can understand it without knowing the Chinese language. If you have learned the Korean alphabet, you can read every Korean word, but still don’t know what the words mean.
This is the biggest difference between Korean and Chinese and also the biggest difference between German and Chinese. Besides, this is the biggest hurdle in learning Chinese.
You can read Korean after memorizing just 40 Korean letters. These letters are easy to remember and the use of the letters is logical. However, you will need to memorize about 3,500 characters to know the characters used in Chinese everyday life. Each of those characters is more complicated than one of the Korean characters.
Therefore, when you learn Chinese, you first learn Pinyin, the spelling of Chinese in the Roman characters used in German. This romanization also exists for Korean, but you don’t have to learn it and I don’t teach it in the Korean alphabet lessons. After all, you can learn the Korean alphabet very quickly.
Traditional or Simplified Chinese Script
Since Chinese consists of so many characters, it used to be too difficult to write. The illiteracy rate was high, reaching 80% of the population at its peak.
In the 1950s and 1960s, China therefore began to use simplified Chinese characters. Mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia mainly use simplified Chinese characters, but Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, among others, still use traditional Chinese characters.
So if you want to learn Chinese, you need to take that into consideration as well. Koreans also used Chinese characters before the Korean alphabet was invented. The Korean alphabet was invented to replace the Chinese characters and to counteract illiteracy. The Korean alphabet Hangeul was therefore designed to be easy to learn. So that’s the least of your problems when learning Korean.
How to write Korean or Chinese on the keyboard
The Korean alphabet Hangeul is not only easy to learn, but Korean is also very good for writing on the computer or mobile phone. The sounds of the Korean language practically put themselves together when written. If you’re already learning Korean but haven’t started writing Hangeul on the computer, I recommend you do it now.
Chinese, on the other hand, cannot be typed directly because Chinese is thousands of ideograms. So how do you type Chinese on your computer or mobile phone? You use Pinyin to type on your computer or mobile phone. Pinyin is the Chinese pronunciation in the Roman alphabet.
When you type in Chinese pronunciations using this Roman alphabet on a computer or mobile phone, they are automatically converted into a selection of Chinese characters. Because there are different tones in Chinese, the same Roman characters can have completely different meanings. Therefore, you must choose the correct Chinese word.
So when you first learn Chinese, you first learn pinyin, not the Chinese characters.
Because of these characteristics of Chinese characters, Chinese people also prefer voice messaging instead of traditional instant messaging and text messaging with mobile phones.
Grammar & Sentence Structure in Chinese Compared to Korean
The sentence order of Korean is subject, object, and verb, but the sentence order of Chinese is subject, verb, and object. The sentence order in Chinese is the same as in German, which means that the order of words in Chinese makes immediate sense if you are a native speaker of German.
In Korean, there are particles. Because the concept of particle does not exist in German (and most other languages in the West), particles are one of the most difficult grammars in Korean. Also, the ending of verbs is often conjugated. However, the conjugation of Korean verbs are not necessarily related to the subject.
Another challenge of the Korean language is the politeness forms. Korean politeness is complicated even for Koreans. This will only affect you later in your learning, as you only need to know a few endings and situations at the beginning. When in doubt, always use polite language.
However, the further you progress in your learning, the more complicated it becomes with politeness, not only linguistically but also culturally.
So Chinese grammar is much simpler than Korean grammar. The Chinese characters and sounds are difficult, but the grammar of Chinese is simpler than most other languages.
How Korean and Japanese differ
Now that we’ve looked at Korean and Chinese, let’s look at the similarities between Korean and Japanese and figure out together which language suits you better and which one you should learn, or even if you can learn both at the same time.
Japanese characters: Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji.
We’ve already found that one of the biggest challenges in learning Chinese is the characters. In Japanese there are Hiragana and Katakana which are phonetic characters, the same as the Korean Hangeul. However, Japanese also has kanji and kanji are the Chinese characters.
So while Chinese writing is difficult, Japanese is even more difficult because you have to learn the Chinese characters to read and write Japanese.
Hiragana are used when there is no corresponding kanji or only a difficult one. It is also used for endings, for example, when conjugating verbs and particles.Katakana, on the other hand, are mainly used to represent foreign words.
Korea is also heavily influenced by China, so we learn Chinese characters in middle and high schools, but nowadays Chinese characters are rarely used. When I was young, words were written in Chinese characters in the newspapers, but now I don’t see them anymore. When I was a student, many words in my books were also written with Chinese characters, but not anymore.
If you are studying Korean, you also need to learn Chinese characters, but if you just want to speak, read and write Korean, you don’t need to learn Chinese characters.
However, to learn Japanese, you need to learn kanji because Japanese people still use kanji a lot.
When Koreans and Japanese learn Chinese, it is actually not that difficult because they have already learned many Chinese characters. Japanese in particular know many more Chinese characters than Koreans.
The Korean alphabet is Hangeul or Hangul. Hangeul, as mentioned earlier, is a phonetic script. So while Chinese and Japanese have to learn Chinese characters, Korean writing is quite different and much simpler. If you want to learn more about the origin of Hangeul, read this article about the history of Korean writing and to start learning Hangeul right away I recommend our Korean alphabet playlist on YouTube.
How do you write Japanese or Korean on the keyboard?
As mentioned earlier, Korean is handy when you’re typing on the computer keyboard. Korean can be entered directly without conversion. The sounds are formed almost automatically when typing.
So how is it with Japanese when three alphabets are combined?
Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic characters, just like Korean. However, they cannot be typed immediately.
Hiragana and katakana are phonetic characters, but unlike Korean, a consonant and a vowel are already combined in one letter, for example た ta or ほ ho.
When you type Japanese on the keyboard, you type the pronunciation in the Roman alphabet, similar to Chinese. Then when Japanese comes out that matches the pronunciation, you have to choose the right one. You must also choose whether you want to use hiragana, katakana, or kanji.
Grammar & Sentence Structure in Japanese Compared to Korean
The sentence order of Korean and Japanese is the same. In both languages the subject comes first, then the object and the verb only at the end of the sentence.
Japanese also has particles like Korean and the use of particles is almost the same. Japanese verbs are also often conjugated, but do not depend on the subject as in Korean.
Korean and Japanese have similar grammar, but the Korean and Japanese language families are not the same. Both languages are isolated languages, i.e. they have developed independently of all other languages and show no affinities.
Nevertheless, knowledge of Japanese helps to learn Korean and vice versa. Especially because the grammars of both languages have features that do not exist in western languages and can therefore be difficult to understand. In grammar, there is the most overlap between Japanese and Korean.
The pronunciation of Japanese and Korean
Korean and Japanese, unlike Chinese, have no tones. In fact, it is said that the pronunciation of Japanese is one of the easiest of all languages because Japanese has only 33 meaning-distinguishing sounds. Most of these sounds also occur in German, so Japanese pronunciation is particularly easy to learn for German speakers.
The pronunciation of Korean is also not very difficult, but definitely more difficult than that of Japanese. They say in Korean it’s very hard to sound like a native speaker. There are sounds that are completely different from German and there are pronunciation rules that you must learn.
At least one consonant and one vowel are combined in a Korean syllable. In addition, another consonant may be added. The second consonant is called batchim (받침). This batchim is very important in learning Korean grammar and pronunciation. We have a whole series on pronunciation on YouTube that deals mainly with batchim rules.
These rules are about how pronunciation changes when a particle with or without a vowel is added to a word with a batchim. That is, how the pronunciation changes when syllables are joined. My participants say it’s difficult. You have learned words, but the pronunciation sounds different depending on which particle is attached.
Japanese, however, does not have many of these final consonants batchim. Therefore, the syllables in Japanese pronunciation are not connected and learning the correct pronunciation takes less time and is easier than Korean pronunciation.
Because of these features of Japanese, it is difficult for Japanese to pronounce Korean batchim. For example, Japanese pronounce kimchi (김치) as kimuchi (기무치).
Gerhard has learned Korean, Japanese and also Russian. He didn’t stick with any of the languages, but while with Russian he felt like he had forgotten all the words every week in class, he knew many Korean words even after years. We looked into why this is so and came to the conclusion that it has to do with the sounds. The more different sounds a language has, the more difficult it is to learn it (regardless of understanding grammar and other rules). You may have noticed that Japanese and also Koreans have problems learning foreign languages. Russians, on the other hand, are masters at learning foreign languages. This has to do with the number of sounds that occur in one’s own language. Of course, this is also the biggest problem in learning Chinese. Chinese has, as already mentioned, four different tones that change the meaning of words.
Should you learn Korean, Chinese or Japanese?
So far, I have compared Korean and Chinese, and Korean and Japanese. I am, however, biased. I’m Korean and have experience with Chinese and Japanese, but don’t know either language well. However, I tried to write the post from your German-speaking point of view. Let’s recap what each of these three languages is all about.
Korean, Chinese or Japanese: which language is easiest to learn?
Chinese is often called the most difficult language in the world. Interestingly, the most difficult language in the world is also the one that has the most native speakers in the world. Why is Chinese called the most difficult language? Because you have to learn several thousand characters to read and write and because Chinese is a tonal language.
There is almost no grammar for this in Chinese. The Korean alphabet you can learn in no time, while the Korean grammar with its politeness forms and particles is a challenge and gets more complicated as you progress.
The alphabet in Japanese is even more difficult than Chinese because the Chinese characters are part of the Japanese system. Japanese grammar is similar to Korean, but Korean grammar is a bit more complicated than Japanese.
So there is no answer to the question which of these three languages is easier. Chinese is often called the most difficult language in the world because of the writing and sounds, but Chinese grammar is very simple. Japanese writing is even more complicated than Chinese, but Korean grammar is the most complicated of these three languages.
So let’s look at a few more factors that are crucial when deciding which language you should learn.
Korean, Chinese or Japanese: Which language has economic value in the global age?
I have heard from my students and often read that it is difficult to find a job if Europeans have studied Korean studies at university. That’s for sure! More and more Koreans speak good English and pure language skills usually do not qualify for a profession.
If you learn Japanese or Chinese, can you find a good job?
The Chinese economy is growing and trade with China is becoming more active. If you learn Chinese, you may be able to find a good job in Europe or in China. But remember. There are many Chinese and also many Chinese live abroad and speak German or English well and many Chinese of the younger generations have even grown up bilingual.
The situation when learning Japanese is similar. Reaching a level you can really work with takes a long time. The weekly language course is not enough and then you still need other skills for the job. So language is just a means of communication.
If you want to learn a language for business purposes, you must first learn the subject and then the language as a secondary skill.
Not studying a language at university can also have advantages. If you study Korean studies, for example, you still have to learn a lot of hanja, but you don’t really need them in practice. So it can be advantageous to study something with good job prospects and to learn the language intensively in a course and in self-study in order to use it later in the job. If you are still thinking about studying Korean studies, here is an article on studying the Korean language.
Is it a good idea to learn Chinese at the same time as learning Korean?
Even though we share a history, are neighbors, many Korean words come from Chinese, and we used many Chinese characters until not too long ago, the benefits of learning Korean and Chinese at the same time are few.
The biggest parallels between Korean and Chinese can be found in similar vocabulary, but the structure of the language, the grammar, the alphabet and the pronunciation have nothing to do with each other.
Is it a good idea to learn Korean and Japanese in parallel?
Korean and Japanese have similar grammar but are not related. Both are isolated languages. Learning Korean and Japanese at the same time does make it easier to understand each other’s grammar, but the effort clearly outweighs the benefits here.
If you already know Japanese and now want to learn Korean, you will definitely benefit from the Japanese knowledge. I wouldn’t recommend starting the languages at the same time, but that’s just my personal opinion and recommendation. If it is your desire to learn Korean and Japanese at the same time, I am in favor of you doing that. Above all, experience in language learning is always good if you want to learn other languages. Whether the languages are related or not.
Conclusion: So which language should you learn?
Since I’m Korean, I recommend you learn Korean. Haha! I’m just kidding. The motivation to learn a language is the most important thing. Korean is becoming more popular as Kpop and KDrama become more popular and more people are interested in Korea as an exotic destination. Chinese is the language with the most native speakers and China is the fastest rising economic power in the world. Japan is a fascinating country with a fascinating culture and history.
However, the way to success in a foreign language is through speaking. Do you plan to live and work in one of the three countries? Do you have Korean, Japanese or Chinese friends or colleagues, or are you in a relationship with a person from one of the three countries. I recommend you think about the future and how you plan to use the language. Everyone will have their own reasons for learning a language. If you haven’t found a good reason to learn Korean yet, here are a few reasons to learn Korean.
I hope my post helps you choose a language to learn. If you’ve already decided to learn Korean, I’d be happy to help. You can either use the free YouTube channel to teach yourself Korean with my help, find a course in your city or check when my next online courses start. Also, here are tips to help you learn Korean better.
Learning Hangeul is easy at first, but Korean grammar is not easy. However, if you understand Korean culture better through the language and continue to learn, you will soon see that learning Korean is worthwhile and fun.
How about next time we speak together in Korean?
Feel free to post your thoughts or your decision on which language to learn in the comments. I’d be very interested.