Asian languages may sound mysterious and alien, which is also why they fascinate so many people. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are three east Asian languages that have many connections and are frequently compared with each other. Contrary to what some would expect, they are independent and unintelligible to one another.
If you haven’t decided which language to learn or wish to know which is the most difficult, you’ve come to the right place. This article will compare Chinese, Japanese, and Korean in terms of their writing system, grammar, and pronunciation in an easy way. Don’t want to read the whole article? Peek at the final answer here.
Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean writing system
First, let’s see which language has the most complicated writing system. Japanese, Korean, and Chinese all look pretty complex in their written forms, to the point that you may still wonder which one is which language.
To tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing, first, see if there are any spaces between the characters, if there are, then it’s Korean. If there are no spaces among characters, see if there are any curvy, cute symbols among the square, complex symbols, if there are, then it’s Japanese.
Chinese: 3,000+ Chinese characters
When first learning Chinese, many beginners may ask: where is the alphabet? Well, in contrast to English, which has 26 letters, Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet, but rather 3,000 common Chinese characters. Yeah, I know that sounds crazy.
Chinese characters are ideological: each character has one or more meanings, and combinations of characters comprise various words. Furthermore, Chinese characters are pictographic, meaning they evolved from images. In other words, they were originally created by the “painter-like” Chinese people. Thus, many non-native speakers feel that writing Chinese characters is like painting.
It is worth mentioning that Chinese characters have two writing styles: the simplified and the traditional. Mainland China uses simplified characters, while Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan use traditional ones. The simplified and traditional characters correspond to each other and have the same pronunciation but are written differently.
Japanese: Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji
Japanese consists of the syllabic alphabet (48 Hiragana, 48 Katakana) and 2000+ Kanji (Chinese characters). After a short period of memorization, you will be able to pronounce the kana as soon as you see it. Since Kanji is not syllabic, we need kana to help us pronounce it. The image below may give you a more visual explanation.
The application of Hiragana and Katakana is more than just pronunciation. For instance, some words can only be written in Hiragana or Katakana (no kanji equivalent). Generally speaking, Hiragana is the more common variant in regular text than Katakana. In contrast, Katakana is usually reserved for specific purposes, such as loanwords and advertising phrases to catch the eye.
Korean: the only alphabet — Hangul
Modern Korean has a far simpler writing system than Chinese and Japanese. Hangul is the official alphabet used to record Korean, which has 40 letters consisting of 21 vowels and 19 consonants. Although you can still see 한자 / hanja (chinese characters) on ID cards or grave-markers, they don’t appear very often in daily lives.
In Korean, any vowel and consonant letter can be used individually or combined to form words. It’s systematic and comprehensive. Moreover, it’s easy to learn, print, and use on the computer. The creation of Hangul has also contributed dramatically to reducing illiteracy and the development of the publishing industry in Korea.
So how to distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean from their appearances? It’s actually not so hard when you pay attention to a few key features. Firstly, Korean sentences or texts must have spaces similar to English, whereas Chinese and Japanese do not. Then, Japanese text has some rounded Hiragana without angles, which is not the case in Chinese. In general, Chinese looks relatively dense, followed by Japanese, and Korean looks quite spacious.
Why do some Japanese scripts look similar to Chinese? Are they mutually intelligible? In case you don’t know, just like western languages, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean also share some common words. If interested, we have another article about Hanzi, Kanja, and Hanja that addresses this topic.
Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean pronunciation
First, listen to this audio to get a feeling of how Chinese, Japanese, and Korean sounds like!
Chinese: logographical characters with tonal system
As mentioned before, Chinese characters are ideological. Therefore, there are no rules to follow other than remembering the pronunciation of each required Chinese character, and the same applies to the Kanji in Japanese. To standardize Mandarin, Pinyin was created as the phonetic system to pronounce Chinese characters using the Latin alphabet. More importantly, Chinese is a tonal language, and words’ meanings constantly vary according to their tones, which is not the case in either Japanese, Korean, or English. Thus, we can say that Chinese is the most difficult in terms of pronunciation.
Japanese: vowel to consonant 1:1
There is a saying that Japanese is the best-sounding language due to its 1:1 vowel to consonant ratio, which is close to a musical rhythm. Japanese has no diphthongs, and all syllables are open. What’s more, Japanese has only five vowels (a i u e o), combined with 14 consonants to form the Japanese syllables. For English speakers, it’s easy to pronounce almost all of the Japanese syllables. Pronunciation is the simplest part of Japanese, compared to its complex writing system.
Korean: all phonetic
The pronunciation of Korean is harder than Japanese. Korean has some complex syllables, such as compound vowels and synthetic consonants, which many people find difficult when they first try to practice Korean pronunciation. But the good news is that Hangul is entirely phonetic, without any hidden sounds. Beginners can basically read them within one to two hours of study and get familiar with them during a week’s practice.
Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean grammar
Chinese: relatively similar to English
You might be intimidated by the thousands of Chinese characters and their tough pronunciation. However, Chinese still has its strengths — including an easy grammar system. Leaving aside ancient Chinese, the grammar of modern Chinese is probably one of the easiest among all languages.
To begin with, Chinese doesn’t have prepositions, verb conjugations, or tense changes, which means you don’t need to memorize all those mind-twisting rules. Then, Chinese doesn’t have the honorific system that both Japanese and Korean have. In addition, Chinese shares a similar sentence order with English, namely the SVO order, which is also different from Japanese and Korean.
Japanese: SOV sentence structure
The grammar of Japanese is possibly the most complex globally. For example, there are 13 different forms of any given Japanese verb, and when combined with the tense, even more forms are derived.
Furthermore, the honorific system of Japanese is quite brain-racking, requiring the speaker to change the speech politeness levels depending on different listeners and situations. Many native Japanese even make mistakes with this themselves!
The most substantial difference between Japanese and English is sentence order. As mentioned earlier, both English and Chinese use SVO order, whereas the Japanese sentence structure is SOV (Subject – Object – Verb).
Korean: similar grammar to Japanese
The grammar of Korean is very similar to Japanese in terms of the honorific system and sentence structure. However, Korean’s grammar system is simpler than Japanese. For example, the verbs do not have that many different conjugations.
Because the grammatical logic is similar overall, native Japanese speakers and native Korean speakers can learn each other’s languages relatively easily. Similarly, if you already speak Japanese or Korean, you will learn the other one more quickly.
The origin of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages
Hooray! You’ve read all about our comparison of Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Now as you are here, stay a bit longer for their history, so you can understand their relationships more deeply.
Chinese: one of the oldest languages in the world
Chinese is the most widely spoken language with over 1.3 billion native speakers. Meanwhile, it is one of the world’s oldest living languages. It is said that the characters written by Chinese people today can be found on oracle bones from over 6,000 years ago. How amazing!
However, over its long history, the Chinese language developed many spoken varieties, such as the well-known Cantonese. Because these varieties differ significantly and lack mutual intelligibility, Mandarin remains China’s official language. So if you wish to learn Chinese, it’s often suggested that you start with Mandarin, as it can be understood not only everywhere in mainland China, but also in Taiwan, Macau, and many places in Southeast Asia.
Japanese: influenced by Chinese
Japanese has been dramatically influenced by the Chinese language in terms of its pronunciation, vocabulary, and writing system. In archaic times, Japanese was only spoken and not written. Things changed when Chinese characters began to be imported into Japan in the 3rd century AD.
By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Japan had studied the Chinese language and culture on all fronts. Based on the Chinese characters they had learned, Japanese people created kana to suit the needs of the Japanese language. Nowadays, you can still find many Kanji (Chinese characters) in the Japanese language, and many Chinese people can read them without learning Japanese itself.
Korean: a popular language
Before the modern era, Korean was mainly written in Chinese characters, as is Japanese. After World War II, when the Korean peninsula gained independence from Japanese colonial rule and national consciousness rose, the abolition of Chinese characters became a national consensus. In 1945, both North and South Korea banned Chinese characters and promoted Hangul, the phonetic writing system invented by King Sejong in 1443.
Korean is one of the most attractive languages today. According to the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange, 77 million people worldwide were learning Korean in 2021, in striking contrast to the 52 million people who live in South Korea. During the last two decades, Korean culture has ridden a wave of popularity worldwide as many are fascinated with K-pop and K-dramas, which is probably why so many people are learning the language.
Which one is easier, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean?
After reading this comparative review, I’m sure it has become clear that it’s hard to tell which one is objectively the easiest or the hardest. You need to consider the three aspects of pronunciation, writing, and grammar and make your decision from there.
Here comes our final verdict: the difficulty rankings based on my own learning experience.
Writing system: Japanese ≈ Chinese > Korean
Pronunciation: Chinese > Korean > Japanese
Grammar: Japanese > Korean > Chinese
Although these three Asian languages are challenging, you can take on a rewarding adventure and have a great time learning them on LingoDeer.
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