Japanese more difficult than Chinese?

An article I came across today, via Keith’s blog, argues that it’s a lot more difficult to learn Japanese than Chinese.

The author of the article studied both Chinese and Japanese at the Defense Language Institute (DLI), and lived in Japan for over seven years. He feels confident about communicating in Chinese (Mandarin) and found it much easier than Japanese, or Spanish and German, which he studied in high school. He didn’t find learning Japanese at the DLI too hard, but had difficulty communicating with Japanese people in Japan. He believes the main difficulties are the sheer amount of Japanese syntax, only a small proportion of which is covered in most Japanese courses, and Japanese culture, in which people tend to avoid saying things in a straightforward way.

My own experiences are somewhat similar – I found Chinese easier to learn than Japanese, though I’ve only been to Japan once and was there for four months, whereas I spent over five years in Taiwan, plus a couple of months in China. Had I spent longer in Japan, I’m sure my Japanese would be a lot better now. Would it be as good as my Chinese? I don’t know.

This entry was posted in Chinese, Japanese, Language, Language learning.

26 Responses to Japanese more difficult than Chinese?

  1. yuko says:

    It’s interesting to know your impression of learning Japanese language.

    I would say in Japanese language each sentence depend more
    on Japanese culture behind their words than context itself and
    ruled grammar. So it would be hard to understand the language comprehensively.

    During a period of national isolation from 17th century to 19,
    Japan had built their own culture, economy, and trading trying to expel christian religion. They had shied away from contacting foreign countries and that history made Japanese culture
    unapproachable from overseas, that’s a shame.

    If you had lived in Japan longer, you would definitely
    be more fluent in Japanese now by getting used to the culture
    and the way people beat around the bush.
    Some western people speaking Japanese fluently seem to love
    the culture and have some characters in common with Japanese people. Like some are really into Japanese animated cartoon, Buddhism, healthy but blunt tasted food and so on.

  2. Zachary R. says:

    It’s amazing how I’ve only heard of the expression “beat around the bush” while actually living in Japan. 😛
    I just think most people find it difficult to adjust and fit in a culture which is very opposite from their own.

    The language itself I found, was actually a lot easier to learn than I thought. But regular language courses back home only helped provide the basic, and not actual day-to-day forms of talking. After having lived in Japan though, I’ve learned a lot. Perhaps it helped that I lived a regular school life, with a regular Japanese family, rather than being isolated and labelled as ‘the foreigner who can’t speak japanese’. And while not being fluent, I can still get my general idea across.
    Though, if you’re willing to learn both the culture and language, without being overly critiquing about everything, there’s no reason why you couldn’t attain fluency. Confidence is everything, and mistakes are part of learning.

    And I’ve always been reluctant to learn any chinese language, mainly because tones and all-out hanzi scared me off. But since being able to write Japanese, and learning about pitch accent, tones don’t scare me off anymore. But I don’t see myself learning cantonese or mandarin any time soon, even if my part-time job is surrounded by those who speak it.

  3. BG says:

    I have always heard that Chinese is harder than Japanese. As for Spanish and German I cannot see how those languages even come close to difficulty with Chinese. I am learning German and Chinese in school (along with Latin and Ancient Greek) and I recall German 1 being much easier and learning much more in it than Chinese 1, which I am in now. I guess learning to write the characters could be the reason, so maybe colloquially Chinese is easier than it seems when you have to learn to write it. As for Spanish, which I study on my own, it is the easiest natural language that I am learning. You would also think that having tones would make Chinese more difficult.

    A side note: I live about 10 miles from DLI and know people who work there.

  4. maki says:

    I agree with that article.
    Japanese is really more difficult than Chinese…
    I tried to study it for many times, but that enormous number of prefixes, suffixes and many other little particle made me scared.
    Chinese, instead, is simple! There is just one numeber system (in Japanese 2: the sino-japanese:ichi, ni, san… and the “pure” Japanese:hitotsu, futatsu, mitsu…)
    In Chinese, to be polite, you have to say “nin” instead that “ni”…or you can also add the word “gui” (literally “precious”) and you get the polite form!!
    ok…there are the tones..a big difficult, but if you do many many and many exercise, you get a good pronunciation too. then, in japanese, how many writing systems do you have to use and know? no 1, no 2, but……..3!!!
    poor japanese children…they have to know katakana, hiragana and kanji…and to speak english? They learn romaji!!!
    are you sure, BG, that chinese is more difficult than japanese? in chinese you study the ideograms and that’s all…and you haven’t to know when use this, when use that system…ok…that’s my opinion… bye bye!

  5. renato figueiredo says:

    I do agree with the article completely; Chinese is easier to learn than Japanese, and as you mentioned Spaish and German. I would say that if I have to choose between talking in Chinese or German, I will always prefer Chinese, in spite of German being an Indo European language, written with Latin alphabet, but I consider German really difficult.

  6. David Thin says:

    I don’t know… I can speak Hungarian, English and German and also learn Japanese (and other languages), but I’ve always thought that Chinese’s much more difficult than Japanese, not to mention German…
    Who knows, maybe I’ll learn Chinese as well in the future? 🙂

  7. Jose says:

    I am not so sure about Japanese being more difficult… I am Spanish and the pronunciation of Japanese is a lot easier for me to understand and speak than Chinese with its four tones.

    Judge by yourselves, here are the main differences I see between the two languages:

    For me, Japanese pronunciation is definitely easier. Chinese has very similar sounds (x/sh, q/ch, zh/j, etc.), four tones and a lot of homophone words.

    In this respect, Chinese is probably easier. Japanese has conjugations, postpositions, honorifics, etc. Chinese is an isolating language, that means that its morphology is really simple.

    Both languages have difficulties:
    –To have a command of Chinese writing, it is necessary to know an amount of 3000-4000 characters.
    –Japanese is written with 3 writing systems: two syllabaries and Hanzi or Chinese-origin characters. The government in Japan designated some 2000 characters as compulsory. However, the difficulty is that most characters, unlike in Chinese, can be read in two or more different ways, depending on which other characters or endings they are attached to.
    However, in some magazines the pronunciation of characters is written above them to facilitate reading (furigana), and it is much easier to write foreign names using katakana syllabary than in Chinese.

  8. Mike Lee says:

    Being Chinese my self, I find Japanese somehow easier than any other languages. And so does most Chinese people. Over 6 million people take standard Japanese language test each year.
    One advantage Chinese people have over learning Japanese is that we don’t have to learn the charators but just some slightly different meanings. Pronunciation is no problem either. And once I mastered the simple grammar (Simple to me anyway, and much easier than Romance Languages.) , there’s no problem deciphering most Japanese texts.
    I do admit that understanding spoken Japanese is hard at first, for like Chinese, Japanese “flows” rapidly, and words are mostly bi-syllable.

  9. BG says:

    @Maki: I don’t know whether Chinese or Japanese is harder, I just said that I had always heard that Chinese was harder.

    @Jose: The (x/sh, q/ch, zh/j, etc.) are all in complimentary distribution. This means that while pronounced slightly different they shouldn’t be confused. For example: x, q, j can only come before i and ü, while sh, ch, zh can only come before a, e, u and the apical i (pronounced as a continuation of the consonant gliding into [ɨ]). I am not saying that Chinese pronounciation is easier than Japanese or vice versa. Both have their difficulties.

    I personally have found German and Spanish to be easier than Chinese as an English speaker with knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek, simply because everying: grammar, vocabulary, writing, and even pronunciation (to an extent) are all related and similar, even if the morphology of English and Spanish have been simplified from German and Latin. Whether Chinese is easier than Japanese I don’t know.

  10. Cakra says:

    Honorifics in Chinese are much easier than ones in Japanese. Chinese grammar is simple as it is isolating language. in my opinion, difficulties in Chinese are tone(forspeakers of languages which is nottonal) and writing system. But ‘Kanji’ also has some difficulty. One ‘Kanji’ can be pronounced in many, up to context.

    人(man) hito, nin
    日本人(Japanese) nihon-jin
    一人(one person) hitori

  11. dacholo says:

    hmm, that’s good to know. I am fluent in Japanese and learning Korean right now. Off topic, but knowing Japanese helps in learning Korean.

    anyway, it just seems to me to be more difficult to learn Chinese because of the different pronunciations – a, A, uh? and the lack of phonetics to use as training wheels while learning the language. hmm, time to try Chinese.

  12. BG says:

    @Dacholo: You can use pinyin (or other systems) as training wheels, it is just not official in China the way the Japanese systems are.

  13. Weili says:


    Hanyu Pinyin is indeed a good phonetic “training wheels” for learning Mandarin Chinese. It IS official in mainland China as it’s used in school textbooks and for Romanizing Chinese names. Sometimes you can even see signs written in Hanzi and Pinyin although those are rare. Chinese dictionaries from mainland China are even organized by Hanyu Pinyin.

    Of course, there is also Zhuyin Fuhao used in Taiwan, which has the same sounds as Hanyu Pinyin as both were designed for Mandarin but instead of being written in Roman letters, it’s written in extremely simplified “characters”, usually no more than 2 strokes.

    I’m not sure about what you mean by “different pronunciations”. Are you referring to tones? It seems to me many people who have NOT learned Chinese but are aware of tones automatically label it difficult without ever tried actually learning it.

  14. Weili says:

    “Japanese culture adds to the burden. The Japanese don’t like to just come right out and make blunt statements. They talk around the subject. By comparison, Chinese speakers and English speakers are very much alike. They tend to be direct and precise. Although this is a matter of culture, it has a big impact on the ease or difficulty of learning the language of a particular culture.”

    While that is the case today, for better or worse, it hasn’t always been like this. Chinese culture changed greatly in the past few centuries.

    Anyone who have read classical Chinese literature or are familiar with traditional Chinese culture would know that it’s actually quite impolite to be blunt and straightforward. This was changed in recent history however, especially in mainland China. IMHO, Chinese culture in Taiwan is slightly more “traditional” than that in mainland China.

    Having grown up in Taiwan though, I was still somewhat shocked at how blunt and straightforward Americans are when I first came to the U.S.

  15. James says:

    I grew up in an indirect society which values “negative politeness” (not saying something, not getting in people´s way etc) and have gradually come to prefer the more direct approach and “positive politeness” (saying the compliment that comes through your head rather than thinking it might be taken the wrong way). So much time is wasted by indirectness, and yes, I know that sometimes it´s necessary.

  16. BG says:

    @Weili: I didn’t know how much Hanyu Pinyin is in China. My Chinese teacher is always saying that we have to learn the characters because the Pinyin isn’t actually used, although she did say kids learned it, but then many forgot it.

    Taiwan seems more traditional to me because they use the traditional characters.

  17. Weili says:

    @BG: Yes, unlike Japanese Hiragana and Katakana, Hanyu Pinyin is mostly used as a learning tool for both children and foreigners. The only other official use for Hanyu Pinyin is to romanize Chinese names.

    Unless a Chinese person never use a dictionary to type Chinese on the computer in his or her whole life, I don’t see how one can forget Hanyu Pinyin. It’s not difficult especially if you already know Chinese.

    There are still the RARE occasions where you’ll see Hanyu Pinyin above or below Hanzi like I stated above. One should definitely not rely on Hanyu Pinyin to get around though.

    “Traditional Chinese” isn’t even called as such in Taiwan 🙂 Instead it’s called 正體字 Zhengtizi (Standard characters). Mainland China used Traditional Chinese until around the 60’s when they formalized and adopted Simplified Chinese mostly for political reasons although they claim it’s to reduce illiteracy. While I’m sure eliminating illiteracy is PART of their goal but I hardly think adopting Simplified Chinese was a key part as Taiwan and Hong Kong, both regions that use Traditional Chinese, have almost 100% literacy rate. 😛

  18. BG says:

    My teacher was probably talking about people in her generation, before computers. I don’t think literacy is as much related to the use of simplified or traditional characters as to the political, socio-economic factors, etc. That said, I find it quite a bit easier to write simplified over traditional characters. We’re learning to recognize and write simplied, and also to recognize some traditional, but our character worksheets have us write traditional a few times as well.

  19. Weili says:

    I’m not sure how old your teacher is but I do know a few mainland Chinese who are in their 40’s and older and it’s true that people of that generation may not know Hanyu Pinyin too well, not only because of lack of computers during their youth but also because Pinyin was still relatively new when they received their basic education. Some of them were even taught Zhuyin Fuhao in school! 😀

  20. BG says:

    She’s in her 40’s I think.

  21. I'mBored says:

    To be honest, I think Mandarin or Cantonese is waaaaaaay easier than Japanese. I think so because, the Chinese grammar is similar to English. The Chinese language doesn’t have CRAZY particles unlike SOME LANGUAGE I KNOW! And, I think learning tones aren’t that bad….:) And the worst part in the Japanese grammar is *drum roll* THE SENTENCE ORDER! Chinese sentence order is like English, but drops a few words
    Chinese grammar example.
    I am happy- I happy(wo kuai le)
    Japanese grammar example:
    I love cats- I cats love.
    See the difference?…..I think you do. So, that is why I think Chinese is WAAAAY easier (Easier than English!)

  22. ratbert says:

    There are many factors making Japanese, and Korean (which I have learned) much harder than learning Chinese (which I have also learned). Culturally, Korean people are much more immersed/constrained by etiquette, which makes learning that much more awkward. Chinese remind me more of Americans in this regard: if I make a mistake they will say “Huh? Oh, you said that wrong!” while in Korea (and I assume in Japan), the person might smile awkwardly and pretend to understand, aborting the conversation without me really being sure what went wrong. That is a huge factor in language learning.

    Secondly, in terms of grammar, it is no contest: Japanese and Korean are much more complex. Just linking phrases and clauses requires knowing a myriad of connecting devices. In Chinese, you learn three words: I eat fish, put them together with absolutely no changes, conjugations, polite forms bla bla bla, and you have a sentence. All one has to do is visit foreigners in Japan and Korea and then those in China/Taiwan, and one sees right away that far more foreigners are learning Chinese than Korean or Japanese.

    A lot of people assume Chinese is “difficult” because it is unfamiliar. These concepts are completely different. The unfamiliar becomes familiar with the simple passage of time and contact. But something difficult is still difficult with familiarity. Chinese is different but, in my opinion, not extremely difficult. Four tones? big deal! Once one has trained in them, it just becomes part of the memorization of the word, just like learning which syllables to stress in English. And by the way: one can learn Chinese without learning to write it — or even read it.

    Finally, learning to read Chinese is not that hard, while it is time consuming. Its complex characters actually aid in memorization (even if they make writing harder). You will never mistake two characters once learned. You can randomly take any two characters without understanding them and see the differences between them. There is a visual element to it that the mind is very quick to recall. By contrast, one can learn a foreign alphabet, but it is just mouthing sounds with no clue to meaning. Once one gets a handle on some of the visual elements, one can climb the once-frightening tree of Chinese characters.

    There are so many aspects to language learning, including the propensity and personality and talents of the learner. Learning to read and learning to speak are almost completely separable as well.

  23. Nick says:

    I’ve been learning Chinese for about 4 years now: five semesters at uni in Australia, 2 months in Kunming and nearly a year in Taipei. I’ve just started learning Japanese through self-study books and tapes – which I intend to supplement with a night school class here in Sydney and possibly work in Japan for six months to a year. Though I’ve only just started, the biggest problem for me, like Chinese, is not the writing system or grammar, but the sounds – not the basic phonetics (though I’m not perfect on them yet), but the pitch accent, which while not as difficult as Chinese tones is still difficult for tone-deaf me. I’ll probably have more to say about comparisons between the languages when I’ve studied a bit more.

    Small Question for Simon: I’m working my way through ‘Colloquial Japanese’ and have just bought ‘Japanese for Busy People’ (3rd Ed.), which has some small differences in the kana – in that さ and き are written without linking the bottom line to the rest of the character. Wikipedia tells me this is a variation possible in handwriting; what I want to ask you is:
    Do you know how common it is to not link them, and does this occur much in printed work?

    PS and how do I type those incomplete forms? Can I do it through MS languages?

  24. PP says:

    Nick: Something to train your ears.

  25. Simon says:

    Nick – I haven’t seen any fonts in which those two kana aren’t linked, but in cursive handwriting they are often written unlinked, as you can see here.

  26. Nick says:



    PP, thanks as well, will give it a go – I’ll try anything if it helps

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