Japan Today

Japanese, Korean, Chinese: Which language is the easiest to learn?

By Marie Meg

Like the majority of people attracted to Japan’s culture, I grew up with manga and anime. At that time back in 2006, Korean or Japanese weren’t really popular languages. Chinese, on the other hand, was marketed as THE language of opportunity. Many high schools in France, including mine, offered it as an “extra-foreign” language.

Because I was in a weeaboo denial phase, convincing myself that I liked “Asian culture in general” and not just the Japanese one, I chose to study Chinese for my whole three years of high school in the hopes that it would prepare me for my ultimate weeb goal: study Japanese at university—which I did next.

Everything was going fine until a third element joined the group: the Hallyu or Korean culture wave which spread K-pop, K-beauty, and K-drama all over the world. My weeaboo-ism, combined with the stress of learning Japanese “the hard way” (aka you must score 100% on all exams otherwise the rest of your life is pretty much doomed), mutated into a koreaboo-ism because of it.

I was stuck between my Japanese major (or at least the end of it), barely keeping up with three years of Chinese study so that I could make something of my life AND indulging myself completely in shiny new K-culture. My genius solution? Study Korean, Chinese, and Japanese at the same time. They’ve got to be pretty similar, right?

As it turns out. Yes and no. Luckily I made it out of that linguistic black hole with a few ideas on which one is easiest that I’m going to share with you.

Let the battle begin!

Round One: Reading

Kanji, Hanja, and Hanzi. No, these are not the names of The Three Musketeers translated into Japanese but the labels for logograms—characters that symbolize a phrase or word—respectively in Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

Hanzi is the derivative Chinese term for Kanji and Hanja. It literally means the characters of the “Han,” the most powerful ethnic group at the time when China began to export its culture beyond its borders. The Hanzi is a collection of more than 7,000 characters you’ll use for everything (if you exclude the variations and ancient forms written in old books that make the total number over 100,000 characters). You have to learn each of the 7,000 characters one by one to be able to navigate the Chinese world efficiently.

On the other side of the sea, there are 2,136 commonly used Kanji characters in the Japanese language, called the Joyo kanji which are derived from Chinese Hanzi. Along with those are the kana, characters for vocal syllables that include 46 hiragana, also derived from Chinese characters but KonMaried to their most minimalistic forms, and 46 katakana (which are mostly there just to make foreigners cringe).

Each Kanji also have two different readings: the ON-yomi, from Chinese origin, and the KUN-yomi, purely from Japanese origin. An easy way to know when you should use which is to remember that KUN readings are usually used when the word is alone or combined with kana. The ON reading is only used when kanji are combined together.

That said ON and KUN are not limited to just one reading. For example, a simple kanji like 上 (ue), meaning above, can have three ON readings (josho, and shan) and six KUN readings (ueuwakaminoboruagarutatematsuru). Yup.

Because of these three “alphabet” systems, you can get away with learning only some of the Joyo kanji plus kana and still be able to understand what you read without going back and forth on your dictionary.

Korean has 24 letters, namely Hanguls, with 14 consonants and 10 vowels. That’s it! The Hanja are not used as much as before nor taught in school anymore. You’ll find Hanja only for abbreviation or for stylistic reasons (to save space for example), or in specific professions such as law or medicine.

On top of that, the written system has spaces. You can, therefore, look up a word more easily than in Japanese or Chinese where in most cases you don’t know where the word ends or begins, or even how to spell it.

Verdict: Korean is the easiest to read

Round Two: Writing

Click here to read more.

© GaijinPot

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We studied all three languages during college and here's my humble opinion on it. Korean is the easiest since it has no Kanji and pronounciations are easy. Japanese is a couple of notches tougher since there are three writing styles and memorizing and writing Kanji is challenging. Mandarin is by far the toughest since you have four intonations for every word, get it wrong and you can something totally off, Oh, and every word is in Kanji.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I am one of those who finds learning languages very difficult. Even my native English is challenging. That said, I like the idea of Korean having an actual alphabet. Wouldn't an alphabet be easier to learn than thousands of different characters?

4 ( +4 / -0 )

you have four intonations for every word

You have one intonation for every word (with some exceptions). If it’s a different intonation, it’s a different word.

I’ve also studied all three, and I found Mandarin the easiest as even though the pronunciation is tricky, the grammar is much simpler.

Korean I found the hardest, because the grammar is slightly more complex than Japanese (though similar), but the fact that it no longer uses Kanji (Hanja) actually makes it difficult to read, like reading Japanese in all hiragana or katakana.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Wouldn't an alphabet be easier to learn than thousands of different characters?

If you’d just talking about the scripts, then it’s easier to learn an alphabet than it is to learn thousands of different characters, yes.

However, because logographic scripts such as Chinese characters contain specific meanings rather than pronunciation, leading the characters actually has a cumulative benefit when it comes to learning new words.

With Chinese characters you can see a completely new word, but if you know the characters you can grasp the meaning straight away, which is much more difficult with an alphabet.

Both have their merits.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

As a native English speaker who has studied all three to a varying degrees: Japanese (15 years), Korean (3 years) and Chinese (1 year) - they all have various points that make them difficult.

Reading Japanese is probably one of those most difficult things because there's just so much involved in reading fluency for the language. It takes awhile to get use to the different readings and of course when you think you got it, it's a different reading! And there are words that mix both on and kun readings... Needless to say, it is definitely something you got to put a lot of time in to get proficient in.

Chinese pronunciation is tricky to get right. With 4 tones for Mandarin, people who don't speak a tonal language, it will take some time to get use to. It will require a lot of listening and practice. Even though I speak Thai fluently which has 5 tones, it still found the tones difficult.

Korean grammar is more involved and complicated than Japanese. With more irregular verbs and forms than Japanese, it takes awhile to get use to the conjugations. The listening is also tricky because what's written isn't always how its actually pronounced.

Anyway, these three languages are definitely life-long efforts.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

"Like the majority of people attracted to Japan’s culture, I grew up with manga and anime."

Stopped reading after the first nonsensical sentence. Do not know one person who fits this description, let alone a "majority"....

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Really it all boils down to what your personal strengths are. I know myself that I can pick up a language just by listening and speaking, but I have a very hard time learning a new writing system. Which is why my Japanese colleagues get very confused that I write like an elementary second grader when I am much more fluent while speaking.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Wouldn't an alphabet be easier to learn than thousands of different characters?

I'm also one of those that find languages difficult - even my native language at times. Yet regarding kanji, it wasn't long after arriving in Japan that I would glance at the kanji station names rather than the romaji versions when checking where I was. Difficult to learn initially, but once learned, very convenient in many situations. (Only about 50,000 station names to go.)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Wouldn't an alphabet be easier to learn than thousands of different characters?

I majored in Chinese in college and lived there for a while, so when I came to Japan, kanji was not a problem - it was an asset. When my kids were born and I had to read child's books composed exclusively in hiragana, I found it very difficult - where a word begins and ends, plus the endless number of homonyms that can't be deciphered without kanji. Japanese lends itself to kanji.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Mandarin is a beast to learn. I found Japanese much easier.

I don’t know much about language learning but I did notice my wife was far better at listening to Mandarin than me. She’s musically trained and has a very good ear.

Any connection or am I just stupider?

4 ( +4 / -0 )

All of my foreign friends who lived in Korea and Japan have told me Japanese was easier to learn. Even picking a country to live in they told me they prefer Japan over Korea.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Anybody who thinks Mandarin is tough should try Cantonese. There are six tones, nine if you count the three with glottal endings closely related to the ones found in Korean. Plus, the hardest part is the fact that written and spoken forms are completely different. Think Arabic.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I know some veterans who served in Asia and I've known many in college too. Writing wise Korean looks easiest since they use an alphabet. Japanese wouldn't be tough to learn if it wasn't for its writing, at least that's the indication I get. Still, kanji and hiragana are greatly simplified compared to the Chinese pictogram/ideogram writing system and there's not as many characters to learn. IOW, once you know them, you know them.

Chinese looks very complicated in every way - verbally, written, syntax, everything. You have to be exact in tone, stress, sound and in character writing or you're really saying something else. Mandarin and Cantonese and the other dialects are so complex. There are literally thousands of symbols to learn here. There are many ignorant ideas and stupid juvenile racist jokes about the Chinese language in America but the fact is that it's so complicated and if your first language is a European one then with learning Chinese you have a tremendous challenge on your hands.  

Pukey2 Think Arabic

I know veterans who served in the Middle East and they tell me that despite the 'funny' looking alphabet Arabic really isn't as hard as it looks. You never can tell.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

In my experience

Learning to read and write, Korean

1 ( +1 / -0 )

You did not carefully researched languages anf letters commonly used China Korea and Japanese.

For example letter in Chinese Character meaning 'water' has same letter and meaning in China, or Korea or Japan. But pronuciation is different In China from in Korea or in Japan. Korean Hagul was made to the normal people learn and speak easily by The Great King Sejong in 1446. Before that we speak Korean but used Chinese letters to express something. That was terrible to the ubeducated people.

Korean uses 14 Consonants and 10 vowels by which Korean make any sounds and colors and gestures.

Within 3 hour peactice you can speak and write Korean easily.


Visual Pattern Language Center

Steven Sooil Ahn


0 ( +2 / -2 )

I have several Japanese CDs of rock'n'roll music. Some of them come with bonus tracks, a plus! I enjoy looking at the booklet essays and lyric translations. Some English words have no counterpart in or just do not exist in Japanese and it's fun to 'compare'.

I also have a Taiwanese CD copy of 'The Long Run' by the Eagles released in 1979. It has Chinese characters on the cover and in the booklet and I can't even try to read anything there! It's tougher.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

it is Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is the easiest language as there is no characters to remember, we use the normal a b c d etc ... Japanese Korean and Chinese you will need to remember all the characters ... I know a little bit of Chinese and learn Japanese in high school but i love those characters ... so if you dont want to learn new characters, start learning Bahasa Indonesia ... good luck people!!!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I will think about learning another language when I have finished learning English!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

While I have great admiration for anyone who is fluent in more than one language, I would be happy if I could just master English. I think my brain is wired more for thinking in concepts and images than in words.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Seeing as how you can teach yourself Korean in 30 minutes and then start reading things. I'm going to say Korean.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Novita HalimDec. 14 01:21 pm JSTit is Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is the easiest language as there is no characters to remember, we use the normal a b c d etc ... Japanese Korean and Chinese you will need to remember all the characters ... I know a little bit of Chinese and learn Japanese in high school but i love those characters ... so if you dont want to learn new characters, start learning Bahasa Indonesia ... good luck people!!!

Doesn't Vietnamese also use Roman letters too? Just asking.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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