Chinese, Japanese and Korean are the three most studied Asian languages, but how similar are they? How much can learning one help you master the other two?
Where do these languages come from?
There are various theories about the origins of Korean, Japanese and Chinese languages, but nearly all linguists agree that they don’t share the same historical roots, but were three unrelated languages that have shared some features between each other over due to their prolonged contact and exposure over the centuries.
When it comes to pronunciation, Japanese is probably the easiest of the three. It only has five vowels あ/a, い/i, う/u, え/e, and お/o just like Spanish.
Korean gets a bit more creative withㅏ(a), ㅐ(e), ㅓ(eo), ㅔ(e:), ㅗ(o), ㅚ(ue), ㅜ(u), ㅟ(ui), ㅡ(eu), ㅣ(i).
Chinese throws in an extra level of fun with tones! This isn’t uncommon in the world’s languages; lots of languages like Thai, Vietnamese, Yoruba, and Mayan all use tones to distinguish between different words.
In Mandarin, this can lead to fun sentences like this: 石室诗士施氏，嗜狮，誓食十狮。Shí shì shī shì shī shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī. A poet in a stone room whose surname was Shi, loved lions, and swore to eat ten lions. This is from a poem written by a Chinese linguist who wanted to show how difficult it would be to read Chinese if they switched to using an alphabet.
Japanese grammar and Korean grammar actually work quite similarly. They both put the verb at the end, and use particles to show what function each word has in a sentence. Chinese sentences, on the other hand, have a structure much closer to English.
For example, this is how you would say “Every day, I feed bananas to the monkeys at the zoo“:
watashi-wa mainichi dōbutsuen-de osarusan-ni banana-no esa-o yatteimasu.
I-‘wa’ zoo-at every day monkeys-to banana-‘no’ feed-‘o’ give.
나는 매일 동물원에서 원숭이에게 바나나를 먹여요.
Na-neun maeil dongmulwoen-eseo woensungi-ege banana-rul moekyoeyo.
I-‘neun’ every day zoo-at monkey-to banana-‘rul’ feed.
I every day at zoo give monkeys banana.
So you probably noticed in the examples above that Japanese, Korean and Chinese all look pretty different.
Chinese uses characters which each represent a meaning, and these can be mixed together to create new words, as in the word for ‘zoo’ 动物园 (animal [lit. ‘moving thing’] park). Learn more about Chinese characters here! In order to read fluently in Chinese, you need to know around three to four thousand characters, but the characters you need to know might be a little different depending on where you are. In China, they use a simplified set of characters developed during the 20th Century, whereas in Taiwan and Hong Kong, people still use traditional characters, so in China “zoo” is written 动物园, but in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is would be 動物園.
Korean used to write using Chinese characters, but over the past few centuries, Koreans started using an alphabet called Hangul, which was developed for writing Korean in the 1440s. They put different letters together to make syllables and use spaces between words. Can you work out which letters represent which sounds in the word ‘banana’ – ‘바나나’?
The Japanese also used to use Chinese characters, or in Japanese, ‘kanji’ to write, but after a while, they decided that wasn’t working and decided to create a set of letters to write sounds and use together with ‘kanji’. And why have a set of a couple thousand Chinese characters plus a syllabary, when you can have a set of Chinese characters and two syllabaries?! They actually created a set of letters for Japanese words called Hiragana ひらがな and another for foreign words called Katakana カタカナ.
In modern Japanese, these scripts are all mixed up in sentences, just like in the sentence we saw before: 私は毎日動物園でお猿さんにバナナの餌をやっています。The word ‘zoo’ (動物園) is written in kanji, the word ‘give’ (やっています) is written in hiragana, and the word ‘banana’ (バナナ) is written in katakana.
Both Japanese and Korean have very different ways of saying things depending on how polite or respectful you want to be. Verbs even have different forms depending on who you are speaking to. Let’s look at a simple example: the word ‘to eat’.
Normal: 食べる taberu –> 食べます tabemasu (more polite)
Respectful: 召し上がる meshiagaru –> 召し上がります meshiagarimasu (more polite)
Humble: 頂く itadaku –> 頂きます itadakimasu (more polite – this is also the word used by Japanese people before they eat!)
Normal: 먹어 meogeo (informal) –> 먹어요 meogeoyo (normal) –> 먹습니다 meogseumnida (formal)
Respectful: 식사해 (informal) –> 식사해요 (normal) –> 식사하세요 (polite)
Very respectful (when talking about old people): 진지 드세요 (formal)
And that’s just the tip of the Korean politeness and respect iceberg!
In Chinese, you can forget about all that and use 吃 chī for pretty much all situations. Easy, right?
Now you have an idea of the differences between them, why not start learning one? Or even all three?!
Rob is Memrise‘s English Language Specialist, teaming up with the other language specialists to create language courses that will help you explore the world by unlocking your language superpowers. He also works with Memrise‘s Marketing Team to make fun videos and blog posts to inspire all the language learners out there.
In his spare time, he can usually be found learning languages – currently Hindi & Greek – and exploring the wonders that the London theatre and comedy scenes have in store.