Learning Asian languages such as Mandarin Chinese or Japanese continue to be on a huge growth curve, with many foreigners trying to decide how to select one or the other. But which one should you choose?
Well, we are very happy to invite Jana, who keeps a blog called Adventures of the Directionally Challenged, to discuss the topic: Should I learn Mandarin or Japanese? Jana can speak both Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.
Hi Jana, here we go, some questions for you:
(1) We know a lot of our readers would like to ask this: is it harder to learn Japanese or Mandarin Chinese?
Different people struggle with different things, so I think it probably depends on what you personally find the most difficult. Japanese has a complex grammar that’s completely different from western languages as well as a very complex writing system, but Japanese pronunciation is actually quite simple with very few unusual sounds to master (and no tones)! Chinese, on the other hand, has a very simple grammar with no verb conjugations or other such difficulties. The Chinese writing is by no means easy to master, but it is more logical and streamlined than the Japanese system. However, Chinese pronunciation is quite difficult with many unusual sounds as well as tones. So people who really struggle with grammar will probably find Japanese more difficult, while people who struggle more with pronunciation will be more challenged by Mandarin.
(2) In your opinion, how similar, or different, are Chinese (Mandarin) and Japanese?
They are extremely different. The two languages have no grammatical similarities whatsoever. However, there are several cognates between them thanks to Japan’s adoption of the Chinese writing system. Many words are written using the same characters and even sound similar, and since such words increase the more you get into specialized vocabulary, a speaker of one of these languages would have a significant advantage learning vocabulary in the other.
(3) How long have you been studying Japanese and Chinese? How is your progress with each language so far?
I began learning Japanese over 15 years ago, and now live in Japan and use Japanese every day. Since I live in the country and speak the language at an advanced level, I don’t really need to “study” it anymore– I simply use it naturally. My Chinese is less advanced, probably around a B2 level on the CEFR scale. I began learning it about 8 years ago in university and have gone back to it on and off ever since, having studied in China briefly and also lived in Taiwan for about a year. I haven’t studied Chinese for a while but keep meaning to go back and master it!
(4) Is it easier to learn Chinese after learning Japanese or vice versa?
I learned Chinese after Japanese, which I think was the best way for me personally simply because I had a stronger interest in Japanese, so for me it was the best “gateway” into Asian languages. I think that if you have a stronger personal interest in one language or the other, you should definitely start with that one because subjective motivation is more important than any objective advice about which language is “easier”. The easiest language is the one you want to learn the most! However, if you are simply determined to learn both languages and have no particular preference, I would recommend starting with Chinese because it is the language that uses Chinese characters in the most logical way, and already knowing the characters will give you a huge advantage in learning Japanese.
(5) For those who are still considering whether to learn Japanese or Chinese, what’s the best advice you would like to share with them?
I would simply echo my answer to the above question and recommend going with whichever language is the most interesting to you personally. If you really have no particular personal leanings, perhaps you could start by learning more about the cultures attached to each language: Read books about Japan and China, watch films and documentaries, listen to music, etc. Try to make Chinese and Japanese friends, and travel to Japan and China if you have the means to do so. See if you can find something that pulls you in, and go for it!
(6) We understand you are now living in Japan. Are you concerned you may start to forget how to speak Mandarin? For other people who may have similar experiences, how do you deal with this sort of challenge when you don’t live around other people speaking, say, Chinese?
I definitely have this concern, and I’ll admit I need to do a better job of dealing with it! Being in the Tokyo area, though, it’s actually not that hard to find speakers of Chinese and other languages. I often use a website called meetup.com where you can find groups of people who get together to speak certain languages or immerse themselves in certain cultures. But if you live in a place where you really can’t meet speakers of your target language in person, you can always try to make friends online and chat over Skype. You can also keep yourself from getting rusty by doing passive things like watching movies or reading books in the language.
(7) We believe you can speak several different languages. Are there any common mistakes people are more likely to make when they start to learn a new language?
I think a common mistake of “amateur” language learners (people learning their first foreign language) might be relying on transliterations or other inaccurate approximations of pronunciation, and not taking the time to really listen and try to imitate the sounds of a language exactly as they are. I think it’s really important to listen a lot in the beginning, understand that you’re going to have to put in some work trying to make strange sounds, and get feedback to make sure you’re pronouncing the sounds correctly or at least in a way that gets you understood. Don’t try to learn in a vacuum!
(8) Increasing vocabulary seems one of the biggest challenges to learn any new language. Is there any effective way to deal with this?
There are many different methods for learning vocabulary, all of which many people swear by. But you will probably have to try several before you find one that’s right for you, because it really depends on your individual learning style. I think you have to know what your strengths are and play to them.
For example, there are some people who learn vocabulary with “memory palaces”, which use spacial memory to cement words in the mind by mentally “placing” them all around a familiar location (such as your apartment). This method seems to do wonders for a lot of people and I think it sounds like a really cool idea, but it doesn’t work very well for me personally because I have terrible spacial memory. I also don’t have the patience for things like flashcards or word lists, although many people swear by those as well.
Rather, my strength is a combination of novelty and intensity: I get a thrill out of delving into new subjects, so in the beginning stages of learning my tendency is to want to absorb as much information as quickly as I can. I use this to my advantage by simply inundating myself with material, the result being that I naturally absorb frequently used words without using any special techniques to remember them. It’s best for me to get “cumbersome” things like grammar and pronunciation out of the way in this beginning stage when the language is still new and exciting to me. In the intermediate and advanced stages, when the language itself is no longer a novelty to me, I can continue to use this principle by delving into some other interesting subject in the target language.
(9) Have you used any particular learning tools to learn Mandarin or Japanese? Which ones did you find most helpful?
My favorite learning tool for Mandarin is probably ChinesePod. They have tons of good quality podcasts covering a wide variety of subjects, so there’s sure to be something to interest everyone. It might not work as a standalone method for a beginner, but I would definitely recommend checking it out!
For Japanese, it’s been so long since I really “studied” this language that I honestly don’t know anymore… I’m sure a lot of new materials have been developed since then, and I’m not at all up to date on what’s out there. My first-ever resource for learning Japanese, though, was a website called japanese-online.com. It was simple but effective: I learned how to say “This is Mr. Suzuki’s camera,” and I was hooked. 🙂
(10)Have you ever hired a private language tutor or coach for learning either Chinese or Japanese? If so, do you think it was effective or worthwhile?
I have never hired a private tutor for either of these languages.
Many thanks Jana for answering our questions about the differences between learning Japanese or Mandarin and sharing your tips and advice.
After reading this, we believe that our readers and followers at Learn Mandarin Now will find it all that much easier to decide which of the two languages to study!