Chinese Korean Japanese

China, Japan and Korea are three countries with a long and interconnected history. At different times, these three countries have influenced or been influenced by one another. But what does that mean for us as language learners? 

Understanding the similarities between Chinese, Korean and Japanese can help us learn them more easily and quickly. We can use our knowledge of one language to help us take our first steps into another. 

For example, did you know that all three languages have used Chinese characters at some point in the past? But does that mean Japanese and Korean use Chinese writing today? Yes and no. Let’s take a look at all three languages to understand their writing systems a little better.

Chinese Hanzi   

Hanzi are the characters which make up the Chinese language. Unlike English, which uses an alphabet, Chinese uses thousands of unique characters which each have individual meanings. 

For example, in English while we would put together the letters l-o-v-e to spell love, in Chinese they would simply use the character: 爱. 

This means that Chinese learners need to learn thousands of unique characters to be able to read. In fact, by elementary school, Chinese children have memorised roughly 2,500 Hanzi characters!

Korean Hanja

Until about 500 years ago, Koreans used a Chinese writing system called Hanja. Today, however, Korean mainly uses a phonetic alphabet called Hangul. 

Luckily for Korean learners, Hangul is highly phonetically regular. This makes reading pronunciation easy once you’ve mastered the basic letters. It was deliberately designed to be easy enough for everyone, regardless of education level, to read. 

Chinese writing still has its place in Korean language, though it’s become less common over the years.

Japanese Kanji

You may have guessed by now that Japanese also has its own Chinese-inspired writing system. This system is called Kanji. 

Kanji is a part of everyday life for Japanese people. It can be seen everywhere from comic books to advertisements to public toilets. 

However, as well as Kanji, Japanese speakers also use two additional phonetic alphabets! Hiragana is used for native Japanese words. Katakana is used for foreign words such as foreign names and loan-words from other languages.

How does it help?   

The major benefit of sharing a script (like Japanese and Chinese do) is that if you know one, you can read the other. 

For example, the phrase ‘Japanese person’ in Japanese is pronounced ‘nihonjin’. In Chinese, it’s pronounced ‘rìběn rén’. You may think, ‘These words sound nothing alike!’ However, because both Japanese and Chinese share a script, they are spelt exactly the same.

In Chinese: ‘日本人’

In Japanese: ‘日本人’

Even though they are pronounced differently, the fact that they are spelt the same means Japanese and Chinese people can read parts of one another’s language and understand it. Neat, right? The same thing goes for Korean speakers who know Hanja (the Chinese influenced Korean script) even though it’s more rarely used in Korean these days. 

Shared vocabulary from Chinese 

Even though actual Chinese writing is rarer in Korea today, Korean still takes a lot of words from Chinese. Do you remember the Hanja we were talking about earlier? Those are basically Chinese root words which have influenced Korean vocabulary. Let’s take a look at one:

인 pronounced as ‘in’ means ‘person’ in Korean. In Chinese, its equivalent is 人- pronounced as ‘ren’.

Japanese, also takes some words from Chinese. With our 人 ‘ren’ example, the Japanese equivalent is じん. It’s pronounced ‘jin’

So, ‘ren’, ‘in’ and ‘jin’. While these three words aren’t pronounced exactly the same, hopefully you can see the similarity between them. 

Having some knowledge of Chinese can help you guess at the meaning of words in Korean and Japanese. If you have some knowledge of Japanese or Korean, you can also make an educated guess about the meaning of some Chinese words. How cool is that?

But the benefit of knowing one of these languages doesn’t stop there. These Chinese root words (‘ren’, ‘in’ and ‘jin’) appear in so many other words in all three languages. For example:

Chinese: 巨人 jùrén’

Korean: 거인 ‘ko-in’

Japanese: 巨人 ‘kyojin’

English: Giant (literally ‘big person’)

Chinese: 人气 rénqì’

Korean: 인기 ‘inki’

Japanese: 人気 ‘ninki’

English: Popularity (literally ‘person energy’)

Chinese: 人口 rénkǒu’

Korean: 인구 ‘ingu’

Japanese: 人口 jinkō’

English: Population (a combination of ‘person’ and ‘mouth’. Each person’s mouth equals one member of the population) 

Lindie Botes, a Youtuber and polyglot who speaks Chinese, Japanese and Korean and a few other languages, gives this piece of advice: “Learning these 3 languages together is not as hard as it sounds if you understand how Chinese characters work as building blocks to build more words.

It makes it easier to guess the meaning of new words too. It’s not so much the sound that I focus on, but the meaning of the building block character. So, for example, any word that contains ‘in’ in Korean has something to do with people.”

For more expert advice on learning these languages, Lindie has a great Youtube channel.

Politeness in Japanese and Korean

Filial piety (in Chinese script “孝 – xiào”) is the virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders and ancestors introduced into East Asia through Confucianism in 300.b.c. Respect for elders is an important idea in East Asian culture. It comes across in the manners and languages of all three countries- China, Japan and Korea- in different ways.

In Japan and Korea, there are pretty explicit levels of politeness in speech. To be polite, the speaker has to change their level to show appropriate respect to the person they’re speaking to. This isn’t so different to English, really. After all, you probably wouldn’t speak to your grandmother the way you would speak to your best friend. 

The biggest difference is how Japanese and Korean speakers show politeness in speech. In English we might use indirect language and longer sentences to show politeness. In Japanese and Korean they change verb endings instead. Let’s look at an example.

Imagine you’re at the cinema with a close friend. You’re thirsty so you ask them to pass you a bottle of water. This is an informal setting, so you might say:

English: Pass me the water

Korean: 물 좀 줘 ‘mul jom jwo’ 

Japanese: 水ちょだい ‘mizu chodai’

This time imagine you’re at a job interview. Again, you’re thirsty but you’re in a much more formal setting this time. Here’s how you might politely ask for water without ruining the interview: 

English: May I have some water, please? 

Korean: 물 좀 주세요 ‘mul jom juseyo’

Japanese: 水をください ‘mizu o kudasai

As you can see, the real change in the Japanese and Korean sentences come in how the verbs at the end of the sentence are conjugated. The rest of the sentence stays pretty much the same.

Chinese is more casual

In Chinese, however, understanding formalities and how to speak to elders/superiors is less strictly a necessity. 

Unlike Japanese and Korean etiquette, bowing and honorific language is less common and you don’t have to edit your sentence in order to talk to someone above you. Bowing, for example, is seen as a bit too formal for everyday situations since the cultural revolution, it is more commonly seen in extraordinary situations such as paying respect to your ancestors or at a funeral. 

However, that’s not to say there isn’t a politeness (“礼貌 – lǐ mào”) system in place. There are many unspoken rules. For example, if elders don’t ask, you don’t speak. If the elders aren’t eating at the dinner table then you don’t eat. You walk behind elders and not in front of them.

In terms of Chinese language, there aren’t too many uniquely formal words but there is one that is quite common; the formal version of saying “you” or “hello”. The chinese character “你 – nǐ” means “you” and it forms together with the word “好 – hǎo” meaning “good” to create the word “hello”. When addressing someone formally (this could be a boss or a client etc…) the word you “你 – nǐ” combines with the character for heart “心 – xīn” to form “您 – nín” and therefore a more formal and sincere hello “您好 – nín hǎo” is created (so “hello with heart”).

Word order in Chinese

Learning Chinese is incredibly difficult. In fact, it has long been declared the world’s hardest language to learn for English speakers! But English speakers can at least sigh a (little) bit of relief when it comes to sentence structure in Chinese. 

Luckily, for many simple cases, the basic word order of Chinese sentences is the same as English. Both languages use a subject-verb (SV) or subject-verb-object (SVO) formula for making simple sentences. 

If you translate sentences literally from Chinese to English, they are incredibly simple and easy to understand. For example, in English “I’ll go see a doctor” would be “我要去看医生 – wǒ yào qù kàn yī shēng” literally translated word-for-word it is “I will go see doctor”. Simple, right? (Well, don’t get too excited as this may be one of the only easy parts of learning Chinese as an English speaker).

Word order in Japanese and Korean

Unlike Chinese and English, Japanese and Korean both follow a subject-object-verb (SOV) word order. This means that in Japanese and Korean the verb comes at the end of the sentence. Let’s look at an example to compare. 

English: I eat an apple.

Korean: 저는 사과를 먹어요 ‘jonun sagwa-rul mogoyo’ 

Japanese: 私は りんごを食べます ‘watashi-wa ringo-o tabemasu’  

In both the Japanese and Korean sentences, ‘I eat an apple’ becomes ‘I an apple eat.’ This might feel unfamiliar for English speakers at first- like Yoda from Star Wars is narrating the sentence. But once you get used to it, it feels natural. It can even be helpful when translating between Japanese and Korean. 

June Park, a native Korean speaker who also speaks Japanese, says: “After learning the words, it’s not hard to translate Korean to Japanese on a basic level.”

Lindie even studied Japanese through Korean: “Since Korean and Japanese grammar are similar, it was much faster for me to understand certain grammar structures in Japanese because I could reference Korean as a model. It would have been harder if I learnt Japanese through English.’

So, how similar are they?

Because Japanese and Korean have Chinese roots, there’s a lot of similar vocabulary between these three languages. Linguists believe that around 60% of Korean words and 50% of Japanese words come from Chinese. So if you know one of these languages, it gives you a massive head-start when learning the others.

There are also striking similarities between Japanese and Korean grammar and word order which will help speakers of one learn the other. 

While knowing one of these languages won’t automatically grant you fluency in another, the similarities between them will definitely speed up your learning progress.

Which one should you learn?

For anyone who might be wondering which language to start with, that’s a question only you can answer. 

Our advice is to look at your personal interests first. Do you have a burning passion for K-pop? A love of Japanese anime? Perhaps you’re fascinated by Chinese philosophy? Whatever your motivations, these three languages offer a rewarding experience for anyone looking to learn them.

We also have occasional Chinese, Japanese and Korean language groups at SPEAK to help you get started. The road to fluency may be long, but the journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step. We’re here if you ever want to take that step.

Don't stop here! If you would like to learn more about the similarities between languages, you might also like "How Similar are Spanish and Portuguese?".

Contributor/Editor: Jessica Milsom

Author: Peter Gaches-Tooley

Peter is a marketer and writer at SPEAK London. He has 3 passions in life: Learning languages, storytelling and eating far too much food.

Author: Jessica Milsom

Jess is a marketer at SPEAK. She is from England, Shanghai, The Netherlands, Taiwan, and now Portugal. But actually, don’t ask her where she is from, it’s a long story. She is a good listener, an open-minded communicator, and a fruitful debater. And her favourite pastime is watching k-pop music videos with a warm cup of tea.

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