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For those who speak both Chinese and Japanese, would first learning Chinese make it easier to learn Japanese?

Knowing that Japanese Kanji are derived from Chinese characters, how hard is it to do the opposite? Learning Mandarin after learning Japanese?

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More or less the same question at Japanese Language: – senshin Mar 12 at 23:41

11 Answers 11

up vote 24 down vote accepted

I think it would be easier to learn Chinese after learning Japanese and vice versa, because too many Chinese characters are used in Japanese. I would like to talk about this from three points.

  1. Pronunciations

    Usually, in Japanese, one character has 2 types of pronunciations, "音読 おんどく ondoku or 音読み おんよみ onyomi" and "訓読 くんどく kundoku or 訓読み くんよみ kunyomi". The 音読 (in Chinese, 音读) is similar to the pronunciation of the character in Chinese, because both modern Chinese and 音読 come from ancient Chinese (漢字を字音で読むこと。). 訓読 is the Japanese way of rendering the characters pronunciation, choosing the similar Japanese vocabulary in meaning to substitute (訓読は、漢字を、その意味にあたる日本語の読み方で読むこと。). This could be an advantage when you learn one of these two languages after you learnt one another.It can help you to remember the pronunciations. But it could be an obstacle in some cases, since the pronunciations of characters in Chinese also changed in the long history.

    Example: Character 人. In Japanese, its 音読 includes ニン nin () as in 人間の歴史 にんげんのれきし and ジン jin () as in 登場人物 とうじょうじんぶつ. These two variants, ニン and ジン, come from different times of ancient China; one of its 訓読 is ひと. In modern Mandarin, the pronunciation is "rén ㄖㄣˊ", however, I know in "吳語", the pronunciation is "nin", which proofs the ニン nin (呉). Anyway, this could also help you to remember the 音読. If you know "Nin" and "Jin" for "人", you may guess "nin" or "jin" for "仁" (actually, it's right!), because both "人" and "仁" have the similar sound in ancient/modern Chinese.

  2. Writing Characters

    Since Japanese uses a lot of Chinese Characters, it's an advantage for you to write down the characters if you have learnt one language. However, you still have to take care of some characters. Because both Japan and China conducted several reforms (i.e. simplification for better literacy, though in China some political motivation too, which is a controversial action) on traditional characters, and of course, they didn't negotiate with each other (though in fact, Chinese government did treat Japanese version as reference, e.g. 國 simplified to 国), so some characters are different after the simplification. One thing is for sure, simplified characters done in China is much more than those in Japan or Republic of Korea.

    Example: Character "对" in simplified Chinese while "対" in Japanese, the traditional being "對".

  3. Meanings of Characters

    In most cases, the meanings of a character in Japanese and Chinese are the same or almost the same. This is a big advantage. However, Japanese generally keeps meanings of a character in Classic Chinese, while in modern Chinese meanings of some characters have changed. In this case, the learner should pay extra attention to these characters, compared to a learner who doesn't know one another language, because his experience will lead him to a mistake.

    Examples: Japanese verb "走る はしる hashiru", which means "to run". In modern Chinese, we use "走" to mean "to walk" and use "跑" to mean "to run", however, in classic Chinese, "走" really can mean "to run", as in 戰国策·楚策·江乙對荆宣王:

    荊宣王問羣臣曰 吾聞北方之畏昭奚恤也 果誠何如 群臣莫對 江乙對曰 虎求百獸而食之 得狐 狐曰 子無敢食我也 天帝使我長百獸 今子食我 是逆天帝命也 子以我為不信 吾為子先行 子隨我後 觀百獸之見我而敢不走乎 虎以為然 故遂與之行 獸見之皆走 虎不知獸畏己而走也 以為畏狐也 今王之地方五千里 帶甲百萬 而專屬之昭奚恤 故北方之畏奚恤也 其實畏王之甲兵也 猶百獸之畏虎也

Compared with the advantages and disadvantages, I believe it could be easier to learn one language of these two after you have learnt one another.

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Great answer - I think you made some really good points. – Ciaocibai Dec 15 '11 at 3:28
Maybe it would be worth pointing out the wildly divergent grammar as a counterpoint. – Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 24 '12 at 15:04
It's a great answer. However I think for non-native speaker of either Chinese or Japanese, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. I would not recommend anyone to learn both languages at the same time. – NS.X. Jun 24 '12 at 20:31

I can throw in my personal experience here.

It is, without doubt, much easier to learn one and then the other. I learned Japanese before I learned Chinese, having studied for about 2 years before properly taking up Chinese (before that point I toyed with the idea and did some research, but never anything serious or long-term). The areas it's has helped are, to me:

1) Writing Hanzi

Japanase uses "kanji" (漢字) for roots of nouns and verbs, which it imported from China around 1500 years ago. You say kanji are "derived" from Chinese characters. Most of them are actually exactly the same. A small number follow simplifications nearly the same as on the mainland, and a very small number have simplifications unique to Japan.

By learning Japanese, I already knew about 1000 hanzi when i switched to Chinese. The simplifications were easy to get my head around because they conformed a lot to simple rules (with a few exceptions), and I easily also picked up traditional characters, as Japanese deviates from 繁字体 a lot less than the mainland.

My main complaint from other people about Chinese is hanzi (and grammar close behind). I already started Chinese with a big character library, and I've never had a problem with them. A lot of beginner Chinese vocabulary is just common sense, and this very much makes at least beginner level learning very easy to adapt to.

But, it's worth noting that the stroke order is pretty different between the two languages, and I've often been commented on by my Japanese teacher that I have bad stroke order when I'm just using the Chinese stroke order (and even then, the mainland has a different stroke order to Taiwan).

2) Vocabulary

Around 60% of Japanese words are 漢語[1], which is about 18% of speech[2]. This is comparable to how knowing Latin makes it easier to learn most European languages, all of which take some 20% of their words (usually more) from Latin roots.

Learning Japanese doesn't teach you a lot of fundamental vocabulary, but it's usually not impossible to figure out basic Chinese words' meanings. The technical language relates much more closely, in words such as 特別行政区、日本、and even 4 character proverbs such as 一日千秋. A lot of modern technical Japanese is more Anglicized, so not as easy to follow Chinese roots, however, but a lot of the slightly older or scientific terminology is very alike, and relatively easy to make the switch.

Also, you come to learn what characters mean by knowing Japanese equivalents. As mentioned already, verbs like 走る mean "run", contrasted with 走 in chinese.

3) Pronunciation (All dialects)

In these loanwords from Japanese, they also take (primarily) middle Chinese pronunciations of the characters. 漢字 "kanji" from "hanzi", 我慢 "gaman" from "ngaman" and so on. Japanese is much more complicated because it loans so much more from different areas and regions of China, so converting to exclusively one dialect is much easier (and there are far fewer pronunciations per character).

Another thing to note is that these pronunciations tend to be from middle chinese, seen as an ancestor to most dialects. Mandarin nowadays is a totally different language, but still resembles the sounds they once had, and the rules make it easy to guess how a chinese character sounds in any dialect, knowing even just one Japanese pronunciation. It doesn't help so much with tones though, but nothing really prepares you for those unless you know another Chinese dialect.

Examples include: /k/ in Japanese is very often /h/, or /j/ in words that used to be /k/ in Mandarin (like Peking -> Beijing), long vowels usually reflect -ng finals in Chinese. I have a longer post about these on Japanese Stack Exchange[3]

4) Languages get easier the more you know

The more languages you know, you tend to pick them up a lot faster. You get familiar with the type of grammatical structures any language can have, and just get your head around thinking in a different tongue to your native one. After learning Japanese and Chinese, Korean has quite simply been the easiest language I've ever learned, due to the ~60% vocabulary similarity, and near 90% grammar similarity to Japanese and Chinese. Even when I tried my hand at Russian, that was way easier too.

It's not just me; most people who are at least trilingual have similar experiences. I don't think I need to cite this one so much.

A long list, but pretty much why I think it's easier to learn one then the other. Because of the direction of loanwords though, I think Japanese to Chinese is much easier than Chinese to Japanese. I also have found a similar in switching to Korean that it's much easier after knowing other Asian languages.



[2] A study from 国立国語研究所 (National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics)


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It's also worth bringing up bitan (hitsudan, 笔谈,筆談)as something throughout the Chinese cultural sphere. It's not exactly common, but it comes in use when you need it, and it's in fact how Sun Yat-Sen communicated with Miyazaki Toten (宮崎滔天), who gave him the name 中山, and how Commodore Perry communicated to the Japanese when he went there (with a Chinese assistant who would write with a brush to communicate). – Shen Kuo May 11 at 21:33

You can look at the question from a number of different aspects:

  • Reading & Writing: as discussed, if you know Chinese then learning Kanji won't have such a high steep learning curve. However, having to deal with other writing systems makes it more difficult. If you know Japanese then it is easier to move to just one writing system.
  • Speaking & Listening: as discussed, the difficult part of speaking in Chinese is the different tonal accentuation so moving from Japanese to Chinese would be considered more difficult.
  • Grammar: since the grammar structure are different, it is difficult to say, but in general Chinese has the more loose grammar structure so some people may find it more difficult to learn, whereas the grammar structure is much more defined for Japanese. This is to the extent that people who know Korean and pretty much pick up Japanese grammar due to their similarity.
  • Expressions and idioms: This wasn't really mentioned in most of the answers, but I think understanding one language gives you a lot of insight into the nuances and cultural significance of the other language, of which there are significant overlap but also subtle differences (you can also compare this to Korean).
  • Diversity: Due to the geographical and cultural diversity of Chinese speakers, the language has come to develop two major writing systems (simplified and traditional) as well as a large number of related dialects and variations (Cantonese, Hokkien, etc). I would assume that if you learn standard Japanese there is less problem with communicating with other Japanese speakers compared to learning Chinese and being able to communicate with other Chinese speakers. This might also make learning Japanese a little bit easier compared with Chinese.
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As I'm a Chinese that knows a little Japanese. I can say both of them are not.

If you studying them together, you will be confused because they seem similar but are actually different.

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I learnt Japanese for five years before I started learning Mandarin, and it helped a lot! I had a huge advantage over the other students who were learning Mandarin as their first Asian language. I knew how Chinese characters were constructed, and how the radicals affect pronunciation and meaning. I understood lots of Chinese words that had Japanese equivalents, even if I couldn't pronounce them in Mandarin. I even managed to understand some spoken words that I'd never heard pronounced in Mandarin before. (I remember how impressed the class was when the beginning student understood the word 天气 spoken, when the rest of the class didn't understand...)

tl;dr, knowing intermediate-advanced Japanese makes learning Mandarin Chinese way easier.

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Yes, it is, from my personal experience.

I guess some basic knowledge is not enough, but if you're a native speaker or have a good knowledge of the language (I have N1), it helps a lot. For me, reading and writing is easy, just need to remember a new pinyin for the characters I already know. Sometimes I need to remember the simplified version of the character or a different meaning/usage for the same character in Japanese. But I feel is easy because I already "know" the character.

But Chinese pronunciation and tones are hard to learn, no matter if you speak Japanese or not. And sentence order. Another person already mentioned that Chinese is SVO, but the scarce chinese grammar makes sentence order very important in Chinese. That's another pain in the (my) ass.

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Beyond the characters and grammar structures, Japanese has different levels of speaking, Keigo, as it is known, allows a speaker to change one's politeness when speaking to someone in a higher or lower social status, i.e a boss to co-worker and even more adults to kids. Even more so the structures used are also intended to be used when talking about these people in the abstract to show respect. More in to grammar the intransitive and transitive verbs can be very difficult to learn. 開く and 開ける is an example of this, and can be very difficult to learn and to use without lots of practice. I have not really experienced either of these concepts in Chinese, as I am sure they exist, as sentence structures are very simple and more literal and more direct when speaking.

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Knowing Kanji can be both an advantage and otherwise.

Advantage: You get a good headstart in writing Chinese. If you have been studying Japanese for a while, you probably have a sense of the patterns of Kanji. Even more important is the patience you gained while learning them. (i.e. English speakers who had not enough exposure to Kanji find it more frustrating to memorize Hanzi.)

Disadvantage: Many characters are used differently in both languages, which can cause confusion.

I've learned Japanese before Chinese and knowing the latter hasn't really significantly made by studies considerably easier, since both are different in terms of grammar, pronunciation, etc.

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I found PART of the Japanese language easier to learn after studying Chinese.

Japanese has two basic strains, an "indigenous" strain, which its own hiragana and katagana script, and the "Chinese" based strain, in which the Japanese adopted the Chinese Hanzi as "Kanji" for many words, as well as a pronunciation similar to the Chinese for those words.

(Nearly) all Chinese Hanzi is part of the Japanese language, so someone with a knowledge of Chinese would be understood writing Hanzi. But it would be hard for the Chinese person to read (and hear) the non-Chinese part of the language, written in katagana and hiragana.

It's like saying that English has two strains, a Latin strain and a Germanic strain, and therefore, two words, e.g. "chair" and "stool," for many words. "Chair" comes from the French "chaise" and "stool" from the German "Stuhl." It's like saying that a French or German speaker could understand all the French/German derived words in the English language, and with some knowledge of English, could be understood using those words of his/her language that is part of English.

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Great comparation with Latin vs. German in the English case – Rodrigo Oct 20 at 16:46

I had studied Japanese before I began Chinese (My father has lived in Japan for 15 years). In my experience, apart from the muscle memory in drawing characters, there was very little transferable knowledge / skills from Japanese to Chinese.

My Japanese was extremely limited however, so this may be different for someone with advanced Japanese.

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Apart from the Kanji/Hanzi, that they (partly) have in common, concerning the written part, there is nothing that can really help you with the other language:

  • Chinese is pretty much SVO, Japanese is SOV;
  • Chinese has tones, Japanese has no tones. When speaking, sentences do have a certain "tone", but not phonemic, i.e. it doesn't totally change the meaning;
  • Chinese has one writing system (Hanzi), Japanese has 3 (Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji);

I can't come up with other substantial differences right now. But what I'm trying to say is that learning one or the other, won't give you a special advantage on the other one. You'll have some better knowledge about the characters they have in common but not all is always the same (pronunciation, strokes, meaning).

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I have been told one can get around in Japan if they can write in Traditional Chinese. – Orion Dec 14 '11 at 22:06
@NullUserException, you can understand a few things if you can read Chinese characters, even if you only know simplified ones. I remember I could guess where was the bathroom because the name had the characters "洗手间" (although in a different order). – this.lau_ Dec 15 '11 at 3:42
@Laurent. I think you are referrring to ”お手洗い“ – Huang Dec 15 '11 at 4:04
I don't know if you've seen the movie, but I saw your profile and it immediately reminded me of this character (because of his ability to speak several languages, not political affiliation, of course). – Orion Dec 15 '11 at 7:57
@Orion Do I really remind you of that character? lol :D Considering I like Tarantino movies a lot, that's not a bad association for me! – Alenanno Aug 4 '12 at 17:42

protected by xiaohouzi79 Aug 29 '13 at 4:30

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