Should you learn Chinese or Japanese? We help you decide

November 10, 2023

When you’re thinking about learning a new language, it can be tempting to try several at once. But, for most of us, we learn much better when we work on just one new language at a time – and some languages are easier to learn than others. Which can mean making some tough choices. French or Spanish? How about Italian, or German?

Today, we’ll be taking a look at one such question.

If you’re thinking about making either Chinese or Japanese the next language you learn, but can’t quite make up your mind, read on! We’ll tell you everything you need to know.

Deciding whether to learn Japanese or Chinese? Here are 5 important factors to consider

1.     Why you’re learning

One of the most important things to consider when you’re embarking on any new language journey is your motivation for learning. Your big “why”. Whether it’s a trip you’re working towards or better communication with a family member, you’ll find that you’re more able to stick to your guns if you have a reason driving you. It’ll be what helps you keep going when the going gets tough.

Made your decision, and keen to start learning? Jump in with our app, Busuu

With a Study Plan to help keep you on track and free online courses in both Japanese and Chinese, Busuu can get you where you want to be, whichever language you choose.

Many learners are motivated by an interest in Chinese and Japanese culture. 

If you’re interested in learning Japanese with anime, J-pop, or because you love Japanese food and culture, then the choice is easy. 

On the other hand, for those interested in Chinese history and how it shaped many other Asian cultures, learning Chinese would be a great way to gain more insight.

2.     Your learning background

The next thing you might want to consider when choosing between learning Chinese or Japanese is your own experience with languages.

For instance, it’s worth noting that while Chinese uses four different tones, in the main Japanese isn’t tonal. 

Why does this matter? Tonality in a language is where changing the pitch of a word – how high or low your voice is when you say the word – can change its meaning. English doesn’t use tones, but many other languages do. So if you already speak a language that uses tones, you’ll have a leg up in learning Chinese, whereas those who don’t might want to start with Japanese.

Another consideration is loanwords. This is when a language ends up using words that originate from a different language. Japanese, for example, has a number of English loanwords, so English speakers may recognise some of the vocabulary. 

3.     Level of difficulty

Difficulty is relative. Again, your own background may determine whether you’ll find Chinese or Japanese a harder language to learn. But we can give you the basic run-down of where the hiccups might be.

One big factor you may want to take into account is grammar – in particular, grammatical structure.

Chinese uses the same grammatical structure as English: subject-verb-object. “I eat pie”. 

Japanese, on the other hand, tends to use a subject-object-verb order: “I pie eat”, meaning Japanese grammatical structure is often less familiar for English speakers – and you’ll need to learn about Japanese honorifics to decode sentences. 

That said, when it comes to difficulty, it’s also worth considering the alphabets for each language. When you hear that Japanese uses three different writing systems, for instance, it may make you want to run for the hills. However, Japanese katakana and hiragana are basically alphabets, making them much easier to learn than the Chinese writing system. 

The third Japanese writing system, kanji, is much more similar to the Chinese writing system. 

But there’s good news: if you’re going for a few weeks’ vacation, you can largely get around in Japan with katakana and hiragana under your belt. Though you won’t be getting everything, the wide use of those two simpler writing systems makes the writing and reading side of basic Japanese a bit quicker to learn.

Fun fact: Many Japanese kanji are characters taken from Chinese at different times in history. So while some kanji are essentially the same as modern Chinese characters, some are older Classical Chinese characters that date back as far as the 500s. Some kanji share meanings and pronunciations with their Chinese equivalents, and some don’t. What a world, eh? So, if you’ve already mastered Chinese before you get started on Japanese, you’ll have a head start on learning kanji, and vice versa.

4.     Usefulness

Another thing to think about as you weigh your options: widespread use. 

Chinese is second on the list of the most spoken languages in the world, with 1,117 million Chinese speakers worldwide. Japanese, on the other hand, doesn’t crack the top 10, boasting only about one-tenth of that, at roughly 128 million speakers.

That smaller number doesn’t mean Japanese isn’t worth learning, but if your motivation for learning is centred around business, or being able to communicate with more people worldwide, it’s worth considering. In the end, this decision is personal to you and why you’re learning. But if you’re still on the fence, you can take that into account!

5.     Your location

Last, but certainly not least, you should consider where you live right now.

While getting out in the world and traveling is great, learning a language is easier when you have someone to practise with closer to home. If your area has a large community of Japanese or Chinese speakers, for instance, that could be a huge help. Making friends in a new language gives you more opportunities to sharpen your skills and can help you stay motivated as you learn.

That said, if you’re nowhere near any native Japanese or Chinese speakers, take heart: at Busuu, the language-learning app, we can connect you with native speakers online. You’ll get speaking practice and instant feedback on your language-learning progress, without having to take a foot outside your front door. 

And that’s that. Those are the five most important factors you should consider when deciding whether to learn Japanese or Chinese.

By the way, we’re Busuu, a language-learning app. Make your selection to start learning with us for free right now.

Are you ready to make a choice? This is the moment. Don’t hesitate.

Just follow your heart and click.

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