Chinese and Japanese: language similarities and differences

Chinese and Japanese are both major world languages spoken by millions worldwide that are hugely desirable to learn as they open up many opportunities in business, education, and social settings.

But despite both coming from East Asia and having a high demand for speakers in modern times, are there any similarities between the Chinese and Japanese languages?

To better understand the relationship between these two languages and how they have interacted with each other over time, let's take a look into the history of both languages to see how they evolved.

Origins of Mandarin Chinese

With 1.117 million native and nonnative speakers in the world, Mandarin Chinese is the second most widely spoken language in the world.

Not only is Mandarin widespread, however, but it also has the longest traceable history of any written language that is still in modern use with over 5,000 years of history.

Due to its massive geographic size diverse nature, Mandarin Chinese is but one of the hundreds of languages and dialects that is spoken by China's many different ethnic groups.

In Chinese, Mandarin Chinese is referred to as « 汉语 » (Hànyŭ) because it was historically spoken by the Han Chinese ethnic group.

Today, however, many people call Mandarin Chinese as « 普通话 » (pǔ tōng huà), which means "common language" because it is used as the lingua franca of China.

Historically, China had no official or predominant language until the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), where the capital was Nanjing which was home to a large population of Han people that made up the ruling class.

When the capital was switched from Nanjing to Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), traditional Han dialect mixed with Beijing dialect, and the result stuck around to serve as the majority language for the elite ruling class.

It wasn't until 1909 that Mandarin was made the official language of China, and it continues to be a predominant common language in many of the surrounding countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia today.

Where Does Japanese Come From?

Unlike Mandarin Chinese, the exact origin of the Japanese language is a bit murky, and linguists haven't been able to quite pinpoint it down.

Some theories propose that Japanese is a branch of a language family known as the Altaic languages that additionally consists of Korean, Turkish and Mongolian. However, this hypothesis has lost traction in recent years.

What's more likely, however, is that when the Austronesian settlers known as the Jomon arrived in Southern Japan in around 10,500 BCE, their language eventually became intertwined with their successors known as the Yayoi around 300 BCE.

The Yayoi's language shared more similarities with Korean, and so when introduced to the Japanese islands, the Altaic Yayoian language altered the spoken language's grammar; meanwhile, the Jomon's Austronesian-based phonology remained in place.

This, however, is just one of many working theories about the origin of the Japanese language, and so do take it with a grain of salt.

What are the main differences between Chinese and Japanese?

One main difference between Japanese and Chinese is the writing systems. Chinese uses a complex system of characters known in Chinese as hanzi.

The earliest records of hanzi date back almost 3,500 years to the Shang period, making Chinese hanzi the oldest surviving writing system still used in the world today.

While there are said to be over 50,000 hanzi in existence, most modern dictionaries will only include around 20,000, and the average educated Chinese adult will only know around 8,000. For daily use, however, many Chinese language learners find they need only 2,000-3,000 hanzi to comfortably navigate their daily life in a Chinese-speaking country such as China or Taiwan.

The reason Chinese uses so many characters is that each character is representative of one single item or concept, and the pronunciation is static to that character.

For example, take the character « 水 » meaning water and pronounced 'shuǐ '. On its own, it means water. However, when coupled with « 星 » meaning star and pronounced 'xīng', it becomes « 水星 » which means Mercury and is pronounced 'shuǐxīng'.

Even when coupled with another character to take on a whole new meaning, the pronunciation does not change (with some exceptions), and the word is represented by those two characters as a whole.

In Japanese, on the other hand, each character will have between three and seven pronunciations depending on how the characters are coupled with each other. If we take the same example, in Japanese, « 水 » is pronounced 'Mizu' and still means water.

Likewise, on its own, « 星 » is pronounced as 'Hoshi' and means star. However, when coupled to mean Mercury, the pronunciation of the two together becomes 'suisei' which is now completely different from the individual pronunciations on their own. Unfortunately, there is no real way to tell how each kanji will be pronounced other than memorization.

Another key difference between Japanese and Chinese is the range of sounds. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language with four tones and 67 possible phonemes. The tone affects the meaning of the word, and so it is vital to get it correct, which is a challenging point for many nonnative speakers.

For example: (妈 ), (麻), (马), and (骂). Although they all sound quite similar to the untrained ear, their meanings greatly differ. Respectively they mean "mother", "hemp", "horse", and "scold".

Japanese, on the other hand, has 107 possible sounds, which sound like a lot until you take into account that they are just variations of a basic (a, i, u, e, o) vowel pattern with consonant variations.

For example, (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko) or (ma, mi, mu, me, mo). Additionally, considering that Japanese is not tonal, from an English speaker's perspective, the pronunciation of Japanese is much easier than Chinese.

Why does Japanese have Three Writing Systems?

As Japan started to develop and grow as a country, it started to look East to China as a Mecca of culture, society, and knowledge.

With over 5,000 years of history, China had quite the headstart on Japan when it came to things such as a written system for their language and so rather than make their own, during the 4th century, the Japanese simply borrowed the Chinese written hanzi system and adapted it to their own language using Japanese pronunciations.

This is why many loanwords from Chinese and word-stems are written using Chinese characters called kanji.

At the time, however, only the aristocratic elite had the time, money, and resource to learn how to read all those characters, and even if you were among the privileged, only men were permitted to learn how to read Chinese characters.

For this reason, during the 9th century, court women were said to have developed a phonetic system of writing known as hiragana to simplify Chinese characters and make them more accessible.

That is why words originating from Japan and grammatical components are written using hiragana today.

Katakana, Japan's third alphabet, was also developed during this time period by Buddhist monks who used it to help students and scholars learn how to read Chinese characters. It is for that reason that we use Katakana today to write foreign words.

Should I learn Simplified or Traditional Mandarin?

Just as there are different written systems used in Japanese, Chinese has two main systems of writing: traditional and simplified. But what's the difference, and which one is best to learn?

Traditional Chinese characters have been around for centuries, and while you can't argue with a classic, many of the characters are made up of complicated strokes with historical significance that can be very difficult to learn.

That is why during the modernization period of China between 1949 and 1964, the Chinese Communist Party of mainland China decided to introduce a simplified system of characters that were "simplified" to help foster literacy rates countrywide.

This period is linked with the Chinese Civil war (1929-1949), where the Guomingtang party or the "traditionalists" sought to maintain Chinese traditions and customs, hence hanging on to the "traditional" Chinese hanzi system.

So are they really so different? Many common characters are actually shared between the two writing systems such as 是 (shì), 中 (zhōng), and 水 (shuǐ). Other characters only have minor differences such as 为 (wèi) in simplified and 為 (wèi) in traditional.

Finally, some characters are absolutely indistinguishable. Take 'ràng', for example, where it is « 让 » in simplified and « 讓 » in traditional. You can really start to understand why people felt the need for simplification when it comes to characters like turtle ('guī'), wherein simplified it is written as « 龟 » and in traditional as « 龜 ».

When it comes to deciding which system of hanzi you want to learn, it ultimately comes down to where you see yourself using the language most. If you intend to study or go to mainland China, Singapore, or Malaysia, learning Simplified Chinese makes the most sense as it is the most commonplace.

Taiwan and Hongkong, on the other hand, use Traditional although most people can read both to some extent.

Are Japanese and Chinese Mutually Intelligible?

In short, no. When spoken, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese speakers cannot understand each other at all apart from potentially some loanwords that might make it through.

However, since both languages do use hanzi/kanji in their written languages, often portions of written text such as menus can be read or vaguely understood.

For example, « 牛肉麵 » (niúròu miàn) is a beef noodle soup that is one of Taiwan's specialty dishes. Although « 牛肉麵 » is not common in Japan, a Japanese speaker would see « 牛肉 » (pronounced 'gyuniku' in Japanese) which means beef and « 麵 » (men), which still means noodle in Japanese as well, and from the context could figure out what the dish was.

Should I learn Chinese or Japanese first?

Should I take Chinese or Japanese classes? While both languages have a great deal of merit, there are some practicalities to consider when it comes to making the decision as to which is best to study first.

For example, when it comes to grammar, Chinese is much easier to learn for English speakers because it follows the SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) grammar structure. Japanese, on the other hand, has an SOV pattern which is the same as Korean. Take, for example, the phrase "I eat tofu." In Chinese it is as follows:

Wǒ chī dòufu
(I - eat - tofu)

But In Japanese, the same sentence is:

Watashi wa Tōfu o taberu
(I - tofu - eat)

Here the verb goes at the end, which means that you have to rearrange the sentence structure in your head, and from a neurological perspective, your brain has to readjust to where it hones in its attention when listing for contextual details during conversation.

However, one advantage of Japanese over Chinese is that it uses many loanwords from English, therefore cutting down the number of new words you have to memorize when studying the language.

As a result, if you don't know the word in Japanese, often you can just "Japanize" the pronunciation of the word you want to say, and most people will understand what you mean. Let's take a look at some words in Chinese and Japanese so you can see why this is such an advantage from a learner's point of view.

Not only does every country have its own unique name in Chinese, but so does almost every single person, place, and even movie title!

When it comes down to learning one of them before the other, however, it ultimately comes down to your linguistic background and your studying resources.

Knowing so many Chinese Characters when it comes to learning Japanese is very beneficial for reading, but one struggle that many people who study both encounters is that even if you understand the kanji, you won't be able to pronounce it off the bat as you'll only know the Chinese reading.

Learning Japanese first, on the other hand, will again assist you in the hanzi department. However, learning Simplified hanzi after studying Japanese can be a bit mind-boggling.

On the resource frontier, Japanese is much easier on average to self-study as its grammar adheres to strict grammatical rules, and the pronunciation is quite straightforward. Chinese, on the other hand, is much more free-flowing, and you'll need a native speaker to help you with your pronunciation.

Overall, there are pros and cons to learning either first and ultimately it comes down to what aligns best with your goals and dreams. There is no wrong answer, and no matter which you choose, you are sure to expand your horizons and open up a whole new world of possibilities and opportunities for you to explore.

PS: You can use our free language tool to make your own vocabulary lists, and record your own phrases.