For many individuals, especially those who grew up with English as their native tongue, the allure of the Far East and its cultures is often accompanied by the widely held belief that learning any of their languages - such as Japanese and Korean - is extremely difficult.
While the ability to learn any language is only limited by one’s desire to do so, there is significant data to back up this idea with Japanese and Korean frequently making it into the “Top Ten Most Difficult Languages to Learn” on almost every list created by language researchers and educational websites.
Do not be discouraged though! Learning any of these languages is entirely possible. It just may take a bit longer to do so when compared to a more similar language like Spanish.
left: «Japanese language» written in Japanese
right: «Korean language» written in Korean
But this does raise the question: Which is more challenging, Japanese or Korean? The answer may surprise you.
The reason why the answer may be surprising, is because it simply isn’t one or the other. For example, the United States Foreign Service Institute has a ranking system for most of the common languages in the world and it works much in the same way that categorizing hurricanes does.
Generally speaking, the higher the number, the more difficult the language is to learn for native English speakers.
So, where do Japanese and Korean rank? Well, they both score a “4”, which is also the highest number a language can have in the Foreign Service Institute’s system.
This essentially means that Japanese and Korean are the same difficulty, right? Yes, and no. Because, as stated previously, it’s not that simple. Let’s look a little deeper and find out why.
Both Japanese and Korean are phonetic languages, which means that their words don’t change meaning based on tone like in Mandarin Chinese.
As a rule, this makes things somewhat easier for English speakers. However, despite this initial similarity, Japanese and Korean begin to differ quite a bit.
For starters, Japanese is composed of 3 individual writing systems called hiragana, katakana, and kanji, where the kanji themselves are borrowed characters from the Chinese languages. All of these symbols are pronounced with the same spoken syllables, but the written words differ quite a bit visually.
Here’s an example of “Japanese language” written in Japanese’s different syllabaries:
Hiragana, Japan’s native writing system:
にほんご (nihongo - に ni, ほ ho, ん n, ご go)
Katakana, used for loan words from foreign languages:
ニホンゴ (nihongo - ニ ni, ホ ho, ン n, ゴ go)
Kanji (Chinese characters):
日本語 (nihongo, 日 ni, 本 hon, 語 go)
Conversely, Korean has only one writing system called Hangul, which is composed of 19 consonants and 21 vowels. This writing system creates syllabic blocks that are read from left to right (similar to English), but also from top to bottom within those same syllables.
Here’s an example for “Korean language” written in Korean Hangul to explain:
Each individual syllable is pronounced like so: 한 (han), 국 (gug), and 어 (eo).
Even more specifically, each individual part within each syllable is also its own individual letter like so:
ㅎ h,ㅏ a, ㄴ n, ㄱ g, ㅜ u, andㅓeo (ㅇ is a silent letter).
As such, from a reading and writing standpoint, Japanese is likely much more difficult to learn when compared to Korean simply because of its many writing systems and the fact that there are literally thousands of kanji to memorize.
Korean writing, while perhaps confusing at first, can theoretically be learned within a couple days to a level of basic understanding. So, at least in this manner, Korean may be easier than Japanese.
Now before jumping to conclusions and deciding that Korean is the easier of the two, let’s look at some actual sentences and understand how the grammar may differ between them.
Fortunately, as a general rule, Japanese and Korean each follow a subject-object-verb (SOV) order.
English, on the other hand, prefers the subject-verb-object (SVO) way of doing things, which means learners coming from this language may experience some trouble adjusting.
Here’s the same sentence in each language for comparison:
It may difficult to see the distinct words at first if you don’t already read some Japanese or Korean, but for those whose understanding comes from a SVO language like English, each sentence reads something like this: “I, English, am learning.”
Which can be quite hard to comprehend at first. Unfortunately, things only become more and more difficult as one’s learning progresses deeper into either language and grammar concepts get more complicated.
Here’s what a fully complex sentence could look like in Japanese, with its corresponding grammatical phrases pointed out in English:
Of course, because they are unique languages, the grammatical structures between the two aren't always exactly the same at all times. However, for the most part it can be said that Japanese and Korean are equally tough grammar-wise. As such, is there anything then that Korean can claim to be harder than Japanese?
Pronunciation, especially for beginners, is where Korean begins to seem harder than Japanese.
For starters, Japanese has exactly 5 vowels and their respective sounds are always pronounced the same no matter what other consonant or vowel sound they happen to be paired with.
Have a look at them here to understand:
So, with the other hiragana symbols there may be:
Viewing this, you can see how even when the hiragana symbol is different and has a different overall pronunciation, the specific sounds of the same vowels never change. In this way, at least with hiragana and katakana, there is almost never any guesswork needed to correctly say any word in Japanese.
Kanji can be more difficult to read because they often have multiple different readings, but even then the individual spoken syllables are still always the same as hiragana and katakana which makes conversation easier.
Here’s an easy example:
青い is the kanji for “blue,” and it is pronounced with the hiragana symbols あおい.
And even though the word is composed of 3 spoken vowels in a row, none of those vowels change in pronunciation so the way to say the word is exactly as one would expect - “Aoi” - per the guidelines above.
Korean, in contrast, has 8 simple vowels and 13 complex vowels. Simple vowels are just single letters, whereas complex vowels are two simple vowels combined to create a new sound.
If that seems extremely complicated, don’t worry because it’s honestly not too different from what is already done with English.
Here are the 8 simple Hangul vowels:
*These days, native speakers of Korean often don’t recognize much of a distinction between these two vowel sounds.
The complex vowels in Korean generally fall into 1 of 2 categories. One is where the simple vowel sound is combined with another sound similar to ‘y’ like so:
And the other is where the simple vowel is combined with a ‘w’ like this:
(*is a bit of a unique vowel that doesn’t quite fit in the previous two groups).
This being the case, it becomes clear how Korean may already be the more challenging of the two when it comes to pronouncing distinct words correctly. And once again, things only get more complicated once consonants are added into the mix.
It’s unnecessary to go over each and every consonant at this time, but here’s a quick example to explain some of the pronunciation “rules” that may appear:
ㅁ is the consonant ‘m’ and it is generally pronounced like the “m” in “map” when it starts at the beginning of a word.
ㄱ is the consonant ‘k’ and it is generally pronounced like the “k” in “Kyle.” However, when it occurs at the beginning of a syllable, it sounds more like the “g” in “go.” Despite that, when it appears once again at the end of a word, it goes back to making a “k” sound.
So when you have the word 미국 (the word for “United States of America”), the correct pronunciation is “mi guk” NOT “mi gug.”
It’s a lot to think about, especially when considering the fact that Korean Hangul still has 17 other consonants remaining and they each have their own unique rules of speaking.
For most English speakers, being polite generally just means saying things like “please,” and “thank you,” and “May I?” With Japanese and Korean though, polite speech is almost like a completely different language within the language.
Plus, to make matters even more challenging for the foreign learner, the correct polite phrases and words needed completely depend on who is talking to whom.
If you truly want to learn to speak and understand either of these languages, it is entirely necessary to at least be familiar with their formal and informal manners of speaking. Let’s start with Japanese first.
It’s not easy to give an exact number of levels of formal speech in Japanese, but generally most people agree that there are three: 丁寧語 (ていねいご/teineigo), くだけた にほんご (kudaketa nihongo), and 敬語 (けいご/keigo).
When beginners first start learning Japanese, this is where they typically begin as it’s the most standard way of speaking.
This polite language is used primarily between people who are strangers to one another, have no particular relationship, or are coworkers. It is also the default language for speaking to someone of higher rank.
Here are two example phrases you might hear at this level of polite speech:
Teineigo is almost always distinguishable by all of its sentences having the ending suffixes of “です/desu" for nouns and “ます/masu” for verbs, as they are necessary to communicate formality in Japanese. Just as well, the honorifics of “お/o” and “ご/go” will appear before certain words and phrases to emphasize politeness like so:
Keigo is even more polite than teineigo and it is always used in highly formal situations, especially when the other individual or individuals are of significantly higher rank.
This sort of language is particularly noticeable during public announcements and when company employees are speaking to their customers.
For example, these are some things you may hear when walking into a restaurant in Japan:
It is also very common to see extra conjugations to the “です/desu" and “ます/masu” sentence enders. These conjugations don’t actually change any meaning of the sentence. They only serve to heighten the politeness even further. Here’s a simple example:
Finally, there is the style of speaking that is most commonly used between family, close friends, and perhaps between strangers at an izakaya (Japanese bar) who have had a bit too much to drink together.
With casual Japanese, the same principles of grammar still apply, but they are much less strict. Likewise, particles like は/ha and を/o are frequently tossed aside for the sake of conversational ease.
Just be sure to be very careful as this type of language should never be used in anything resembling a professional situation or directed towards those of higher social rank:
Compared to Japanese, Korean actually has more than twice the number of polite speech levels. Seven to be exact! It would take quite a while to go over each and every one in complete detail, but let’s briefly go over what they are in order of descending formality.1. 하소서체 Hasoseo-che
This is the absolute highest level of formal speech. These days, it is almost never heard in actual conversation simply because it is specifically used for addressing those of royalty or similar stature.
As such, it’s mostly heard in televised historical dramas, or read in religious texts or similar documents.
It is often marked by the sentence ender -나이다 (-naida).2. 하십시오체 Hasipsio-che
A very respectful form of speech similar to Japanese Keigo. In Korea, this is the sort of language heard during public announcements, business discussions, and service industry interactions. This is the correct way to speak to strangers and those of higher rank.
It is often marked by the sentence ender –ㅂ니다 (-bnida).3. 하오체 Hao-che
Unlike hasoseo-che and hasipsio-che, hao-che is used more specifically for speaking to those of the same, or lower, social rank. As such, it should not be used with those who rank higher than oneself.
It is often marked by the sentence enders –소/-오 (-so / -o).4. 하게체 Hage-che
Hage-che is similar to hao-che in that it is used often for speaking to those of lower rank, except that it is never used when speaking to children. However, it is also considered a bit outdated at times, and is generally seen mostly in novels.
It is often marked by the sentence ender –네 (-ne).5. 해라체 Haera-che
This level of formal speech is where “plain speech” starts to become apparent. With haera-che, there is no additional degree of respect implied, but at the same time it is not considered disrespectful in proper contexts. It can often be seen in newspapers and when describing third-person accounts.
It is often marked by the sentence enders -ㄴ다/-는다 (-nda / -neunda).6. 해요체 Haeyo-che
Haeyo-che is considered to be informal, but is still also polite at the same time. It is perhaps the most common manner of speaking and as such will be heard in many, everyday situations. Surprisingly to foreign learners of Korean, Haeyo-che is a safe choice when unsure of which level of formality to use with someone else.
It is often marked by the sentence ender –요 (-yo).7. 해체 Hae-che
Finally, there is hae-che which is highly casual and used between friends, family, and when talking to younger people. Additionally, if one is angry with another individual and truly wishes to be insulting, this is the language he or she would use. It is also called “Banmal” (반말).
It is often marked by the sentence enders –아/-어/-지 (-a / -eo / -ji).
With so many more levels of formality compared to Japanese, Korean gets to claim this part of its language as being more difficult.
Granted, becoming comfortable with formal speech of any level in either of these languages is actually much easier than you might expect. It just takes a little practice, along with genuine apologies when mistakes are inevitably made.
Now, after learning all that it’s easy to see how simply giving an answer one way or the other isn’t really possible. Which is harder to learn, Japanese or Korean? It entirely depends on your goals with each language.
If you only wish to speak either language conversationally, then for you Japanese will perhaps be easier than Korean. There’s less conversational nuance, and you’re less likely to mispronounce new or unique words due to the more basic nature of the syllables used.
However, if you also want to achieve complete literacy, Japanese could theoretically take a lifetime to master. Believe it or not, Japanese people themselves are often surprised to learn that they forget how to correctly write many kanji, so it’s no shock that foreigners will struggle to a greater degree.
This being the case, Korean literacy may offer more consistent gratification, even if mastering the grammar will take much, much longer to gain command over.
No matter which direction you decide to go, either language is an entirely worthwhile endeavor to undertake. And once you have any level of mastery, a whole new world filled with unique cultural experiences and friendships will be available to you.
PS: you can use our free web app, VocabChat to record your own Japanese or Korean vocabulary and phrase lists.