This post doesn’t have anything directly to do with Japanese. It’s more like a personal blog entry, just to talk about the things on my mind lately. You see, I have spent a lot of time writing about Japanese in trying to convince the Internet that it is actually a very easy language to learn in many respects. The grammar rules are very consistent and logical, and kanji can really help you speed up your vocab memorization. But is Japanese actually easy, relative to other languages?
About a month ago, I started doing language exchange with a Chinese person every Sunday. It’s quite interesting because I teach her English, she teaches me Chinese and all of this is done in Japanese. It works well because she is quite fluent having lived in Japan for many, many years.
Now, Chinese is supposed to be like the holy grail of foreign languages, image-wise, for us Americans. Or maybe it was Japanese? Well, we probably don’t even know the difference. Anyway, if you tell your friends and family that you’re learning Chinese, they’ll probably go all “ooh”, “ahh” and “damn, you’d have to be some kind of a freak genius to learn that”.
Chinese characters don’t impress or scare me though, having learned Japanese. In fact, I was actually wishing for Chinese characters when I was studying for the GRE because all those stupid English words started to look the same. And on top of that, now that I’m studying Chinese, I can’t help but get the feeling that Chinese is like the easiest language in the world. Of course, I’m still a complete beginner but from what I can tell, Chinese is just so much simpler than Japanese.
Of course, comparing the difficulties of two languages will always be impossible because so many things depend on the person learning the language. But still, it’s fun to try because it usually brings out heated arguments and one-upmanship, which is basically the whole point of the Internet. So here we go.
Because Chinese has nothing but Chinese characters, there are no conjugations of any kind whatsoever. This means that you miss out on all the fun you get to have with okurigana.
For instance, if you want to negate something, just add 「不」. It doesn’t matter if it’s an adjective, verb, or noun. It’s almost too easy.
不好。- Not good.
In contrast, Japanese has separate rules for two types of adjectives, nouns, and two types of verbs. You also have two exception verbs and two exception adjectives. English is probably even worse because you need to match the right tense to the subject and other stuff I probably couldn’t even explain.
This tacking on character trick works for all sorts of things that would be complicated grammar in any other language. You want to say something is “too much”? Just add 太. So since “small” is 小, too small becomes 太小. You want to say, “not too small”, just add 不: 不太小! You want to say that you’re in the process of doing something? Add 在. With Chinese, using a character based writing system actually makes sense! You can’t make this stuff any easier folks. You don’t have to conjugate and then conjugate the conjugation, and then conjugate the conjugated conjugation like you do in Japanese.
Language gone wrong
– I wrote this and even I don’t know what it means.
Still, I’m expected the other shoe to drop as I learn more Chinese. There has to be a price to pay for not having conjugations. For example, I’m already confused about 了 because it supposedly expresses a completed action but I see it in non-completed actions as well. I’ve also seen past actions without 了. I don’t get it.
A number of people have told me about how tones are so difficult in Chinese. I don’t really remember what they said, but I vaguely remember something about my mom being a horse or something. Pretty rude, if you ask me.
Now that I’m actually learning them, I don’t think tones are that difficult. I mean there’s only four and I have a sneaking suspicion that the second is pretty much the same as the third. I heard that Taiwanese has 7 tones. Now that sounds difficult. I don’t even know how that is possible. Is tone 7 like the chromatic scale or something? I can hear the teacher saying, “No, idiot! Your tone is completely wrong! It’s supposed to be a harmonic minor, not melodic! And the third is flat!”
Anyway, I think having all the tones laid out in advance makes things clearer than Japanese in many ways. Japanese people have this strange belief that Japanese is completely flat but in reality, if you don’t get the intonation right, you sound like crap. If Japanese is completely flat, how come you can get an accent dictionary that shows the pitches for each word? With Japanese, the only way to get that perfect native intonation is to just imitate native speakers. Not very helpful, I know, which is why Chinese is easier to understand because it’s all laid out for you.
Even so, to make the comparison fair, I need to mention that tones in Chinese can sometimes change. I’ve figured out that while 不 is usually fourth tone, if the next character is fourth tone too, it changes into the second tone. I don’t know if this is a rule, just something I’ve noticed along the way.
不知道。- bù zhī dao.
不是。- bú shì.
Aaaahhh, kanji, my favorite topic. With a language like Chinese, it actually makes sense! Kanji is great as long as you don’t totally f***k them up like the Japanese did.
I think a small number of characters have maybe a max of 2 readings. Even then, it’s because it means something completely different like 觉, which is “jiào” when it means “to sleep” and “jué” when it means “to think”. Let’s compare that to Japanese, which for instance has like a million readings for 「生」. What the hell, 「なま」 doesn’t even originate from Chinese! Why the heck do you write it with a Chinese character?!
Chinese is so much simpler that it wins hands down over Japanese here. It’s not even a contest. The only beef I have with Chinese is simplified, traditional, blah blah, blah… just pick one! Don’t make me have to learn both! The Japanese government can successfully mandate a new set of characters and they don’t even have a real army. Why can’t you?
Whoever invented counters should be shot. They add nothing useful to the language yet is such an enormous pain in the ass. It’s like a disease that somehow managed to permanently spread itself through all of East Asia. The worst part is, all the counters, for some reason, are all completely different for each language. For clothes, it’s 件 for Chinese and 着 for Japanese. It’s insane.
Still, if I had to compare, I would say Japanese is worse because they have all those crazy irregular readings like 「ついたち」, 「ひとり」, and 「はたち」. But then Chinese has 两, which is not as bad but still really annoying. I can never tell whether its going to be ニ or 两.
I haven’t seen too many comparisons of Chinese and Japanese, probably because the extremely small number of English speakers who know both probably aren’t wasting their time with blogs. So, while I am still completely new at Chinese, here are my thoughts on the topic. If you are trying to decide which language to learn, maybe this will help you decide.
In my opinion, Chinese is really easy and approachable for beginners as long as you’re not tone-deaf. I can say with confidence that it’s a lot easier than Japanese in the beginning. There are so many traps that you can fall into with Japanese in the beginning that just doesn’t seem to exist in Chinese. Common pitfalls include learning only hiragana/katakana or even just romaji, overusing the topic particle, learning the polite and dictionary forms backwards, thinking that 「だ」 is the same as 「です」, etc., etc., etc.
With Chinese, while you have Pinyin, I think Chinese teachers are much better at making sure students learn hanzi. Plus, I haven’t seen too much regarding politeness levels outside of 你 vs 您 (so far). I doubt that Chinese has about 10 different ways of saying “sorry” like Japanese. （ごめん、ごめんなさい、すまん、すまない、すいません、すみません、申し訳ない、恐縮です、恐れ入ります）
Still, I’m going to hold off on making any definite conclusions because I have the sneaking suspicion that Chinese seems easy only in the beginning, kind of like my experience with Spanish. If it’s one thing I learned, it’s that there’s no free lunch in language. If one thing is easy, it’s going to make something else hard.