Ah ignorance is bliss. When I first compared Chinese to Japanese, I had only the most rudimentary knowledge of Chinese so my comparison was a bit misinformed. Almost a year later, my Chinese skills are… still rudimentary. I guess it can’t be helped considering the fact that I spend about 1/10 of the time I used to spend learning Japanese. However, I do know quite a bit more than I used to so here is an updated and slightly more informed comparison.
I still think Chinese is much easier than Japanese as I mentioned in my first comparison except for two main problems. One annoying issue for me personally is that most of the reading materials available nearby are in traditional Chinese probably due to the large number of Taiwanese people living in Seattle. The other difficulty I have is the one aspect of Chinese I seriously underestimated: grammar. I just can’t seem to get a good handle on Chinese grammar because really there is no grammar.
What I mean by “no grammar” is that I can’t identify any kind of common pattern to how you should arrange or structure your sentences. In Japanese, once you figure out that verbs come last and that subordinate clauses can directly modify nouns, you can logically figure out how to arrange your sentence most of the time. In addition, the function each word plays is clear regardless of order thanks to the magic of particles. However, in Chinese I’m often lost about where I should start my sentence and how to put all the words together to match my thoughts.
For example, let’s look at the classic example of, “How do you say ‘student’ in Chinese?”.
How do you say ‘student’ in Chinese?
Now, anybody would probably agree that the Chinese version is much easier to understand. In Japanese, you have the quotation 「と」 particle and the verb is conjugated into the polite form. With Chinese, you have three words strung together: “Chinese how say”. But the simplicity of Chinese grammar (or the lack of) is what confuses me. Can I say “中文’student’怎么说”, “‘student’怎么说中文”, or “中文怎么说’student'”? Goodness, think how confusing it would be if I asked, “中文英语怎么说?”
This is usually how Japanese and Chinese grammar differ. Chinese is much easier to learn at first but you pay the price later on. Though it depends on your learning style, you can imagine how difficult it is for someone like me who wrote a whole guide based on the structure and logic of Japanese grammar. I just don’t feel comfortable in Chinese, especially for more complicated sentences.
Chinese: 31 flavors, take your pick
You may think having no verb tenses would make things easier but you would be wrong. In Japanese, while the conjugation rules are a pain to memorize, the concepts are much closer to what we’re used to in English. For instance, a verb in the past tense means that the verb happened in the past. Simple, huh? Not in Chinese where tenses don’t exist. Take a look at the following simple sentences.
昨天去。- Yesterday go (past).
今天去。 – Today go (present).
明天去。- Tomorrow go (future).
Looks pretty easy right? But what if you don’t include when it happened? How do you indicate it happened in the past? One thing you can do is to attach “了”. If you know Japanese, you can guess from words like 「完了」 and 「終了」 that “了” indicates that the single action is complete. But if you want to say that you finished the act completely, you can attach “完”. Or you can do both!
There is also “过” which is the simplified version of 「過」 and means something has past, pretty much the same as 「過ぎる」. But besides being its own verb, it’s also another one of these characters you can attach to other verbs. This is pretty much how all of Chinese grammar works. You take certain characters that have a certain meaning and attach it somewhere in your sentence. Sigh…
你看了吗？ – Did you see/read (past)?
你看完吗？ – Did you finish seeing/reading?
你看完了吗？ – Did you finish (past) seeing/reading?
你去过吗？ – Have you gone?
你去过了吗？- Have you gone (past)?
春节过完了。 – New Year’s has past and finished.
It’s crazy, there’s just no grammar here, just characters that you can attach here and there and some are insidiously similar to others. In fact, some of these examples might not be natural Chinese (see comments) but I’m not good enough to tell.
I can go on (for example, 下着雨 vs 在下雨) but I think you get the idea. The point is, you have to learn how each individual character works, its nuances, and how it interacts in the sentence as a whole.
I have always maintained that the hardest part of learning languages is vocabulary because there’s just so much and you have to learn the nuance and usage of every word. In Chinese, grammar is basically just more vocabulary!
As I get farther into Chinese, I personally find Chinese grammar to be much more difficult than Japanese. While Japanese has more rules and conjugations, I think the benefit of having that structure carries with you later on. However, I would admit that it’s a difficult comparison to make and will probably depend on each person. What I can say with confidence is that Chinese grammar is by no means easy! For those of you with experience learning both languages, what do you think?
I just want to leave you all with this neat tidbit I just found at: http://www.ctcfl.ox.ac.uk/Chinese/grammarlist.htm
Use of the 正 在 V 着 O 呢 zhènzài V zhe O ne sentence pattern 
This sentence pattern indicates that an action is under way. Note that some of the elements of this pattern can be omitted: all the following sentences mean he is watching TV.
1. 他 正 在 看 着 电 视 呢 tā zhèngzài kànzhe diànshì ne full version
2. 他 正 看 着 电 视 呢 tā zhèng kànzhe diànshì ne without 在 zài
3. 他 在 看 着 电 视 呢 tā zài kànzhe diànshì ne without 正 zhèng
4. 他 正 在 看 电 视 呢 tā zhèngzài kàn diànshì ne without 着 zhe
5. 他 正 在 看 着 电 视 tā zhèngzài kànzhe diànshì without 呢 ne
6. 他 在 看 电 视 呢 tā zài kàn diànshì ne without 正 zhèng and 着 zhe
7. 他 看 电 视 呢 tā kàn diànshì ne without 正 zhèng , 在 zài and 着 zhe
Isn’t Chinese so fun?
Contrasting English Tense and Mandarin Aspect