Which is harder? Japanese or Korean?

In my previous post, I compared the difficulty of Japanese and (Mandarin) Chinese by looking at several aspects of the two languages. As I suspected, this drew out a large number of responses (or at least larger than what I’m used to in any case). However, I was surprised to see how civilized and thoughtful the comments turned out to be. So, I decided to do another language comparison, this time with Japanese and Korean. Before I start, I’d like to mention what I write here is strictly my observations and may not be entirely accurate.


It is often said that Japanese and Korean are very similar languages. Now this is true to some extent but you can’t forget that Japanese and Korean have completely different writing systems and more importantly, the sounds that go along with them.

With the exception of the /z/ consonant sounds (which Koreans usually can’t pronounce), the sounds in the Korean language are a superset of the sounds in Japanese. This means that in order to learn Korean, you not only have to learn most of the sounds in Japanese but also additional sounds, many whose difference I can’t even tell. This, I think, is the strongest argument for Korean being the harder language to learn. Because anytime somebody wants to try out a Korean phrase learned from a friend, I need to have it repeated about 5 or 6 six before I can tell what he is trying to say. And even then, it’s an educated guess at best.

With Japanese, though you sound like crap without the proper pitches, you can still make yourself understood with even the worst accents (most of the time).

The writing system

Now the comparison get more difficult because Koreans have invented an ingenious little writing system called hangul to cleverly handle all those different sounds in Korean.

For Japanese, you have to memorize 46 separate characters (not including the obsolete characters) for each individual sound. Since you have both hiragana and katakana, that amounts to a total of 92 characters that you have to memorize just to write 46 sounds. If you count the voiced consonants, small 「や、ゆ、よ」, etc., you only get a total of 102 sounds for learning 92 characters. That’s not a lot of mileage.

With hangul, you learn consonants and vowels separately and match them up like legos. You can combine up to a maximum of three consonants and one vowel. For example, if you learn 4 consonants and 4 vowels, you can combine each consonant to the vowel to get 4×4=16 letters. You can also add yet another consonant to each of these letters to get an additional 16×4=64 letters. You can even add yet another consonant though the possible combinations are a bit limited for the fourth consonant. If you consider the fact that hangul has a total of 19 consonants and 21 vowels, you can appreciate just how many sounds Korean has over Japanese. In fact, I don’t even know the total number of letters in hangul. Imagine what a nightmare it would be if you had to memorize a separate character for each sound!

A sample of hangul
Consonants: ㄱ(g),ㄴ(n),ㄷ(d),ㄹ(r)
Vowels:ㅏ(a), ㅓ(uh), ㅗ(o), ㅜ(u)

Possible combinations include:
나(na), 너(nuh), 노(no), 누(nu)
다(da), 더(duh), 도(do), 두(du)
라(ra), 러(ruh), 로(ro), 루(ru)
각(gag), 간(gan), 갇(gad), 갈(gar)
각(gag), 간(gan), 갇(gad), 갈(gar)
곡(gog), 곤(gohn), 곧(gohd), 골(gohr)
국(gug), 군(guhn), 굳(guhd), 굴(guhr)
낙(nag), 난(nan), 낟(nad), 날(nar)… etc.

Hangul, like the English alphabet allows you to write a lot more sounds with a smaller number of characters while still maintaining the unambiguous 1 letter = 1 sound aspect of Japanese. You may be thinking that in the end, all this means is that there are a lot more sounds and more letters to go with them. How does this make Korean easier than Japanese, which doesn’t need to deal with all these extra sounds to begin with? And my reply to that is, you don’t need hanja (kanji) in Korean.

In Japanese, due to the limited five-vowel, consonant+vowel sounds (with the only exception of 「ん」), a lot of words end up with the same pronunciation. For instance 「生」 and 「正」 are both 「せい」 in Japanese. However, the original Chinese pronunciation for 生 is “sheng” and “zheng” for 正. Similarly, in Korean 「生」 is “생” (seng) and “정” (juhng) in Korean. Japanese doesn’t even have a “uh” or “ng” sound. Let’s compare more kanji with the 「せい」 reading with the Korean version.

Kanji Japanese Korean

As you can see, out of seven characters that have the same reading in Japanese, you get a total of five different pronunciations in Korean, three of which do not even exist in Japanese. Most importantly, Korean has just one letter and one sound for each character just like Chinese. In Japanese, you often get two or even three letters because one wasn’t enough to pronounce all the consonants and vowels. What you end up in Japanese is a bunch of repeating, long, and hardly decipherable text without kanji.

I get a headache from just looking at this

Even with spaces, it’s not much improvement
しょうがく ごねんせいに しんきゅうした さいだいの メリットは、おとなの つごうで ちゅうがくせいとも こうがくねんとも よばれる ちゅうぶらりんの よねんせいから かいほうされて、どっしり こうがくねんの ざに こしを すえられることだった。

With hangul, because you have a lot more letters, the visual cues are a lot more distinct and there are fewer homophones. However, because the visual cues are not quite as clear as Chinese characters, you do have to learn where to put spaces. I think it’s a small price to pay for not having to learn 2000-3000 Chinese characters, don’t you?

You don’t need kanji/hanja in Korean because of the increased visual cues. But you do need spaces.

외모가 뛰어난 학생들이 그렇지 않은 학생들보다 학업 성적이 뛰어난 것으로 밝혀졌다고 10일 선데이 타임스, 데일리 메일 등의 언론이 이탈리아 연구팀의 연구 결과를 인용 보도했다.
(from naver.com)

I think it’s ridiculous when Japanese teachers don’t teach their students kanji or when somebody says that you don’t need to learn it. Yeah, you don’t have to learn it if you don’t mind being illiterate. Books, signs, restaurant menus, computers, everything has kanji in it and you don’t get the furigana either. But in Korea, you really don’t need to learn Chinese characters at all. Sometimes you might see it in parantheses on signs next to the hangul and newspapers may use some very simple characters such as 大 or 現 but it’s a supplement to hangul instead of the other way around. Just compare Yahoo! Korea to Yahoo! Japan. Not a single Chinese character in Yahoo! Korea. Yahoo! Japan? Too many to count.

Bottom line: In terms of simplicity in writing and reading the language, Korean wins hands down. Well-played Sejong the Great, well-played.


So far, it seems like Japanese and Korean are totally different. So what the heck was I talking about when I mentioned that they were similar? Well, why don’t we take a look at how to say, “I went to school at 7:00.”

Japanese: 私は7時に学校に行った。
Korean: 나는 7시에 학교에 갔어.

Can’t see the similarity? Ok, why don’t we add spaces to the Japanese, replace the Korean with hanja, and use the same style for the characters.

私は 7時に 學校に 行った。
나는 7時에 學校에 갔어.

As you can see, the sentence structure is exactly the same. Indeed, Korean and Japanese grammar has the same general ideas including particles and the main verb always being at the end of the sentence. However, that’s like saying French and English grammar are the same. Once you get into the details, you’ll find all sorts of stuff that are completely different. Let’s take a look at a few examples.


Particles in Korean are what you get if a bunch of people were to get together and say, “Hmm… Japanese particles are just too easy to understand. How do we make it harder to yet again confound those silly foreigners.” Then one of them will go, “I got it! Let’s change the particle depending on what comes before it!” Then the rest will go, “Oooh, that’s good.”

That’s basically how Korean works. The 「が」 particle in Japanese is either “가” or “이” depending on what it is attached to. The 「は」 particle is “은” or “는”, 「を」 is either “을” or “를”, and 「で」 is “로” or “으로”. Japanese students can now proceed to laugh at fellow students who chose to learn Korean instead.


Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Korean conjugation rules to really accurately compare the two languages in this regard. However, I do know one big difference is that Korean does have a future tense unlike Japanese. Also, I give you this entertaining excerpt from this site.

Past tense is another easy verb tense. Here is the basic pattern.

1.Take the dictionary form, drop the 다
2.Add the ending 어 or 아, which makes it the casual form (everything but the 요 at the end)
3. Add ㅆ under the last syllable
4. Add 어요 on the end.

먹 + 어 – 먹어
먹어 + ㅆ – 먹었
먹었 + 어요 = 먹었어요.

마시 + 어 – 마셔
마셔 + ㅆ – 마셨
마셨 + 어요 = 마셨어요

마시 + 어 = 마셔? I mean 마시 + 어 = 마시어 makes sense but 마셔? I don’t think my math is good enough to understand that. Also, notice how it says, “Add the ending 어 or 아” but neglects to mention how to decide which one to add. I’m sorry but this doesn’t look easy to me at all. But then again, when you have Japanese conjugation tables that look like this, maybe I shouldn’t complain.


Yep, both languages have them. And yes, it’s totally confusing for both languages.


In terms of difficulty, I think Japanese and Korean are at about the same level. Some parts are harder for Korean while other parts are harder for Japanese. However, considering the larger number of sounds and the different particles in Korean, Japanese is definitely the easier language to start in. If you’re not good at distinguishing new sounds and pronunciations, you’re definitely going to have a hard time with Korean.

In particular, that fourth consonant can get really silly. For instance, the word for chicken is “닭”, made up of ㄷ(d),ㅏ(a), ㄹ(r), ㄱ(g), and it’s supposed to sound something like “darg” but I can’t even hear the /r/ sound. And “없어” is supposed to sound like “uhbs uh” but to me, it sounds exactly the same as “uhb suh” (업서). Really, it’s just ridiculous.

However, once you master all the sounds and the basic grammar in Korean, you’re in for smoother ride the rest of the way. While Japanese students will be struggling with four different types of conditionals, looking furiously in the dictionary for the readings of 「大人」, 「仲人」, 「気質」, and 「問屋」, and trying to remember if it was 「静かな」 or 「静な」, you’ll be just sailing right by enjoying the benefits of having only one letter and reading for each Chinese character. You don’t even have to learn them, if you don’t want to.

84 thoughts on “Which is harder? Japanese or Korean?

  1. I am a self-studier of Korean, with a business level Japanese background.

    Since I reached a level of Japanese where I don’t think about the structure of the language as oppose to the content, studying Korean after attaining this level of Japanese has been a lot faster.

    However, initially what threw me off about Korean was the continual sound harmony the language makes by having multiple particles, the “continual sound cross over to the next word” phonology, and the multiple distinctions between similar vowels and consonants.

    In written form, it is easy to catch and produce these sounds with a little practice but as for audio forms of the language (music, dramas, movies), it has been more than difficult to distinguish the string of words in context — it is something that I need to practice but is difficult as I am a self-studier.

    • So did you teach yourself Japanese as well? I’m really curious since I’m currently taking it in college for my Linguistics major, and I know how hard it can be to self teach. I tried to do so for years with limited success (at least grammar-wise). And how long did it take for you to acquire the language up to your current level of proficiency?

      • No, like you I was taking Japanese language courses for my Linguistics B.A. I officially took three years, including a year of study abroad. The year abroad definitely helped me. I don’t think my Japanese would be at this level if it weren’t for that year.

        With all things and distractions considered, it has taken me roughly 5 years to get to where I am now. 3 years to get reach a conversational level where you are comfortable in most situations and another 2 to get use to business language and related situations.

        Korean is more of an experiment for me to see if I can reach the same level as my Japanese but without any classes, tutors or study abroad programs.

        • Oh, interesting. I’m finishing up an International Studies -Asian Focus BA right now, Japanese minor, and Korean isn’t taught at the university I’m attending, but I Have more interest in that than in Chinese, and so I am looking into self-teaching myself the Korean, as well. I do have a professor I’m taking from for a non-language course who is Korean native, and she’s been open to my asking her language questions and such, so .. I think I’m going to stock up on a Korean language Text book and Work book and just like you did, dive into it just like with the Japanese, when I first started. Only, Yeah, I guess it should be a little easier with the Japanese background. Great! haha.. Albeit, I have to admit, I’m probably gonna be right there with you when it comes to stringing a fluid sentence together in speech. lol.

  2. I like the topic of the article, but there are a few things to point out:
    마시 + 어 = 마셔 makes perfect sense. “Mashi” + “uh” (“uh” as in gUm) makes “mashiuh,” which said fast sounds like “mashuh” or “mashyuh.” It’s not different from “do not” = “don’t.” It’s just a contraction.
    Secondly, “the word for chicken is “닭”, made up of ㄷ(d),ㅏ(a), ㄹ(r), ㄱ(g), and it’s supposed to sound something like “darg” but I can’t even hear the /r/ sound. And “없어” is supposed to sound like “uhbs uh” but to me, it sounds exactly the same as “uhb suh” (업서). Really, it’s just ridiculous.”
    1. Some consonants are pronounced differently at the end of a syllable, usually just an unvoiced equivalent. Like “d” at the end would be “t” and “g” at the end would be “k.” (Also, “r” is pronounced like “l” at the end, and as you may know, English words that have syllables ending in “r” like “purpler,” are very hard to pronounce for both Koreans and Japanese people.) That being said, 닭 should be pronounced “dalk,” but when there are two consonants at the end of a syllable, one is silent. But when the next syllable starts with a vowel, the second one is carried on. That answers your question about “업서”
    2. “B” at the end of a syllable is pronounced “p.” So it should be pronounced “uhps + uh.” I really don’t know what’s “ridiculous about “uhps uh” vs “uhpsuh.” They’re literally identical. It’s just a natural thing when a word ending with a consonant gets carried to a vowel-starting word. When we say “pick a color,” in syllables it’s pronounced “pih-KUH-kuh-lur” because the “k” sound just naturally gets carried to make speech smoother.
    3. “The 「が」 particle in Japanese is either “가” or “이” depending on what it is attached to. The 「は」 particle is “은” or “는”, 「を」 is either “을” or “를”, and 「で」 is “로” or “으로”. Japanese students can now proceed to laugh at fellow students who chose to learn Korean instead.” That really is not a struggle because it’s just eliminating one consonant when there’s a clash between two consonants/vowels, etc… It’s like kissES and curlS.

    • This. It seems like the writer was just trying to make it sound more difficult than it is. I think Korean is easier mainly because of hangul. All of those rules make perfect sense really.

      • That’s great! I’m Korean and it all seems difficult to me. I’ve realized since I wrote this that it makes much more sense to process Korean conjugation with the ear rather than on paper with my eyes.

      • ^.^ I’m just tickled about all the commentary, regardless of which is worse off >D lol. It still cracks me up. Buuuut, then again, I’m pretty easily amused.

  3. I’m learning German and it is quite difficult grammatically with the verb order, but I’m getting there. I’ll give Korean a go.

  4. Is it just me or does the Korean alphabet have a lot in common with the Hindi alphabet? Like Hindi (and Nepali, and all those related alphabets) has 4 different Ds; D, Dha, DD, DDha but they are really easy to differentiate once you start speaking the language. Honestly though, do one of these for Hindi 😀

  5. Thank you for the article!
    Do find it being slightly biased towards Korean language, but then who can be really objective (and it does say that these are “observations” at the beginning of the article…).
    In my opinion to learn even just a little sophisticated, middle level Korean, one does need the Chinese characters, at least some. This may be a mistake how it is taught for westerners. About 80% of Korean words come from Chinese, so not knowing the hanja is as if a color blind person would learn what the color is for the different objects and say it when asked: like the grass is green, sky is blue, but without the ability of actually seeing it. Learning Korean that way has serious limitations. Not to mention that it is impossible to understand Korean culture without the hanja (the way I see it).
    Thank you for the opportunity that we can share our view here and for Your article again.
    Have a nice day!

  6. It is true that for foreign learner, Korean language is difficult, especially for westerners. But for other asian language native speaker, Korean language is ridiculously very easy. Not challenging.

    • Yeah, maybe not ridiculously easy, but easy. Because the Asian languages are more similar to each other than English or European languages. Also for Koreans, its easier for them to learn Japanese than English.

    • I speak Korean and Mandarin. I typically find a Japanese speaker or Chinese speaker finding it easier to learn English than learning Korean.

      Having said that, grammar in Korean and Japanese are extremely similar–in fact I think you can safely consider them the same. However, Japanese is a simple language to learn for a Korean speaker, but Korean is a challenging language to learn for a Japanese speaker.

      I find that most Koreans who learned Japanese as adults would spend about 3 months to speak the language to the point of relative fluency.

      Most Japanese find it much longer to learn Korean.

      I wonder if it is similar to what I find in German-English relationship. I find that German speakers learn English quicker than English speakers learning German.

      By the way, “tz” sound in Japanese is one sound that some Koreans can’t pronounce. I also find similarity in Germans learning the English “th” sound.


  7. In the reverse situation, I have a fluent knowledge of Korean and am currently learning Japanese.
    Your ideas of the pronunciation problems with Korean are very off base. From what you have put for examples, it seems like you are thinking too much. 없어 and 업서 sound the same. 닭 sounds like “dak” the extra consonant only pronounced when it is followed by a vowel opening.
    Japanese, that is way more difficult to get the pronunciation. I have to change pronunciation of the word minute depending on what number precedes it. Its crazy!

    • I’m not thinking too much, because they sound the same, it’s a big problem if you’re writing based on how it sounds.

      Do counters never change in Korean?

      • (different person here) This is a late response, but as far as I know it doesn’t! Or at the most, hardly ever. I say as far as I know because I’m also studying Korean, but like you I am also Korean but my knowledge of Korean is incomplete. But from what I have been exposed to, the counters in Korean don’t change pronunciation according to the previous sound. For example:

        Korean counter for animals = 마리 (“mari”)
        1 animal = 한 마리 (“han mari”)
        2 animals = 두 마리 (“du mari”)
        3 animals = 세 마리 (“se mari”)
        And so on. Of course, it’s important to specify which animal it is since it’s impossible to tell what animal we’re talking about based on just the counter.

        Japanese counter for (small) animals = 匹 (“hiki”)
        1 animal = 一匹 (ippiki)
        2 animals = 二匹 (“nihiki”)
        3 animals = 三匹 (“sanbiki”)
        And so on. So yes, while the Japanese counters change pronunciation, Korean counters don’t.

        Although one thing you didn’t address in your comparisons between Korean and Japanese is that Korean also has a set of 2 different numeric systems. One is completely original and based in the Korean language, while the other was derived from Chinese, similar to the Japanese numeric system. I say this because Korean uses both types of numbers with counters, making it much harder for learners of Korean to grasp. For example:

        Korean counter for week = 주일 (“ju-il”)
        1 week = 일 주일 (“il ju-il”)
        2 weeks = 이 주일 (“i ju-il”)
        3 weeks = 삼 주일 (“sam ju-il”)
        …etc. So in this case, Korean uses the other numeric system of 일, 이, 삼, 사 (Chinese based) versus 하나, 둘, 셋, 넷 (Korean based). (Offhand note: The first four numbers of the Korean based system changes to 한, 두, 세, 네 when they are attached to a counter. A bit convoluted, but still organized in a logical, patterned way much like how Japanese counters change pronunciation according to the previous sound.) Yet the actual counter itself does not change.

        So while the Japanese language has multiple writing systems (kana+kanji) to learn, Korean has multiple numeric systems as well, with the Korean based one being harder than the other since you can easily count up to 99 just by knowing the first 10 numbers with the Chinese based one. Just tossing that in there as another food for thought!

  8. Hmmm… while this article is pretty old, I feel the need to add my two cents. As somebody currently learning Korean, and who studied Japanese in the past, I can say that Korean is… much simpler. Part of the reason I gave up Japanese was because I have a short attention span, and memorization is not my strong suit. As opposed to being faced with two alphabets and kanji, hangul was just so much easier to learn. I also find the intonation and pronunciation rather close to English, minus some newish vowel sounds and learning the double consonants.
    Japanese is much more difficult to sound natural in if you aren’t fluent, in my opinion.
    Grammar… I can’t say much on that. Hehe.

  9. Cool! Like much of Japan and the Japanese language. Recently started to like a little Korean. But I confess that I thought was odd. It is as it were a japanese “wrapped” … Also Korean alphabet is not organized as Hiragana and Katakana. So, like most Japanese:)

  10. Coincidentally, I came into this post and I was so interested. As I am a korean native student who is learning both english and japanese, maybe I can help you with anything about Korean or a little bit of Japanes stuffs. Just email me when you need some help.

  11. I think that all things considered, Korean is the more difficult language to learn. My perspective is that language learning should be interactive, so I really like the approach of learning a language by ear, coupled with light grammar and vocab study.

    However, while that has worked incredibly well for Japanese, I have yet to replicate that for Korean – because it’s very difficult to make the link between what you learn by reading and what you hear by listening (due to the sounds that belong to one word but is linked to the next like 없어 and the fourth consonant words – which I can never seem to remember).

    From an oral standpoint, Korean also seems harder to me because first off, I can’t seem to distinguish the individual sounds that make up a sentence when spoken very fast, whereas with Japanese, when I was first learning it, even as a complete novice, I could make up the individual sounds after hearing something a few times.

    Also, it seems that Japanese is more consistent when comparing the written and spoken forms – maybe it’s because I’m still a novice at Korean, but I feel like what I learn in terms of grammar, I can’t seem to hear very well when spoken, as in dramas, but with Japanese, whatever I’ve learnt with grammar, I can almost immediately hear the structure replicated exactly in speech as it would have appeared in the written form.

    Vocabulary wise, I think Korean also presents a problem – Kanji might be more difficult to learn, but I’d argue that they also make words easier to distinguish from one another after you put in the effort to learn Kanji. With Korean, it seems that a lot of the words seem very similar, so it seems almost impossible (for me at the very least) to learn vocabulary by reading, because there’s no Kanji, Korean words are not easily distinguishable from one another from their shapes.

    That means I have to rely on a listening approach to hear words and phrases spoken in context to learn a new word and remember it, which can be taxing at times, given my basic Korean level.

    Anyway, just my two cents.

    On a separate note, I just wanna remark how remarkable, and rare, it is to see a blog post receiving comments even 8 years after its publication – Tae Kim – your guide to Japanese grammar is absolutely fantastic, and it really helped my get the basics down very, very quickly and to understand them almost in an intuitive way.

    Thanks so much for spending time at a project to help folks like myself learn Japanese!

    I know you’ve probably been asked this before, but would you consider creating a guide for Korean as well? 🙂

    • Yes! I totally agree on all your points! Korean personally for me, is harder to learn than Japanese for all the reasons you said. And yes, I’ve been asked before to create a guide for Korean. And no, sorry, I can’t. One language is the most I can handle in a lifetime. Maybe if I had a twin?

Comments are closed.