Comparing to Chinese (part 3): Grammar

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:

Use of the 正 在 V 着 O 呢 zhènzài V zhe O ne sentence pattern [9]

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?

Further Reading:
Contrasting English Tense and Mandarin Aspect

Comparing to Chinese (Part 2): Tones

I was glancing through a thread about low and high tones on my forum and it made me realize that we don’t treat tones with as much care as we should in Japanese (ie, virtually none). For example, if I were to describe it in Chinese tones, you really do need to pronounce 日本 with something similar to a second and fourth tone. In contrast, 二本 is more like a fourth and neutral tone. And this really could potentially be an issue. What if you said 日本ください instead of 二本ください? Now you’re asking for Japan instead of two bottles! What a わがまま!

Personally, I’ve had times when I would ask somebody about a new word I just learned and the person would have no idea what I was talking about. Then I’d write the word and he/she would say, “Oh you mean [X]!” and pronounce the word exactly the same way but with different pitches. See, without context you really do need to get the tones right.

And sure, context will cover your ass and prevent any mishaps most of the time but is Chinese any different? You know in Rush Hour 2 when Chris Tucker attempts to speak Chinese? It was hilarious but in real life, if you messed up all the tones, it just becomes gibberish. There are a few insidious homophones like eyeglasses vs eyes: 眼睛(yǎnjīng) / 眼鏡(yǎnjìng), but overall context should take care of one or two mistakes. I’ll have to watch that movie again now that I know some Chinese to see if they were really clever enough to teach Chris the wrong tones correctly to actually say the unintentional but hilarious lines.

Chinese has always had a notorious reputation of being insanely difficult due to the tones but I actually think Japanese is more difficult. With Chinese, at least all the tones are laid out and stay (mostly) the same. In contrast, Japanese really has no rules for pronouncing words with the correct pitch and it would probably change anyway depending on how you’re using it. Unlike Chinese, you’ll probably be understandable even with all the wrong tones, but you will still sound foreign and may even be difficult to understand.

We really should start thinking about patterns in Japanese tones and how we could effectively teach students how to pronounce things correctly not just phonetically but on the tonal level. For example, I’ve noticed that long vowels are often a high and flat tone (first tone in Chinese). Just listen to how train announcers pronounce 東京. (Tones are more clearly enunciated in formal settings like announcements and news broadcasts.) I’m sure by just practicing the long vowel sounds in this manner, you can significantly improve your pronunciation and sound more “Japanese”.

Can you think of any other neat tips for getting the right tones?

Which is harder? Japanese or Chinese?

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.

好。- Good.
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。- zhī dao.
不是。- 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.