Is It Easy For Chinese To Learn Japanese?
These is a question frequently being asked by people who want to learn Eastern Asian languages such as Mandarin Chinese or Japanese. That is whether learning Japanese becomes easier if you know Chinese first. The logic behind it is that Japanese Kanji characters were based on Chinese Hanzi (汉字) for some historical reasons. Therefore it should be much easier for a Chinese person to read and understand Japanese writings.
No doubt this argument sounds very logical. Since I was born in China and Chinese is my native language, I will tell you now if this is really the case.
Yes, before I even knew any Japanese, I had also heard of such a recommendation, “go learn Japanese first, it is easier than English”. But I never really tested this claim until I became an adult.
But I can remember when I was a teenager, I used to play some video games on a Playstation. Some of the games were a role play type of game (RPG) and the subtitles in the game were in Japanese. Trying to understand what it meant on the screen was just as challenging as the game play itself. Although I could pick out a few Chinese characters here and there among the rest of the “alien inscriptions”, I had no idea what the writings were about.
After I have grown up, the scenario still didn’t change much.
I used to fly to Tokyo regularly when I was working in China. Every time I went to Japan, I felt very restricted on where I could go. Because I couldn’t understand most of their writings. And when a Japanese spoke to me, I was just as clueless to what came out his or her mouth as an Australian or American.
So my experience tells me that saying once you have learnt Chinese, speaking Japanese is much easier is simply not the case.
With that being said, putting spoken Japanese aside, there are indeed some similarities between Japanese Kanji and Chinese Hanzi. In terms of levels of similarity, Japanese Kanji can be roughly categorised into the following groups. I will omit the Chinese intonations of the spelling for simplicity of pronunciations.
Same character in both Japanese and Chinese with almost identical pronunciation
Words in group sound very much the same in both languages. If a Chinese person hears a word like this, he or she may be able to recognise the sound without much difficulty.
茶 means tea. Both Japanese and Chinese pronounce it as “cha”. Well, not exactly identical. The Japanese sound is like the beginning of “Charcoal”. The Chinese sound is quite different. It is a sound a native English-speaking person often has a problem with. But the pinyin of this character is exactly the same to the Japanese version.
透明 means transparent. The Japanese pronunciation is tōmei while the Chinese one is touming. They may look different in spelling, but the sounds are very similar.
One more example in this group is 道路 (Chinese: daolu; Japanese: dōro) which means road. This one sounds like a Chinese spoken with an accent.
Same character with similar pronunciation but not too close
一家 means the whole family in both Chinese and Japanese. Japanese pronounces it as “ikka” while Chinese will pronounce it as “yijia”
電話 means telephone. The Kanji characters are actually written in traditional Chinese. But most Chinese people can recognise them any way. Chinese pronounce this word as dianhua, while Japanese as denwa. This one is rather like Chinese spoken in a southern dialect.
The same goes with 電池 (battery). The Japanese pronunciation is denchi, while the Chinese one is dianchi.
Same character with the same meaning, but different pronunciation
A large number of Kanji characters fall into this category. For example, 父 (father) is pronounced as “chichi” in Japanese. But in Chinese it is pronounced as “fu”. 巢 (nest) is “chao” in Chinese and “su” in Japanese.
These types of Kanji characters are handy, because the meaning and form don’t vary between the two languages. So if the Japanese text is composed of many Kanji characters in this group, a Chinese can pretty much understand the gist of the text.
But such an occasion is rare, because this group of Kanji characters tend spread out in a wide range of context. However there is a Japanese context that can be consistently understood by Chinese. That is the calendar, as in Japanese dates are written in the same way as those in Chinese.
Same character but with completely different meanings
This group of Kanji characters tend to confuse a Chinese reader because Japanese use those words for entirely different things. To give you a couple of examples. 娘 is mother to a Chinese person (pronounced as “niang”), but in Japanese it means daughter or a young woman (Japanese pronunciation is “musume”). I am sure you wouldn’t want to get these two mixed up.
丈夫 (Chinese pronunciation: zhangfu) means husband in Chinese. The same word in Japanese (pronounced as jōbu) means fitness or healthy.
手紙 (Japanese: tegami) means letter in Japanese. But the same word in Chinese (pronounced as shouzhi) is something you would use to clean your bum with — toilet paper. This is another opportunity for creating confusion.
Kanji characters which are recognisable individually to a Chinese, but when combined together the meaning is lost in Chinese
大切 (Japanese: taisetsu) means important in Japanese. But in Chinese such combination doesn’t make sense, because 大 means big, and 切 means to cut. Big cut in Chinese makes no sense.
Kanji characters look like Hanzi, but a Chinese person can’t recognise them
貯金 (Japanese pronunciation: chokin) means savings in Japanese. But I would have no idea what they are if I didn’t know Japanese.
丁寧 (Japanese pronunciation: teimei) means courteous in Japanese. What are they in Chinese? I have no idea.
As you can see, Japanese is very different to Chinese in writing systems. What makes it even harder is the fact that Japanese use three writing systems in their text while Chinese Hanzi mainly has one writing system.
In terms of speaking Japanese, both Japanese sentence structure and pronunciation are very alien to Chinese speakers. So for Chinese to speak Japanese, they have to start from the scratch. I don’t see the real advantage of learning Chinese first if your goal is to learn Japanese, and vice versa. They are simply two very different languages.