Reading and writing Japanese vs. Chinese

Posted by Betsy on July 24, 2017 in Language |

Is it harder to learn to read Japanese or Mandarin Chinese? Let’s find out!

When you encounter a character in Mandarin, how many possible readings are there?

Let’s look up a very common character, , in a popular Mandarin-English dictionary:

One reading in Mandarin for this character.

One reading for this character in Mandarin.

One way to read this character? That seems reasonable.

What about the Japanese reading for the same character, , in a popular Japanese-English dictionary?

too many readings for this kanji!

Too many readings for this character in Japanese!

In what sort of writing system would you use a single character for 20 different readings???

Yes, this character is exceptional, but it’s not rare for characters to have three, four, or more readings in Japanese. Usually each character to has two readings – one derived from the native Japanese reading, and one derived from the Chinese reading (of whatever dialect and time period it happened to be imported).

So, why I am bringing this up now, when I’ve been studying Japanese for more than 15 years?

Well, I just spent a month in Beijing learning Chinese*. And I found that Chinese characters are perfect for writing Chinese. (Shocking that the Chinese developed a system that works for their language, right?) Each character generally has one possible reading.

But using Chinese characters to write Japanese is like this cat trying to squeeze into this box:

Ultimately, some cat/language parts are going to stick out awkwardly (and that’s where okurigana comes in).

Yes, in Mandarin, you have to learn a tone with the reading of each character. But with Japanese, you also have to know whether the vowel sound is long or short, whether consonants are doubled (geminate), and whether the consonant sound changes in combination with other sounds (rendaku). Not to mention pitch accent

Okay, sure, the Chinese have created some crazy characters, like this one that puts the biāng in my new favorite noodles, biāngbiāngmiàn:

Biáng-order complete

58 strokes of deliciousness!

But not to be outdone, the Japanese went ahead and invented their own “Chinese” character that is even worse! Feast your eyes on taito, an 84-stroke monstrosity:

Taito 1


So, while learning to read and write in Chinese is definitely a challenge, if you want to really torture yourself, why not give Japanese a try?

Personally, I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started learning Japanese, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. If you bring on the challenge, you’ll also reap the rewards–whatever language you choose to learn.

So, which language do you think is harder to learn to read?


*Yep, 1 month is not very long, and I reserve the right to change my opinion as I continue learning!



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