I want to learn Japanese or Mandarin, but which?

I took a few Korean classes a couple months ago, which I really had fun with as I enjoy many Korean films, television shows and music. I would like to continue but it was a free class that didn’t go beyond a certain level, and my university doesn’t offer Korean language classes.

So I checked to see what Asian languages my university offered and saw Mandarin and Japanese listed. I’m really interested in both, for different reasons, but I don’t have room to take both.

Which do you guys suggest?

Reasons to choose Mandarin:

  • It has nearly a billion speakers worldwide
  • China is a superpower in the global economy
  • It looks challenging, which might actually be good for me when I tackle other languages later on

Reasons to choose Japanese:

  • I listen to some Japanese music
  • Japan is a superpower in the global economy
  • Romaji looks pretty simple (is there a Mandarin equivalent?) compared to Chinese characters

Japanese looks like it would be more fun for me considering I could reinforce my learning through music and I could start off writing/reading in romaji (and save hiragana, katakana, kanji for later), but I’m thinking Mandarin might be more useful to me when I start working, and I do not want to underestimate this!

How important is the learning of the two languages’ writing systems? From my experiences learning Korean, I wouldn’t recommend learning to speak it before learning to read/write in hangul (the Korean writing system) as it can really slow you down. Are Mandarin and Japanese the same in this respect?

Can the Dopers offer any advice and insight into the learning of these two languages?

Mandarin is more “useful” in North America, given that most Japanese speakers can already speak English, and there are fewer of them. I would say Japanese is easier, as it is not a tonal language, and has the easiest pronunciation of any language I can name, even moreso than Italian or Spanish. Japanese has 3 character systems whereas Chinese has 1, although they are easy to tell apart and recognize with just a little training. Two of them are sylibaries where each character is 2-3 English letters.

Mandarin has equivalents to Japanese romanization, e.g. Pinyin, Wade-Giles, although I’m not too familiar with those, I think you write out the tones after each character.

Japanese is one of my absolute favorite languages in the world. It’s just plain neat.

Mandarin is far, far more likely to ever be of practical use to you, and should you decide to switch to Japanese or take it up later, it’s generally thought to be easier to go from knowing written Chinese to written Japanese than vice versa.

Also, the only thing you’re going to find written in romaji are textbooks and the like- if you intend to ever actually use your Japanese, you’ll need to learn hiragana and katakana.

No offense meant, but I giggled out loud at this. Sorry.

Anyway, I don’t know which one will be of more use in your career, but as for Japanese, don’t worry about learning hiragana and katakana: they can be picked up in a weekend with a deck of flashcards.

If you do choose Japanese, one thing that really helped my reading speed was hanging out in a karaoke bar. Trying to follow along with the lyrics on the screen while someone else was singing them helped me to eventually be able to read hiragana/katakana really quickly. With kanji, it wasn’t as big a help since the only ones that ever came up were “love” “tear” “dream” “lonliness” and “alcohol” (it was a bar mostly for the 50+ crowd. I just lived upstairs from it).

Umm, Chinese major here that also speaks basic Japanese. Depends on what you want to do with it. Depends on your language skills. Your interests.

Japanese is far far far easier to get a basic level of communication fluency. But Japanese is very difficult to really do well given the grammar and keigo.

Chinese OTOH basically has no grammar. I exaggerate only slightly. Chinese is extremely logical and the grammar simplistic.

Both are quite difficult languages though and rewarding beyond words if you really master them.

Both are horrible, but perhaps I’m just terrible at languages.

For Japanese, keigo - the formal verb form, when from a position of humility speaking up to a superior - is annoying, and the interchangability of the three character systems can baffle new starters.

In Putonghua, the four tones drove me nuts (not as awful as colloquial Cantonese though for which, I’m told, some words do not have a written equivalent).

If you plan on picking up both at some point, I’m told by my Mandarin-speaking friends that picking up kanji with knowledge of Chinese calligraphy is pretty easy, but the reverse may be more difficult. All anecdotal, of course, and second-hand to boot.

As far as usefulness, as the other posters say, it really depends on your interests. If you enjoy Japanese music and don’t plan on doing anything specifically relating to Mandarin recreationally or business-wise, that may be the better plan. On the other hand, you could have the songs forever ruined for you since you know what vapid things the pop stars are crooning about and can no longer tune it out. :wink: YMMV.

None taken. I meant those Japanese speakers in the US/Canada are less likely to emigrate for economic reasons in the 21st century. And isn’t it mandatory to study English over there, even if it is not required to have a functional skill in English.

Many kanji are simplified versions of Traditional Chinese characters, which is used in Taiwan, IIRC, and possible elsewhere(HK?). The Simplified character set is similar to kanji, but they are often simplified differently and may not be recognizable as the same character. I can see why they might say it is more difficult, as it’s often counterintuitive to see how they changed the character, and the changes were usually ongoing over centuries.

Don’t forget, though, that Japanese writing is considerably more complex; while the two sets of syllabic characters are easy, the way kanji are used in written Japanese is far more complicated than in Chinese. It’s hard enough learning to read and write Mandarin - but in Japanese, each character usually has several different readings (something considerably less common in Chinese) and then sometimes pairs of characters have a reading that’s different from either character on its own. I don’t know any Japanese, but from what I’ve heard, it seems to me that learning to read it must be an incredibly difficult task.

Anyway, I’m going to second the idea that Mandarin is likely to be more useful in the future. The grammar is, as many posters have mentioned, considerably simpler in some ways than that of Japanese - but at the same time, it’s very different from that of English, which makes it hard to learn. I wouldn’t stress about any of the pronunciation issues; tone in Mandarin is quite simple, and you pick it up pretty quickly. There’s a substantial number of sounds that don’t exist in English, but on the other hand Mandarin has a very simple syllable structure (as does Japanese) so once you learn those sounds, you won’t be challenged by seemingly unpronounceable combinations of them. Also consider other things - it’s not hard to find movies in Mandarin, but on the whole, there’s a lot more Japanese material easily available in the U.S. in the form of comic books and anime and so on.

Yep, each character normally has two or more readings, kun-yomi is the “Japanese” pronunciation, and on-yomi is the “Chinese” pronunciation, although it may not sound anything like the way the character is currently pronounced in the different Chinese languages. It’s actually not a completely abstract idea, for example the character 水(water) is pronounced “mizu” in kun-yomi when alone, and “sui” when in a compound word. This is similar to English, where we use the Germanic “water” when the word is alone, or the Latin “aqua” or the Greek “hydro” when it is in a compound word.

One difficult thing I found with Japanese is that because of a somewhat limited array of syllables, there are many homophones which can only be recognized by context. So while you are learning the language, misinterpretations may occur.

Thanks for your replies everyone!

I’m still rather unsure, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as you guys have mentioned many points for me to think over.

I am planning to learn both, so it’s just a question of which to do first.

New question: Which of these two languages are quicker to learn? Like, with which of these two languages would I be able to have some very basic understanding of their respective dialogue in a shorter amount of time? I ask because the quicker I have some basic skills, the quicker I can get on to finding somewhat entertaining ways to reinforce and build upon my learning (e.g. films and music).

I think it would be easier to learn the Chinese first, then tackle the Japanese. I’m working on learning Japanese, and I can say this: bring Excedrin. It’s a neat, rewarding language, but it’s tough.

You can learn some basic understanding of Japanese fairly quickly, but as thelurkinghorror mentioned, many words can change depending on whether they’re alone or a compound word. So while you may be able to follow what people say when they’re introducing themselves, understanding lyrics and movies is a whole other ballgame.

I think it’s really cool that you want to learn both languages, btw. Someday, when I have a better grip on Japanese, I’d like to learn German. Aren’t languages fun?

I have no experience with Japanese so I can’t comment on that. I can say that IME, you shouldn’t let the fact that Chinese is tonal scare you off. Once you get used to the idea (and it doesn’t take long), using the proper tone becomes second nature.

China is the new Japan.


Been there, tried that and wasn’t real successful. My Mandarin is quite good, but the Japanese isn’t.

Without a doubt, Japanese is much much much easier to get a basic level of fluency. You already know a thousand Japanese words once you learn how to pronounce the katakana words. For example, you could become “fluent” in sushi bar Japanese very quickly.

Japanese grammar is a bitch, and if you have trouble with grammar, then you should go for Chinese. Then again, if tones are difficult for you to distinguish, then you need to go for the Chinese.

I’d change the expectation that you would learn both languages unless you really have a lot of time on your hands. Learning either Japanese or Chinese is already quite a good accomplishment.

Agreed. Mandarin in particular has a simple tonal structure, compared to other Chinese languages and nearby East Asian languages. It’s not difficult at all to reproduce and understand tones well enough to, at very least, be intelligible.

I’d also say you should learn Chinese. It’s the “hot” language now, but even if it fades or if China becomes our enemy, it will still be cool to know it.

I’ll add that you should really learn pin yin, the romanization of Chinese. It’s easy and takes a couple hours to learn. I never studied it formally, but had tons of Chinese people around to practice with.

Find Chinese people to practice with. It makes a difficult task less difficult. Most Chinese love to hear foreigners speak Chinese. Many young people there(50 and under) haven’t known many non-Chinese, so it’s fun to hear Chinese with a foreign accent.

Go to this site to learn Pinyin.

Chinese Pronunciation Guide

I suggest learning Mandarin first. Mandarin Chinese is the hot new language (much like Japanese was in the eighties) and is not that difficult to learn in a classroom setting.

To re-emphasize some the things already talked about, learning Mandarin Chinese can be easy (or at least not as difficult as one might think) because:

  • You need to learn only four tones (the things that make the language sound sing-songy). Compare that to Cantonese, which can run from seven to eleven tones.

  • Chinese teachers focus a lot of energy on tones and pronunciation in the beginning, knowing that this is the most difficult hurdle for beginners. Once you master the four tones and pronounce sounds like Q, ZH, J, X, CI, and SH, everything else will fall into place.

  • Chinese grammar is overly straightforward. Things which plague English learners are virtually non-existent in Chinese. No need to worry about verb-subject agreement (“I/you/he/she/it/we/they be”), pluralization forms (“one book, two book, one goose, two goose”), or when to use those darn apostrophes (the word “de” is used rather liberally – or even omitted in some cases – to denote possession, among other relationships).

Other reasons to learn Chinese first:

  • It’s easier to learn to write Chinese first, then Japanese, rather than vice-versa. Many Chinese idiograms (Han-zu or “Chinese characters”) are used in Japanese with little to no modification.

  • Once you learn the 10,000 or so Chinese characters for basic fluency, learning the 2,000 Japanese characters (“kanji”) required for basic fluency (about the equivalent of an 8th grade comprehension level or enough to get the gist of a newspaper article) is a snap.

  • Don’t let the big numbers mentioned above scare you. Many characters are formed by combining a “radical” or root component with supporting components that either give clues to the pronounciation or meaning of the character. You will also see the same radicals and supporting components used again and again as you study progressively complex characters. It’s similar to studying medical terminology, where you can figure out what a word means by breaking it up into its Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes.

If for some reason you end up learning Japanese first, we won’t hold it against ya :slight_smile: Some benefits of learning Japanese first:

  • Yay, no tones! It’s true that Japanese speech does carry a certain intonation, but that’s more to make your speech sound natural, and you can pick that up by copying your instructor’s speech intonations.

  • You only need to learn about fifty (forty-seven or so) syllables to put together words. They’re not that hard to pronounce, and by the end of the week, you can read things out loud like “Tokyou to Kyouto no wa dochira suki desu ka” without even knowing what you’re saying. (That tongue-twister basically means “Which do you like more, Tokyo or Kyoto?”)

  • You’ll give your brain a good workout learning Japanese word order. Some have likened Japanese to Yoda-speak, since the verb comes at the end. Once you get the hang of it, though, it kinda makes sense. Verbs are unnecessary if you already have the nouns, direct objects, and prepositions. Japanese often leave out subject nouns, too, since they are implied. thereby conveniently shortening their sentences. For instance, you can say “Gokkou e?” to mean “Are you going [to] [school]?” just by using the words I bracketed. Although beginners are encouraged to use “complete sentences” (“Omae wa gakkou e ikimasu ka?” as based on the previous example), it is perfectly acceptable, grammatically speaking, to use the abbreviated form without sounding like you’re speaking “broken Japanese”. (Speaking this way in English, on the other hand, can make you sound like the stereotypical Native American Indian or Tarzan.)

No matter which path you choose, best of luck and have fun!

(My usual disclaimer: These are the rantings of a non-native speaker of either Chinese or Japanese, though I have taken college classes in both.)

Just FYI for those who care… I will be taking Introductory Mandarin this Tuesday. So excited! Now my next problem is trying to decide between Simplified and Traditional Chinese script, but I’m already 90% sure I’m going with Simplified.

I guess Japanese will have to wait.

It’s not a huge decision. They’re similar, though admittedly not so similar that you can automatically read one if you can read the other. Whichever one you learn, you’ll probably pick up quite a bit of the other, and learning one will make it a fairly simple matter to learn the other one down the line. I don’t personally think either is particularly easier to read or learn than the other (though people will argue both sides); simplified, of course, is quicker to write (though actual Chinese people just draw incomprehensible scrawls) but I tend to find traditional a tad more aesthetically pleasing on the whole.