Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese?
I have been thinking a long time about learning an Asian language and now i have an opportunity to choose between four of them already. The problem is that i have no clue which one to choose. There are too many factors to consider.
By the sound i think i like all of them. Which one would you suggest me and why? Which do you think is the easiest to learn? Which one has the easiest pronunciation or grammar? Which one would be the most beneficial to know?
Let me know what do you think. :)
I lived in Japan for 6 years and had work assignments/projects in China, Vietnam and (to a lesser extent) Korea. I have some experience with all four languages and can offer a few reflections:
By “Chinese” I assume you mean Mandarin — which is the official language of China and Taiwan. You should be conscious, however, of the fact the word “Chinese” also encompasses Cantonese, Hokkien, Shanghaiese, and other quite different, but related, languages. The funny thing is that all these languages are written basically the same way, such that a speaker of one can more or less read and understand anything written in another — a wonderful consequences of using an ideographic writing system (discussed below).
Mandarin and Vietnamese are both tonal languages — Mandarin has four tones and standard (Hanoi-dialect) Vietnamese has six. In Mandarin (for example), the word “ma” can mean “mother” or “horse” depending on how high or low your voice is (and those are two words that you really don’t want to mix up). I didn’t find the tones particularly difficult, but they give the language a very different “vibe” than what English-speakers are used to and it can sound discordant. You should listen to the languages a bit and see if you like the overall sound before making a decision of what to study.
What I found challenging in Vietnamese pronunciation, frankly, were the vowels. There are 11 vowels in Vietnamese and sometimes I could swear that they all sounded the same. I often had difficulty pronuncing words understandably and found it easier to simply take out a pad of paper and write out (in Vietnamese) what I was trying to say. Thankfully, Vietnam has near universal literacy. :-)
Japanese and Korean are both non-tonal. Japanese has only five vowels and every syllable has to end with a vowel or the letter “n”. It is fair to say that Japanese pronunciation is quite simple for English-speakers.
Korean has a more elaborate sound system — a broader range of vowels and consonants and possible combinations (although it too is not considered particularly difficult).
Chinese and Vietnamese grammar are generally considered relatively simple — Chinese especially.
Japanese grammar is not particularly difficult (there is no gender of nouns, verb conjugation is simple and regular, etc) but it is very different from what we used to in English. For example, anything that modifies in Japanese comes before what is modified, and the main verb comes at the end. So the sentence, “Could you please explain to me the meaning of a word that I heard yesterday” comes out “Yesterday heard word’s meaning to me explain could you please?” It is amusing listening to simultaneous interpreters translating between English and Japanese since they sometimes pause for extended periods to wait for an entire sentence of finish before they can start translating.
I don’t know enough about Korean grammar to comment.
All four languages have different writing systems. Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet with a formidable array of diacritics (for both pronunciation and tone).
Korean uses a very simple alphabet unique to it called Hangul (of which the Korean people are VERY proud) that you can frankly learn in a day.
Chinese uses an ideographic writing system — each character stands for a word. You need to be able to read about 5000 characters to be considered functionally literate in Chinese. Learning to read Chinese at even a grade-school level is a MAJOR undertaking that can take years under the best of circumstances.
Japanese uses a mixed system with about 2000 characters borrowed from Chinese, supplemented by two syllabaries — one used for primarily for grammatical markers and another used for foreign words. While Westerners like to bewail the fact that Japanese has three writing systems, it is actually much easier to learn to read Japanese than Chinese — both because there are much fewer characters, but also because the foreign words (which are mostly English loan words) easily stand out in any text. Nevertheless, to become functionally literate in Japanese is, like in Chinese, a significant undertaking.
- Cultural Material
There is an near-limitless quantity of movies, TV shows, music and books available in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. You will have no shortage of interesting material to explore once you learn the language. I have a buddy who learnt Korean just to watch Korean TV shows in the original language — and he’s happy he did.
I am sure there is lots of material available in Vietnamese as well, although it may not be as accessible.
Obviously, Chinese has the most speakers, but all your possible languages are spoken by at least tens of millions of people in countries with important highly-developped or developping economies. You won’t be wasting your time with any of them.
One final thought: You may want to consider adding Indonesian to your list of possible languages (once Duolingo adds it). Simple grammar, simple pronunciation, Latin alphabet, and spoken by over 200 million people (thus more than Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese) in an up-and-coming economy.
Benefit. Mandarin Chinese, Mandarin is the most widely spoken language on the planet. Disadvantage: Mandarin is a tonal language that is quite hard to master.
Benefit. Japanese, Most demanded job in the world, e.g. if you want to be a translator, knowing Japanese will earn you the most money. ;) Disadvantage: According to the foreign language institute, it is meant to be the hardest language on the planet to learn if you're English.
Benefit. Vietnamese, If you want to go to Vietnam, very few speak English, so if you are planning a trip there or thinking about going outside the tourist zone, you'd better have a Vietnamese dictionary or know a bit of the language! Disadvantage. Vietnamese is never really used outside Vietnam. If you are not planning on going to Vietnam, then I wouldn't recommend you learn Vietnamese.
Benefit. Korean, Korean is probably one of the best business languages to learn in Asia, as it is the 2nd most demanded language for an English speaker to learn (behind Japanese). Also Korean in my opinion has the hottest girls ;) Disadvantage: Korea is split in half and a very tense place because of North Korea always threatening the South. If you don't like tense places, Korean isn't for you.
It took me a while to do this, hope you read carefully. For me I would go Korean. :) Let me know what you pick.
Japanese is the easiest. Loved my time in Japan, never spent time in Korea but seems like a great place, its on my hit list to visit.
As much as i dont like China's government I have to admit found the people to be great, friendly and helpful. As someone from the west people always wanted to interact.
Just walking around one day was invited to play some basketball, became a daily thing after work playing with a group of fellows that did not speak much english nor I Mandarin.
I'll take Japan or China over anyplace in Europe.