To the untrained eye or ear, Asian languages can appear completely incomprehensible and indistinguishable from each other. The written characters may as well be hieroglyphs and unlike some other languages, listening in on a conversation isn’t going to give you much to go on. The guide below it intended to provide a simple quick start for telling apart Chinese, Japanese and Korean. You’ll soon find it’s really rather simple!

Chinese

Chinese is the grandaddy of all East Asian languages and around one-fifth of the world’s population speaks it in one form or another, the most widely spoken being Mandarin. The idea that all Chinese characters are pictorial is an erroneous one: most characters consist of a semantic element that indicates meaning, and a phonetic element that indicates the pronunciation. However, you’d have to learn a staggering 3,000 just to read a newspaper (out of around 40,000 in a Chinese dictionary).

Mandarin employs four distinct tones for pronunciation which can be described as high level, rising, falling then rising, and falling – e.g. mā (媽 – mother), má (麻 – hemp), mǎ (馬 – horse) and mà (罵 – scold) – it’s very important to get them right otherwise you may end up calling your mum a horse (or worse)!

‘Pleased to meet you’ in Mandarin

我很高兴跟你见面 – Wǒ hěn gāoxìng gěn nǐ jiànmiàn (Pinyin)

我很高兴跟你见面 (Simplified Chinese – used in mainland China)
我很高興跟你見面 (Traditional Chinese – used in Hong Kong, Macau & Taiwan)

Looks: boxy, complex, many strokes (but simplified has less)
Sounds: loud, strong, aggressive, punctual

Common surnames: Li, Wang, Yang, Wu, Chen

Japanese

Just to make things confusing Japanese is written with a combination of three scripts: kanji (漢字) derived originally from Classical Chinese for regular usage, hiragana (ひらがな) for native Japanese words and katakana (カタカナ) for foreign words. Japanese has a relatively small sound inventory but is distinguished by a large number of local dialects and a complex system of honorifics which are used to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned in conversation. Japanese have some difficulty pronouncing the letter “r” since there is no direct corresponding sound.

‘Pleased to meet you’ in Japanese

初めまして – Hajimemashite (Rōmaji)

Looks: squiggly, cute, mixed
Sounds: soft, feminine, reserved, rolling

Common surnames: Sato, Yoshida, Sasaki, Suzuki

Korean

Despite also being derived from Chinese, Korean is somewhat easier to read than Chinese or Japanese since it has an alphabet (called Hangul) containing 24 consonants and vowels. However, instead of being written sequentially like the letters of the Latin alphabet, Hangul letters are grouped into blocks, such as 한 han; each of these blocks transcribes a syllable, composed of three distinct letters: ㅎ h, ㅏ a, and ㄴ n. Created in the mid-15th century, it is considered one of the most logically designed languages in the world.

‘Pleased to meet you’ in Korean

만나서 반갑습니다 – Mannaseo bangapseumnida (Romanised)

Looks: angular, ovals & straight lines, alphabetic
Sounds: smooth, melodious, repetitive, zig-zag

Common surnames: Kim, Park, Lee, Young

How to Type Asian Characters

Many people have asked me in the past what a Chinese / Japanese / Korean keyboard looks like and the surprising answer is that they actually look almost exactly the same as yours with a standard QWERTY key layout (although some may have extra markings and a shortcut key to switch languages). A piece of software called an ‘input method editor‘ (IME) automatically converts the romanised spelling into the corresponding characters on-screen as you type. It’s arguably a bit slower to type this way but certainly more efficient than having a massive keyboard!

Comments

  1. Sahar says:

    Thank you for this! My friends and I play this game where we say stuff in other languages and everyone else guesses which language it is. Now, perhaps I can actually win a few rounds!

  2. Gomushin Girl says:

    First, Korean is not “easier” than Japanese or Korean because it has an alphabet. Learning to read may be easier (although learning hangeul is not necessarily any easier than learning hiragana or katakana), but it is a complex language that isn’t any “easier” to learn than Japanese or Chinese.
    Also, I’m typing on a Korean keyboard right now, and while it does have a standard QWERTY layout, there are some special keys to allow me to switch between Korean and English and to use Chinese characters. The keyboard is also clearly labeled with Korean letters as well as English. The standard keyboard layout in Japan also has a number of differences with the standard American keyboard to accommodate some extra settings and marks.
    For example, here’s a standard layout Japanese keyboard:
    http://goo.gl/ShFkU
    and here’s a standard Korean keyboard:
    http://goo.gl/fkeDj
    It’s no slower for a good typist to enter hangeul or katakana than it is English, and with practice, Chinese character selection can also be done extremely quickly. IME’s are for Latin alphabet users to be able to input other character sets on their computers, but a standard Korean, Japanese, or Chinese computer is already equipped with this function.

    • David says:

      Thanks for your feedback – that’s really helpful. I’ve updated my article a bit to reflect some of you comments.

      Regarding ease of learning – I certainly found Korean ‘easier’ to get started with than Chinese or Japanese but as you mention this is mostly on the reading side of things. I also felt the concepts involved in the gramatical structure were a little more logical to understand but perhaps that’s just me!

      Regarding how fast you can type with an IME, I did mention that this was a point of argument – some people are obviously faster than others.

    • alcahest says:

      It is because Taiwanese use a more traditional(orthodox?) way of spelling. For phonetic they use Bopomofo, for orthographic the system follows section headers(or radical), which is somewhat lost in simplified Chinese.

  3. Ryan says:

    This is very intriguing information. While I would certainly concur that the three mentioned languages are the first three Asian languages that come to mind, I would love to see some information about other Asian languages and their scripts.

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed.