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.

      • Morgan says:

        Ive seen japanese smartphones have the kana like you used to have numbers on old mobiles. you press one of them and then drag to either side and it changes beetwen 3 different numbers.

        no idea if im making any sense..

        • Stephen says:

          Makes sense. Hiragana/Katakana are made up of a main letter, let’s say ‘k’ and that is added on to 5 vowels – so you get ka, ki, ku, ke, ko – as your list of options, and then the whole alphabet is built up that way.

          So there is a phone input method where you choose, e.g. the ‘k’, then the screen brings up the ‘ka’ in the middle, and the other 4 around – and you swipe to choose the right one! And you build up the sentence that way. Sounds complicated – and it is a little bit – but it works!

          • Jugo says:

            Yeah, they go A, I, U, E, O, and the front letters go by
            (nothing), K, S, T, N, H, M, Y*, R/L, W**
            I put a * on Y because it only goes in front of A, U and O, while W goes in front of A and O. (It’s hard for my family to say stuff like Wii, we say “Wii” like “Uee”)
            The spots where nothing is there, we replace it with A, I, U, E, O. We have a extra letter that doesn’t go into any line, and it’s ん. <- is NN, and it's like that thing after saying "um….." and it's sometimes put it the last line with わ (Wa) and を (Wo) .

  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.

  4. Sutefuan says:

    Intereresting article (and many of your articles, in general), but I take issue with the description of the Korean language as “being derived from Chinese.” If you could expound on that explanation a bit, or cite some references to that effect.

    Your description of spoken Japanese as sounding “soft, feminine, rolling” also shows how subjective such judgments can be. I would describe it as quite staccato-like and crisp (unless invoking the “cute” way of speaking by girls that’s so in vogue in popular advertiising/modern culture).

    As for how “Chinese” sounds, doesn’t one have to note the stark contrast between Mandarin and Cantonese (which many western linguists actually classify as a distinct language that happens to rely on Chinese characters for its written component, rather than simply a “dialect of Chinese” that even the Chinese themselves keep insisting it is?

    • Rodrigo says:

      Cantonese is not a “different language” who happens to be written with Chinese characters. Cantonese is a Sino-Tibetan language much like Mandarin, more exactly, Cantonese is a Chinese language, which is a language family within the Sino-Tibetan tree. Both Mandarin and Cantonese derived from the same language known as Middle Chinese.
      That would be the same as saying Spanish and Portuguese just happens to be written with the Latin alphabet, when they’re derived from the same source, Vulgar Latin. Even more, if you consider both Spanish and Portuguese come from the Iberian-Latin languages, so, they’re even more closer to each other than for example to Italian or French, which are also derived from Vulgar Latin. Is basically the same thing with Cantonese and Mandarin.

      Another thing, is the fact Cantonese isn’t considered a “Chinese dialect” by Chinese people. In Mandarin or any other Chinese language, there’s two terms to describe languages, in Mandarin “yu” and “hua”, Cantonese is described as “hua” (guangdonghua) much like Mandarin is also described as “hua” (putonghua). “Hua” is reserved for “Han languages” that means languages derived from any Chinese variety (Middle Chinese, Old Chinese, Classical Chinese), whereas “yu” is used to describe non-Han languages, like English (yingyu) or Russian (eyu).
      The term “dialect” often used to describe Cantonese, is a mistranslation of the Chinese “hua”, since there’s no concept of “yu” and “hua” in Indo-European languages, there’s only “language” or in some languages like Portuguese, two terms to describe the same thing “lingua” or “idioma” both meaning “language”.

      Although I agree with you about the “Korean being derived from Chinese” out of place. Korean is a language isolate, which means it has no relation with any other language, the closer language to Korean without being a Korean dialect, is Japanese, and most linguists don’t agree upon if Japanese and Korean share the same ancestor language or the similarities happens to be just coincidence or close geography.
      I think this misconception arises from the way Korean is romanized, which some times looks very similar to Mandarin, with a lot of ending consonants and also the fact Korean surnames are based off of Chinese surnames.

      Although Korean has a lot of “ending vowels”, much more than Mandarin. But was specifically referring to -g endings. Like “meong”, “jeong”, “yong”…on another hand, the vowels like “eo” are very similar to the way Cantonese is romanized. So, one without proper learning could confuse both languages only looking at the way they’re romanized and believing they’re somewhat related.

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