So you’ve spent some time learning Chinese and decided you want to try your hand at Japanese. Maybe you like anime, enjoy challenges, or have just run out of new Chinese characters to learn. Luckily, time invested in learning Chinese does pay off when switching to Japanese, both for the written and spoken languages. However, despite some surface-level similarities, Japanese comes from a completely different linguistic family from Chinese, and there are aspects where a Chinese language background does not help or a learner, or worse, leads them astray. This article will introduce the Japanese language from the perspective of a Chinese learner looking to make the switch and give some advice and opinions on how to get started.
Japanese Writing Crash Course
While Japanese, like Chinese, is written with lots of 漢字 kanji (or by it Chinese name—hanzi), it additionally uses two native phonetic syllabaries (“alphabets”), called hiragana and katakana, and the Latin alphabet, called romaji. Presumably, if you’re reading this article, you already have one of these writing systems down without much further study—romaji, the one that uses the Latin alphabet. And if you’re really in the target audience for this article, you already have a head start on the kanji—the originally-Chinese logographs that have been adopted and modified to represent the Japanese language. Written Japanese uses a combination of all four of these systems, making it the most complex currently-used writing systems on the planet! While this is a challenge to learn, it is certainly doable, and a background in written Chinese makes it easier than ever to start.
While the two spoken languages are wildly different and linguistically unrelated, China and Chinese have had a noticeable impact on Japan’s history and language. Because of this, some words in the spoken language have pronunciations similar to their modern Mandarin counterparts. For instance, the word for telephone in Japanese is 電話 (でんわ denwa), which sounds (and looks) not too different from Chinese’s 电话/電話 diànhuà. Or take a similar example, 電車 (でんしゃ denshya) compared to Chinese’s 电车/電車 diànchē, or 試験 (しけん shiken) to 试验/試驗 shìyàn. A word of caution though, while some Japanese words do have some connection to Chinese in the spoken language, certainly many more words in the spoken language are completely different and unrelated or, even when there is a link, isn’t always obvious between modern Mandarin and modern Japanese.
Differences from Chinese and Gotchas
Despite the similarities of the kanji on the surface, there are some major differences between Chinese and Japanese. For one, Japanese doesn’t use kanji to write all of its words. Japanese in general is more flexible in how words are written than Chinese. For instance, even if there is a kanji for a word, say for key 鍵, depending on the context, it may be written in katakana instead as カギ or even hiragana かぎ for style or emphasis. One really needs to know the pronunciation of a word for the written one to make sense.
Almost every kanji is a 多音字 (multi-sound character). Whereas in Mandarin Chinese, only a relatively small number of characters have multiple readings or different pronunciations in different words (e.g. 得), in Japanese the opposite is true. In Chinese, I believe that learning individual character readings out of context isn’t as helpful as learning a few words that use a specific character. This is even more-so true in Japanese, to the point where I would not recommend that learners study any individual kanji readings entirely. Even if one learns all the myriad of readings for a character like 上, they won’t be able to derive the appropriate reading for the character in a sentence or word, which is the far more valuable bit of knowledge to gain.
For the most part, a learner’s Chinese character and word meaning recognition will generally transfer over pretty well between the languages. Words like 電話 and 必要 are the same in each language, with other ones like 機構 are relatively similar to their Chinese counterparts (机制/機制). However, not every kanji or word has the same meaning between Chinese and Japanese. The perennial example is 手紙, which means toilet paper in Chinese, but means a letter (the kind that one gets in the mail) in Japanese. Additionally, some kanji have subtly different meanings which can cause confusion. So don’t assume words will be the same. But often, a learner’s Chinese knowledge will give a big hint at the meaning to newly encountered Japanese words.
In Chinese, the structure of a word is always the same. There’s no “-ed” or “-ing” added onto the end of 去. By contrast, Japanese is an agglutinative language, which means that groups of sounds can attach on to words in order to express different grammatical meanings. Japanese verbs and adjectives both conjugate with different tenses for whether and when something happened, among other criteria. So simply learning an adjective or verb’s dictionary form is not necessarily enough to recognize it in usage when starting out. One also needs to take time to understand a word’s different forms. For me, I especially had to focus on adjectives when starting out because they changed form so much.
Tips and Tricks for Learning Japanese
Regardless of Chinese background, a new Japanese learner’s first step should be to learn the two native phonetic syllabaries, a.k.a the kana: hiragana and katakana. For this, I would suggest Skritter’s Learn Hiragana and Learn Katakana decks. They are free for all users in the Skritter: Write Japanese app (Android, iOS) and include professionally-made helpful mnemonic images to make learning the kana more memorable.
The order in which one learns the two isn’t that important since they will need to learn both. Hiragana is traditionally taught first and is used more frequently in the written language. Additionally, some beginner textbooks will exclusively use hiragana transliterations to lower the reading barrier. But for another perspective (say you have an imminent trip to Tokyo next week), I always recommend tourists to Japan learn katakana first. Since Japanese uses katakana mainly to write foreign loanwords, often of English origin, it’s the highest value per character learned towards understanding the language for someone who already speaks English.
After learning the kana, the next most valuable thing a learner can do is to learn some words and get a good beginner’s level vocabulary. Using a dictionary is a near necessity for this, or at the very least, extremely helpful. However like Chinese, Japanese doesn’t use spaces, so figuring out where one word ends and another begins is difficult in the beginning. Additionally, since Japanese words (specifically verbs and adjectives) conjugate, meaning they change form, there is an extra layer of difficulty in figuring out what a word is and how to find it in a dictionary. Because of this, I do recommend spending a little time studying grammar, if only so a learner can figure out how to look up a word or grammar point. First, learn the basics about Japanese particles and and conjugations, and second, learn some common kana words.
I recommend using a beginner grammar textbook, like the Genki series, even if it’s only for reference and not a main source of instruction. In fact, a textbook isn’t even necessary! If video lessons are a more preferred method of instruction, ToKini Andy has a great Youtube channel with free lessons that teach the material in the Genki series, along with other grammar tidbits and fun Japanese learning content. Obviously Skritter is a great tool to help learn vocabulary and has its own set of beginner lists (Survival Japanese, Japanese 101, JLPT N5, oh and don’t forget that stroke order is different in Japanese too). And once a learner feels comfortable with kana and basic grammar, there’s a world of graded readers and other learner content to start exploring. I’ve personally used Satori Reader and find the stories very engaging.
How to learn conjugations and particles
My number one recommendation for learning conjugations is to avoid memorizing giant tables. They are often overwhelming, contextless, difficult to memorize, and incredibly dull to do so. Instead, a learner should give themself as much context as possible for when to use a particle or a tense. One super effective way I’ve found for this is to study sentences that use the grammar in them rather than trying to bash in that “grammar point G means x, y, and z.” First off, it’s an opportunity to learn some extra phrases and words, and that’s always the goal of language learning. But memorizing sentences can also help reinforce more subtle agreement rules. E.g. “It wasn’t expensive” (past tense) still uses です, not でした. E.g. 高くなかったです。Luckily for Skritter users, Skritter includes professionally-made example sentences with audio for every single word that’s a part of our JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) decks.
Having studied Chinese gives a learner a large advantage when it comes to learning Japanese, both in the written and spoken languages. Being aware of the similarities and differences between the two languages will help a learner more effectively find their way around Japanese. With a little bit of effort in the beginning, a Chinese learner can quickly start to become comfortable picking up Japanese. Without the scariness of learning kanji completely from scratch, a whole other world of communication, media, and connections becomes that much closer. 行くよ！(ikuyo–let’s go!)
Are you planning on taking the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test)? Learn more about it in this blog post.