Welcome to Learning, the section of the site that aims to teach you either Simplified Mandarin Chinese or Japanese by following a logical progression through the language. Clearly, this guide is for those learning these as an additional language, not as their first, as it would be fairly difficult to use this website without knowing English. Speaking of English, this website uses British English.
If you're looking for a more laid back learning experience, check out Arcania City that has the same information in story form.
So which languge are you planning to learn? If you haven't decided, keep on reading!
Why study a language?
Answer the following two questions:
- Why shouldn't I learn a new language?
- Why should I learn a new language?
Now, I'm sure you had many more answers for the first question but how many of your answers for the second question have more impact?
Let's discuss some of the reasons you should learn a new language.
- It will make you more employable, including internationally.
Easily reason number one, obviously this would make working in the country (or countries) that speak the language a far more valid option. But you don't have to go international. There are plenty of occupations where knowing more than one language is a huge plus, if not a necessity, obvious examples being translators and journalists. Besides how many politicians do you know who only know one language? But you don't have to work in language-heavy industries to benefit from knowing multiple languages. Many employers rate the effort taken to learn a new language very highly and, who knows, maybe your company will expand internationally and ask you to spearhead their effort since you know the country's language? (If there are any employers that don't value the knowledge of multiple languages then that's just sad, which makes me sad.)
In English-speaking countries, speaking multiple languages (or all least, speaking them well) is fairly uncommon in comparison to other non-English speaking countries where schools often teach English from an early age. Brutally speaking, this world is incredibly competitive and knowing multiple languages doesn't just give you an edge, it's a huge boost to your standing and potential.
- It's a small world, where everyone is not far away, socialising gets a lot easier.
Human technology has advanced incredibly over the last hundred years. In 1915, commercial air flights were not a thing, you couldn't take your phone outside and if you asked anyone about the World Wide Web they would compliment you on your poetic alliteration on giant spiders (and then criticise your outrageous fashion sense). (The world was also in the middle of an international conflict that showed that communication technology could not cope with rapid changes.) (NB: This paragraph was typed in 2015, where we have hoverboards and self-lacing shoes though we've had time machines for thirty years.)
Now the world is closely connected, oceans are no barrier to making friends across the globe. You can support foreign projects on Kickstarter, participate in international activities with Avaaz or have a African versus South American game of League of Legends.
This exposes to you more people and places that express themselves in different languages. A holiday to Germany is more fulfilling if you know German (unless you enjoy panicking to find the nearest public toilet) and you wouldn't need to rely on a translator. Watching a La Liga football (or soccer, if you prefer) match would be more informative if you knew Spanish and if you knew Korean, Gangnam Style would linguistically mean something to you.
The whole world is no longer beyond reach.
- You will learn about other cultures.
This is correct, it is impossible to learn a language without revealing some of the history and customs of those that speak the language. For example, centuries ago in English, the words 'pig', 'sheep' and 'cow' came from the lower class that worked with the animals. However, the names of their respective meat, 'pork', 'mutton' and 'beef', came from the upper classes that only ate the animals.
However, I will be honest, while learning a language will familiarise you with the culture, it will not make you an expert on the subject as even studying the etymology of each character and phrase wouldn't be enough, and which be would more than you need to know to learn the language (though it might help you remember the character more easily).
If you want to learn about other cultures, learning the language is a good place to start but do keep in mind that you do need to put your back into it.
- It will increase your brain capacity/It will improve your memory/It will help you appreciate your own language
These might be true but these are just bonuses to the above. If you're learning a language just to improve your memory, then you might want to look at more focused memory training (unless you've already exhausted other avenues).
- It will be fun.
Not all people find studying languages fun. Not all people find studying anything fun. But if you do enjoy it, then it is a huge plus. Hopefully I can help you with that.
Why study Chinese?
I'm sure you've heard many of the stories about China's increasing influence on the world stage. China is an economic powerhouse right behind the United States and the most populous country in the world at around 1.4 billion people. Almost 20% of world's population speak Mandarin Chinese as their first language. Many countries have a sizeable Chinese community, stretching Mandarin beyond China's borders. China also benefits from being the oldest and richest continuous culture that is still around, lasting over 9000 years old (though I can't confirm for as I wasn't around then). The closest rivals, the Ancient Egyptians, has been long gone for a while.
Chinese is the go-to language with the most potential. Except maybe English. But I think you know that language.
But let's talk about the characteristics of the language itself.
Chinese grammar is relatively simple (in comparison, Japanese grammar is rather complex):
- Ever have trouble remembering the tenses of words, like 'eat'/'ate'/'eaten' or 'see'/'saw'/'seen'? Chinese doesn't bother with amending words or verb conjugations. Tense is instead expressed via adverbs.
- Ever get confused with gender of nouns like in French? Chinese doesn't have this.
- Chinese sentences actually have a similar structure to English. If you want to translate a statement into Chinese, you can sometimes get the gist of the sentence by translating it word by word. For example, 'I have a red car' would become '我 (I) 有 (have) 一辆 (one) 红 (red) 车 (car).' Like in English, you can reorder the words. 'That red car is mine' would be '那 (that) 一辆 (one) 红 (red) 车 (automobile) 是 (is) 我的 (mine).' It somewhat works the other way.
But there are some things you need to look out for:
- Clearly, the biggest barrier is that Chinese uses a pictorial system of characters, called hànzì, that pretty much have to be learnt individually. You can try to take guesses at the definition and pronunciation of characters but you'd rarely be correct.
- The good news is that each character is always one syllable. However, the bad news is that since Chinese has a limited number of sounds, there are a huge number of homophones, far more than English. This is not a problem with written characters but when listening to spoken words, you will need to figure out the meaning from the context.
- A good thing about simplified characters is that, if you know how to write a character, it is quicker to write it down. The bad thing is that the character might lose its etymological meaning so it might be harder to initially learn or remember.
- In English, pronunciation of syllables or whole words can vary (such as 'read' and its past tense 'read', or even the town of Reading that my satnav always pronounces wrong). This also happens in Chinese where the same character can have multiple pronunciations.
- Chinese relies heavily on the four tones. If a word is mispronounced with a different tone, it could mean something completely different. For example, like called your mother ('妈妈' [māmā]) a horse horse ('马马' [mǎmǎ]), which would be... weird.
- Obviously, you need to be careful of compound terms that don't mean the same as its sub-words considered separately. Easy Chinese examples are place names that are named to sound similar, regardless of their definition, such as '美国' for the United States of America, meaning 'beautiful country'. I'll let you decide if that is appropriate. (One unfortunate exception to this is '英国', which is the United Kingdom but sounds like England, unfortunately for the other countries of the UK, and means 'brave country'.)
- Chinese rarely adopts terms from other languages without giving it a different pronunciation, place names like above being exceptions. Japanese, on the other hand, has adopted many foreign terms into the language.
In short, learning Chinese is difficult, but the majority of the difficulty comes from learning the characters. Everything else really isn't all that different to English.
Why study Japanese?
Admittedly, Japanese does not have the same strong armed reasons that Chinese does. Japan is struggling economically but is still a technological powerhouse with car companies finding time to build robots that can walk up stairs, investing in artificial intelligence.
However, what has overshadowed Chinese influence in more recent times is Japanese culture. Not so much in the old bloody days of samurai and ninja but, with the advent into technology, the Japanese have been making their mark on entertainment. Hatsune Miku took the musical world by storm, Suzumiya Haruhi rocked animation with its first season, The Touhou Project game series has an extensive loyal fanbase, Studio Ghibli have produced movie masterpieces and we can't forget the traditional manga like One Piece. Did someone say Nintendo? While Chinese culture has stuck to the past, Japanese culture is evolving.
Now let's discuss the language:
In comparison to Chinese, Japanese is fairly easy to pronounce:
- While both languages can be romanised, Japanese's form of romanisation, called roomaji, uses syllables that sound very similar to their English counterpart, depending on the system you use, though the letter 'r' might cause some problems. For the record, this site will use waapuro roomaji as it most accurately represents the writing of characters but, spoiler alert, you won't be (or at least shouldn't be) using roomaji for long.
- Roomaji should only be used to bridge the gap between English and kana, which consists of hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is the standard form and is near enough equivalent to the alphabet. Katakana is the same but with different symbols and is used for foreign terms or for emphasis. The two are fairly simply to learn, though you do have to learn two sets of characters.
Some redeeming factors of Japanese grammar:
- Japanese doesn't have genders for their nouns either.
- Definite or indefinite articles are not used, like 'the' or 'a'.
But then, things rapidly get more difficult:
- Otherwise, Japanese grammar is very complex, affecting sentence structure, word conjugations and then there's the whole system of speaking politely.
- For the Japanese equivalent of Chinese hànzì, called kanji, the written characters are actually more similar to traditional Chinese characters.
- Kanji, hiragana and katakana can all be used in valid sentences so you need to keep on your toes.
In short, Japanese might to easy to start with and listen to if you can nail the pronunciations and pick out words in sentences, it is difficult to speak and write.
Similarities and differences between Chinese and Japanese
There are some big similarities between Chinese and Japanese, mainly between the extremely similar hànzì and kanji (beyond simplified characters) and that their pronunciations are well established, even across dialects. Many Japanese kanji have readings that come from the Chinese counterpart but their pronunciations have tended to drift off somewhat from the original Chinese reading.
And that's where the similarities end.
Yes, while they share a lot of characters, that mostly share the same meaning, such as '学生' (student), many do not, such as '聞' (or '闻', in simplified Chinese), which means 'listen' in Japanese but 'smell' in Chinese. (Oddly enough, in this case, it's the Chinese meaning here that makes the least sense, this is explained on the character page.)
Japanese uses three character systems, Chinese only uses one. And even then Japanese kanji has so many more readings than hànzì.
Japanese grammar is very complex, Chinese grammar is fairly intuitive.
Japanese pronunciations are relatively easier, Chinese is more complicated and is reliant on tones.
All in all, Chinese is the easier to get started with once you've figured out the grammar but it is difficult to learn the hànzì and their pronunciations. Japanese hits you pretty hard from the start with its complex grammar and then hits you again with the kanji.
These are not easy languages but are worth learning. Which one do you want to learn?