East Asian Languages:
For all intents and purposes, the East Asian languages are quite different. Chinese, Japanese and Korean all have different (even if in the case of Japanese and Korean sometimes quite similar) grammar, pronunciation and writing. This little introduction is supposed to help you differentiate between the three. Let’s start with the one spoken by the most people:
Chinese is part of the so-called Sino-Tibetian language family. It is a phonetic language, which means that the pronunciation of the syllables defines the meaning. Pronouncing a word in two different ways can express two completely different meanings to the listener. Luckily it’s grammar is relatively simple compared to most western languages. It also has one of the most ancient systems of writing (calligraphy characters which are often also pictograms), going back in some shape or form over 3000 years (古文，文言 – Ancient Chinese and it’s more modern form Literature Chinese).
Modern Chinese 普通话 and it’s different dialects (hint: there are 7 major families) is spoken by over 1 billion people worldwide, making it the most spoken language in the world! Its phonetics paired with the extensive amount of characters one must memorise and learn how to write (you need 3000 to be considered literate and over 5000 to be considered an educated person – meaning you can read difficult books) make Chinese sadly one of the most difficult (but rewarding) languages to learn.
Japanese, (日本語 – Nihongo), is a member of the Japonic-Ryukyuan language family. Some theories define it as being related to Arabic and Korean, but this is highly controversial. The fact is that Japanese is spoken by over 125 million people worldwide (mostly in Japan). Japan’s true origin remains so far unknown, but its writing was heavily influenced by ancient Chinese characters in the 8th century and beyond. In terms of grammar Japanese (like Korean) is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn.
Its heavy focus on politeness, the correct addressing of superiors and seniors make it quite difficult to master as a foreigner without studying Japanese culture extensively as well. The written language is made up of two alphabets: Hiragana ひらがな and Katakana カタカナ with a heavy influx of chinese characters (kanji 漢字), making it a bit easier to learn than Chinese with its huge amount of required memorization.
Korean (한국어/조선말) is the official language of South Korea and North Korea, spoken by over 80 million people worldwide. Korean is a language isolate, meaning it has few to none relatives. Even though the similarities in grammar between Korean and Japanese are quite obvious, scientifically this relation has not been yet 100% proven. With a grammar that is focused on politeness, word-endings and social norms it is quite complex and difficult to learn.
The pronunciation is distinct (like in Japanese) but not as difficult and phonetic like Chinese, making speaking easier to learn. In ancient times Chinese characters were used to write but Korean King Joseon introduced Korea’s very own alphabet – Hangul, which has been in use ever since.
So here we go, our short primer on East Asian languages. If you love those cultures, subscribe to our blog, follow us on social media for more East Asian goodness and check out our selection of t-shirts as well.