what i know and don’t know

August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I thought that knowing some Japanese would help me in my study of Chinese, but so far it’s only making the process more confusing. I should start off by saying that as of right now, I have no formal experience with Chinese; the only knowledge I have is what I’ve learned from my Chinese friends at school: “I’m pregnant,” “I’m not wearing pants today,” and “I’m an idiot.” (Thanks, guys.)

So I decided to try and get a head start on the language, and I figured that a great way to ease into it would be by taking some of Japanese words I already know and seeing what they are in Chinese. Sometimes this works great—for example, . essentially means person, and can be said in Japanese as either “hito,” which is the traditional Japanese way of saying it, or as “jin,” which is based off of the Chinese way of saying it—rén (they sound similar, I swear). With simple words like that, my system would have worked really well.

But it doesn’t seem like China is about to let me off the hook quite so easily. For example, I figured a good first word to learn in Chinese would be Chinese. I know that in Japanese, 中国語 (“chuu-goku-go”) means Chinese (Chinese language, rather), and so I plugged that into Nciku (a Chinese dictionary) to see how to say it in Chinese. But of course it got corrected to 中国语 (zhōngguóyǔ), changing the final character from the traditional form to the simplified form. Alas. It’s going to be a rough transition.

But I got curious. What other frustrations am I going to come across in this transition from 日本語 (Japanese language: “nihongo”) to 中国语? Sinosplice has an excellent article on this very issue, which seemed to agree with my own experience with the two languages (being only a third-year student in one and a very beginner in the other). John from Sinosplice used these two graphs to discuss this point:


In case you couldn’t figure out from the graph, both are difficult, but in different ways. Both have insane writing systems and lots of cultural background to learn, so those basically cancel each other out. Any language requires lots of vocabulary memorization. Japanese has loads of loanwords from English, but really learning to use the loanwords like a native speaker instead of a crutch is not so easy to do, so I left that factor out as well. For me, the major points of comparison come down to just pronunciation and grammar.

And I think this is pretty much the gist of it, though I would argue that you would only need one: Chinese is just harder at the beginning and easier as you go along (as it appears to me), and Japanese is really nice to you as a beginner, what with their alphabet designed specifically for foreign words, and the fact that you can go without Kanji (Chinese characters), but as you progress, the grammar begins to be a major difficulty. I think with Chinese, it’s like climbing the side of a cliff—really difficult for awhile, but once you get to the top, you can just go. Once you get it, you get it, and the only thing really keeping you back at that point is vocab. But with Japanese, it’s more akin to climbing Mt. Fuji—it’s a long, steady crawl to the top.

Having said all this, I’m still a complete newbie to Chinese, and in less than a month I’ll probably be looking back on this and laughing at how little I know. I think it’ll be interesting to see what I think of Chinese linguistically at the end of this year—along with seeing what I think of China itself.


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