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What is the difference between Japanese and Chinese?

People often think that Chinese and Japanese have a lot in common. However, they are not as similar as you might think. Here are some of the differences and similarities between the two languages, plus some interesting facts to boot.

What are the differences between Chinese and Japanese?

The first difference between the two languages has to do with how sentences are constructed:

  • Chinese structures sentences in a similar fashion to romance languages, i.e., maintaining the subject – verb – object complement order;
  • Japanese, like Latin, places the verb at the end of the sentence, after the complement.

Grammatically speaking, however:

  • Japanese is a very complex language, like Italian
  • on the contrary, Chinese has a fairly linear grammar with few rules and therefore has more in common with Anglo-Saxon languages than romance languages.

Another difference, which makes learning Chinese more difficult than learning Japanese, is the use of tones, which affect how words are pronounced. The Japanese language does not use tones.

Similarities between Chinese and Japanese

Chinese and Japanese share the same alphabet, the Chinese alphabet, which is made up of graphic symbols called kanji. Japan was colonised by the Chinese language and culture in the fourth century AD, before it had developed its own alphabet.
The numbers are also identical in Chinese and Japanese, but are pronounced differently.
Another similarity between the two languages is that both are “generic”, meaning that they do not use different words to indicate the number and gender of nouns. To provide an example, a Chinese or Japanese speaker would use the same word for friend/friends in English or amico/amica (male friend/female friend) in Italian.
With regard to proper nouns, both languages always place the surname before the first name, denoting how important the link with family and tradition is for both cultures.
To ask a question, they add a particle to the end of the sentence: “ma” in Chinese and “ka” in Japanese.

Which of the two languages is the most difficult to learn?

A language is perceived as easier or more difficult to learn depending on its proximity or distance to your native language. Italian speaker would probably find Chinese and Japanese equally difficult to learn but for different reasons:

  • Chinese grammar is quicker to learn because verbs and adjectives are not conjugated. That being said, Chinese pronunciation is very difficult to master;
  • Japanese is easier to pronounce but has more complex grammar.

What are the differences between these two languages and Korean?

Korean is also an East Asian language but it is very different to Chinese and Japanese. For example, Korean uses an original writing system originally invented in the 1400s to educate Korean people. This system is much simpler than Chinese and Japanese kanji, and is therefore faster to learn.
Another major difference compared to Chinese and Japanese has to do with its extensive use of particles to specify a word’s function in a sentence (subject, object complement, indirect complement).
Do you need to translate a text from Italian to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or vice versa? At Eurotrad, we work with native speakers and translators specialised in East Asian languages. Have a look at our Japanese to Italian translation service or our Chinese to Italian translation service.

Redazione Eurotrad

May 1, 2023

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