Learning Chinese and Japanese

I studied Mandarin Chinese after school for a year. This provided me with the opportunity to enter a competition to go to Nanjing, China for two weeks and watch and learn about kunqu, traditional theatre/ opera. Years later, I took a beginner class in university while I studied Japanese and Spanish, but we went over tones more than words for weeks. I felt like I learned nothing.

Now that I’ve been studying Japanese for 5 years, I’ve discovered that my worst skill is recognising and writing the Chinese characters! Kanji (JP), or Hanzi (CN) affects both my reading and writing skills, and if I have any hope of passing the JLPT N2 exam this year, I need to work on these skills.

The pros of learning both:

When I looked at the 100 most common Chinese characters and the HSK 1 and 2 vocabulary lists, I noticed that there were a handful of basic, common characters that were considered intermediate to advanced in Japanese (JLPT N3 to N1)! For example, the verb ‘to yell’ 叫ぶ (さけぶ ・sakebu) is learned at 中1 (middle school), whereas the verb 叫 (jiào) is used in the most basic introduction: ‘my name is __. Wǒ jiào deeyandra. 我叫deeyandra.’ I could see how a native Chinese speaker might not know the Japanese reading but could grasp the meaning and write characters (with the correct stroke order, too!) before we had studied it in class.

There will certainly be times where, like Chinese-speaking students, I will be able to guess the meaning of a Japanese word because of prior knowledge of the Chinese character. For example the Chinese verb ‘to sleep’ is 睡觉 (shuìjiào). In Japanese, the verb is 寝る (ねる・neru) but the noun is 睡眠 (すいみん). Sure, I wouldn't be able to guess the meaning if I heard it, but should I ever want to or have to read an article explaining why a good night's sleep is important (睡眠時間を大切にするべき) or the dangers of sleep deprivation (睡眠不足) or just so that I can search for white noise to improve sleep quality (睡眠音楽), I am certain that prior knowledge of Chinese characters will help me to understand without fully understanding.

When it comes to writing Characters, I will just write and write and write, which has drastically improved the speed at which I write characters. Since there is nothing but Chinese characters, I can’t cop out like I do with Japanese and write in one of the other alphabets.

The cons of learning both:

Although it is a pro, it is also a con that, with Japanese, if I’m too lazy to write the kanji or I simply forget it, I can just write it in hiragana or katakana. However, with Chinese, there is nothing but characters and so I’m forced to write all the characters that I’m learning. No shortcuts. No escape. Of course, this forces me to learn through muscle-memory and repetition, improves my patience and speed, but it sure is a massive pain in the butt.

When it comes to reading, I may or may not have attempted to read something in Chinese before spotting something that gives it away as a Japanese text. In my defence, Japanese newspapers appear to be 95% kanji with a hiragana, katakana or a number dotted here and there. Certain names and companies will be written entirely in kanji so I might not realise that 東山出身の松下青木 is actually ‘Aoki Matsushita from Higashiyama’ (not representative of a real person) until I notice the tiny の breaking up the wall of characters.

Now that I’m a university graduate who wants to work in hospitality and tourism, as well as an avid traveller who wants to go see my cousin in Shanghai and eat street food in Taiwan, I’m sure improving my Chinese will do more than simply improve my Japanese. I hope that my interest in both languages and cultures grow as I continue on this language-journey.

Happy learning,

deeyandra x