We’re a Mandarin language school, so the question ‘Should I learn Japanese or Chinese?’ of course we are inclined to answer with a wholeheartedly ‘Chinese’. But in fact, we have many students who have learned both Chinese and Japanese, so we’ll go over the pros and cons of each here. We’re assuming that you don’t know yet whether you’re going to live in China or Japan, or work with Chinese or Japanese companies, in which case the choice for either Chinese or Japanese would be easily made.
The difficulty of Japanese versus Chinese
Both languages are classified as really difficult. In the graphs in the article ‘How long does it take to learn Chinese‘, both Chinese and Japanese belong into Group 5, along with Korean & Arabic. These languages are exeptionally difficult for native English speakers. Each has its own difficulty: Chinese has tones that are very different from your mother tongue, and Japanese has much more complex grammar.
Additionally, both languages use characters which you’ll have to learn if you want to progress beyond the absolute beginner level. Chinese has Hanzi characters, while Japanese uses some Hanzi characters (but with different pronunciation), and Japanese uses Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji. Both these systems have their difficulties.
We’re calling this one a tie.
Score: Chinese 0, Japanese 0
Even though we’re a Chinese language school, we’ll say that Japanese learning resources are more mature, especially for English speakers. The Chinese language is catching up, but lacking still some maturity. This is why we are self-developing our courses, flashcards, and selecting learning materials.
But we don’t just mean our language courses, we also mean free videos on YouTube, or Japanese movies versus Chinese movies. The Japanese culture has a huge influence on Western culture — much more than Chinese culture — with Super Mario, Pokémon, or even Marie Kondo (The New Yorker wrote about this in ‘The United States of Japan‘).
Score: Chinese 0, Japanese 1
Number of speakers
In itself, this isn’t a very important criterion, because you won’t speak with millions of people anyway. Not in one lifetime. But Chinese does open more doors for you: Mandarin has 1.1+ billion speakers, and Japanese only has 126+ million speakers. Mandarin has almost 200 million non-native speakers, while Japan only has 121 thousand foreign speakers. (Numbers from Wikipedia.)
This also goes town into job opportunities. With Chinese you can work in China using Chinese, but Mandarin is also more often a requirement outside of China too, with Chinese tourists spending money all over the word. Also more and more Chinese companies are doing business with countries abroad. And even if those Chinese businesswoman and businessmen speak English well, we see some students learning Chinese to make such business go smoother.
Score: Chinese 1, Japanese 1
We wouldn’t recommend learning both languages at once, but it is worth saying that learning Japanese gives you a small advantage when learning Mandarin, and vice versa. You could say this is true for any language: learning any language makes you better at language learning. But Japanese and Mandarin are more similar to each other than let’s say Chinese and Arabic. For example, Chinese and Japanese languages have over half of the characters in common, even if the pronunciation is different. Both languages have some grammar similarities too, like no plural forms or grammatical gender.
Good to know: Chinese isn’t just Mandarin
With ‘Chinese language’ we often mean Mandarin, but there’s also Cantonese. If you plan on living in Guangzhou or Hong Kong, Cantonese will be suitable for you, but in nearly all other cases, we recommend Mandarin. Here we go over the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin.