Japanese or Mandarin?
June 26, 2007 2:36 PM   Subscribe

Need to take a language next year; Japanese or Mandarin?

I've been to Japan and love the culture but with China becoming more and more important globally it is definitely the more practical choice. Which is harder to learn? If I take Japanese will I be as marketable when finding a job?
posted by pwally to Education (37 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Chinese is harder to learn, since Japanese doesn't require deciphering tones, I'd say, but in the long run, unless you have specific plans to work in or focus on Japan Mandarin is by far more worthwhile to learn.
posted by andifsohow at 2:44 PM on June 26, 2007

I definitely have no specific plans to work in Japan.
posted by pwally at 2:46 PM on June 26, 2007

If there's a chance you might learn both one day, then maybe start with Mandarin since a lot of Japanese words were adopted from Chinese dialects. Plus kanji and lots of cultural elements.
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 2:55 PM on June 26, 2007

A year or two of mandatory coursework in either language won't affect your marketability one way or the other. It will take more intense study for you to gain enough fluency to make either language a marketable skill. This just doesn't seem to be your intention, based on the phrasing of your question.

I don't know if you can really say one language is "easier" to learn than the other. Chinese has tones, Japanese has degrees of politeness, they're both quite difficult to learn to read relative to alphabetic languages.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:55 PM on June 26, 2007

You might be interested in this thread.

I could be wrong, but I get the impression that to U.S. employers, foreign-language ability and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee. Unless you're looking for a job that specifically involves it.

I wouldn't look at this in terms of marketability, but in terms of your own interests.
posted by adamrice at 2:55 PM on June 26, 2007

Mandarin, especially if you want to get involved in international business or high finance. A knowledge of Mandarin will charm the undies off any hiring manager.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:00 PM on June 26, 2007

Unless you expect your career will place in you in one country or the other, choosing one over the other will have no significant impact.

If you love Japan, take Japanese. When learning a foreign language, you need to stay interested and motivated.

In any case, let's say you do eventually get an opportunity to work in Asia. Someone with near-native fluency in Japanese is a better candidate than someone with basic Mandarin fluency because he/she will have greater mastery over character recognition.
posted by junesix at 3:00 PM on June 26, 2007

Interesting, maybe I'll just take Spanish and become fluent as I already have taken it for several years.
posted by pwally at 3:01 PM on June 26, 2007

If you're trying to get a job in which Japanese skills come in handy, then yes, Japanese will be marketable. I speak a fair amount of Japanese and have experience living and working in Japan (for a Japanese company), and it played a role in my getting my current job... in the space industry. There's not exactly a great need for Japanese speakers in this particular industry, but the program I'm working on just happens to involve the Japanese government, so those skills come in handy.

In other words, knowledge of pretty much any language can be valuable given the situatuion... it just all depends on what you intend to do. Granted, knowledge of Chinese may open more doors than, say, knowledge of Japanese, but are they doors you're looking to open? Knowledge of Chinese wouldn't help me any in my current job, for example.

So, I'd suggest just taking the language that interests you most. Language learning requires a lot of motivation, and I think existing interest in the culture can be a significant motivating factor (for what it's worth).
posted by jal0021 at 3:02 PM on June 26, 2007

A year or two of mandatory coursework in either language won't affect your marketability one way or the other.

True. If you're planning to become fluent, learn the language you want to speak and you'll be fine. If you're not planning to become fluent, Spanish will add another bullet point to your resume much more easily than either Japanese or Chinese.

I don't know if you can really say one language is "easier" to learn than the other.

I do; Japanese is easier for English speakers.

Chinese has tones, Japanese has degrees of politeness, they're both quite difficult to learn to read relative to alphabetic languages.

That's not really a valid comparison. Degrees of politeness may make people think you're rude or overly polite, but they will not prevent you from asking someone where the bathroom is; tones will. More importantly, I think, Japanese has a phonetic alphabet in common use by adults, which provides an easier learning curve for anyone familiar with a phonetic language (e.g. English). While Chinese has a phonetic alphabet, it is used pretty much exclusively by children, so it doesn't help much with learning Chinese as an adult.
posted by scottreynen at 3:05 PM on June 26, 2007

In all seriousness, if you plan on working in the US for the majority of your life, I'd say it would be a better idea to learn Spanish, which is the most commonly-spoken language other than English in the United States and, by far, the most popular language studied by American students.

It's far easier to pick up (nearly the same alphabet!), probably less expensive to study (your local community college!), far easier to become fluent in, and far easier to practice and use every day; without practice, any language you learn will atrophy.

Japanese and Mandarin have a certain hype about them, but for actual usefulness in a US-based job? Spanish.
posted by mdonley at 3:14 PM on June 26, 2007

This informative blog post tries to answer the question of which is harder by comparing different aspects of the languages. (The comments contain lots of good info too).

In my opinion, Chinese is really easy and approachable for beginners as long as you’re not tone-deaf. I can say with confidence that it’s a lot easier than Japanese in the beginning. There are so many traps that you can fall into with Japanese in the beginning that just doesn’t seem to exist in Chinese. [...] Still, I’m going to hold off on making any definite conclusions because I have the sneaking suspicion that Chinese seems easy only in the beginning, kind of like my experience with Spanish.
posted by martinrebas at 3:15 PM on June 26, 2007

Japanese is easier for English speakers.

I disagree with this and agree with the paragraph martinrebas quotes. In my experience Chinese is far, far easier to pick up a basic knowledge of than Japanese. Furthermore, from what I've heard, no matter how much Japanese you learn you never really feel you've mastered it. The same is true of any language, in a sense, but the problem may be worse with Japanese. In any case, the tones are a trivial obstacle; most people learn them pretty easily, and even if you don't, you'll be understood. The Chinese are quite used to foreigners mangling the tones.
posted by languagehat at 3:26 PM on June 26, 2007

Just started Mandarin this year, had two years of Japanese in college. So far, Mandarin is harder. The fact that Japanese has phonetic syllabaries and a ton of English "Japanized" words helps. To be fair though, I totally failed French and Spanish in high school but Japanese has always come easy to me. Maybe Japanese is my fluke.
posted by erikharmon at 3:31 PM on June 26, 2007

Taking either language may improve your employment prospects. I got my first post-university job because of my work experience, my past travel to Japan and my first-year Japanese coursework. Japan made up one of the largest markets for my employer. They thought it would be handy to have a marketing coordinator who could throw out a few polite words to visiting customers. Of course, they hired fluent native speakers for direct contact roles. But my background was still considered helpful and a big reason I got the job. You never know what an employer might value.

Mandarin is probably a more flexible choice today. However, because of tone variations, I'm told it's harder to learn. I picked Japanese because I already knew a few basic words and I'd visited the country.
posted by acoutu at 3:45 PM on June 26, 2007

One thing to consider is grammar, which is why I think the conflicting opinions about Japanese and Chinese difficulty are coming up.
The difficulty of Chinese comes in learning the characters, which is hard coming from an alphabetic system, and the tones, but I found the grammar to be blessedly simply when compared to Japanese (or English).
Japanese may lack tones and has phonetic syllabaries and many English loan words, but the grammatic structure is ridiculously complicated. There is a vast, roiling sea of particles and conjugations that change based on who is speaking, who is being spoken to, social level, etc. There are many, many rules to memorize. When I started learning Korean, I found that to be even worse in terms of grammatical rules to remember.

So in terms of being able to read, you'll probably get that faster in Japanese, but in terms of communication, Chinese will come quicker, since the simpler grammar means you can learn vocabulary and plug it in for immediate use, IMHO. In terms of which one is "better" for you, the people above are right: go with what you like, it really doesn't matter overall.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:45 PM on June 26, 2007

I had a similar option.

I had taken Spanish in HS, went to Japan after graduating, decided to take Japanese in college. Now, when I think about it, I really wish that I had just continued Spanish.

I love Japanese and all, but the path to fluency is so very long and windy and painful . . . I get frustrated knowing that I could much more likely achieved fluency in Spanish instead.

So, knowing that Spanish is an option for you, I'd say go with that. I think that fluency in any language will be more useful to you than anything which is just half-way there, which is what you'll likely be with Mandarin or Japanese unless you study your ass off and work at it, do study abroad, and keep it up.
posted by that girl at 3:47 PM on June 26, 2007

I am fluent in Japanese, and I'm about to start working for a large Japanese electronics company in Tokyo. I've studied Japanese for eight years. I am American, FWIW, and have lived here my entire life.

That being said, if you intend to remain in America, learn Spanish. Spanish, more than any other language, will be the most useful in business or in everyday life in the future. Any other language you learn will have the following caveats:
1) You must be fluent, and
2) You must be based in a country where that language is spoken or deal with people in/from that country regularly, and
3) You must also have other marketable skills.
If you fail to qualify on any of those points, your language skills will not really be useful business-wise. However, I highly recommend that you choose a language and study it anyway. You may have a chance to use it, even without leaving the United States, and it will broaden your horizons and force you to examine your own culture from a different perspective.

Also, I agree with languagehat and martinrebas' quotation: Japanese is more difficult than Mandarin. Pronunciation is easier, but writing is much more difficult, and grammar is very different from English or Romance languages. I don't believe that Japanese is any different than Chinese with regards to mastering the language; that all depends on your own initiative, experience, and ability. At any rate, you will need to study either language for at least three years full-time to gain a working fluency, less if you're immersed, and even longer to learn industry terms and usage that will be commercially useful.
posted by armage at 3:49 PM on June 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm always surprised by answers to this kind of question, and I guess there is no "right" answer. That said, Mandarin is my *first* language, though I moved to the U.S. when I was little so I'd now consider English to be my first language. I've studied Japanese for a few years, and I would *definitely* consider Chinese to be much harder to learn for an English speaker, both speaking and definitely writing, than Japanese. There's no way anyone could convince me that Japanese *writing* is harder than Chinese. Japanese uses a small subset of Chinese characters and the other alphabets used (hiragana and katakana) can be learned (not well though) in a few hours.

I also agree with the people to go with what you think you'll enjoy more. It's gonna take several years of immersion to be fluent enough to make a big impact on your salary, and that's only if it'll make a difference in your job/field.

You might also want to consider the availability of fluent practice partners in your area. If you don't practice, you're gonna forget. And if learning the language isn't fun to you, you're not gonna practice. Simple as that.
posted by edjusted at 4:13 PM on June 26, 2007

If Spanish is an option, you might want to consider that. The same employer that hired me for taking Japanese also wanted me to consider taking Spanish courses, since we also did business in Latin America. I convinced them to pay for marketing courses instead, though, since I knew those would apply to a wider range of job opportunities.
posted by acoutu at 4:44 PM on June 26, 2007

With regards to consonant and vowel production, Japanese is much closer to English (and even closer to Spanish) than Mandarin Chinese. Even after we set aside tones, Chinese is much tougher in terms of both articulating and perceiving the phonetic nuances that do not exist in English.

I've lived for 2 years in mainland China and 2 years in Japan. Here's an anecdote that may shed some light on the issue: After arriving in China (in an area near Shanghai where most are able to use a passably standard dialect of Mandarin), I found it difficult to understand basic phrases or make myself understood for about 6 months. And this was with one year of intensive Mandarin study under my belt back in the States as a linguistics grad student. Two years later, after arriving in Japan, that 6 month learning curve was cut to a couple of weeks, and this was after 3 months of self-study in Japanese.

And props to you, languagehat. Tones were regrettably non-trivial in my pursuit of Chinese and a source of high comedy for my Chinese friends and students. It is easy to learn about tones from a book or in a classroom, but learning the prosodic cues that people use to decipher tones requires great effort and immersion. By "prosodic cues", I mean nuanced aspects of vocal control and pitch production that are not captured by simplistic tone diagrams (horizontal line, ascending line, V-shaped line, and descending line). Even Chinese speakers are unable to explain how to produce tones, in much the same way that
English speakers can't describe all the variants of articulation for the letter "t" and the contexts in which they appear.
posted by lumosh at 4:48 PM on June 26, 2007

scottreynen: the phoenetic alphabet isn't for kids only. its used to learn pronunciation. it's mainly taught in Taiwan, however recently everything has changed to pinyin.

i personally think if you want to learn proper pronunciation you should learn it. (zhuyin/bopomofo) IMO, reading pinyin doesn't sound anything like it is written (you have to train yourself on how to properly pronounce it).

if you are interested here's the wikipedia article on it
posted by mphuie at 5:08 PM on June 26, 2007

And props to you, languagehat. Tones were regrettably non-trivial in my pursuit of Chinese and a source of high comedy for my Chinese friends and students.

I did not say tones were trivial in the sense that they were easy to learn. For some, they're not. I said they were a trivial obstacle, because even if you don't manage to produce them correctly, you'll still be understood, even if you have to deal with being a source of high comedy. I would say they're considerably less of a problem than, say, the b/v distinction in English for Spanish speakers, or the voiceless and voiced th sounds in English for almost everybody else, or the aspirated/unaspirated distinction in Hindi and other Indian languages for English speakers. I get very tired of the booga-booga "OMG TONEZ!!!" attitude so often taken with Chinese. They're just another phonemic marker.

And you can't utter a sentence in Japanese without risking a horrible social mistake unless you have an excellent grasp of the verbal and nominal politeness/formality markers. There's nothing like that in Chinese.
posted by languagehat at 5:15 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

And you can't utter a sentence in Japanese without risking a horrible social mistake unless you have an excellent grasp of the verbal and nominal politeness/formality markers

Unless Japanese is much harder than Korean in this regard (and I'm pretty certain that it isn't) that is a gross exaggeration. While it is a challenge and you do have to think about what you're saying, if you've already got the basic mental architecture from Spanish you just expand on the idea of tu/usted.

Oh and tones are hard. Koreans (who a vocaabulary overlap with Chinese akin to that of English with the Romance languages) say so and I'm inclined to believe them.
posted by Octaviuz at 6:32 PM on June 26, 2007

...who have a vocabulary... D'oh!
posted by Octaviuz at 6:35 PM on June 26, 2007

I'm afraid simply taking a language won't make you very marketable.

Immersing yourself and doing a lot of self study because you love the language, and having people to communicate with outside the class will get you on your way to being fluent/useful.

Two years, hell, even four years of language study in university probably won't get you to a level where you can fluently communicate to a person who doesn't already have a solid knowledge of English. That's with Japanese, that is. I'm not sure about Chinese. You might be able to order some food or have meaningful chats with friends, but to become useful and do business in Japanese is not easy. I didn't even begin to start learning the true nuances of the polite speech until I was well out of school and in Japan, working with people who don't speak a lick of English. I am still learning, still making a ton of mistakes, and enjoying every frustrating moment.

So my advice: choose the one you like, the language you will want to use in your private life.
posted by QueSeraSera at 6:40 PM on June 26, 2007

I had taken Spanish in HS, went to Japan after graduating, decided to take Japanese in college. Now, when I think about it, I really wish that I had just continued Spanish.

I had the same experience with the two languages. Japanese was a lot of fun but did not stick, and coming out of HS I was close to fluent in Spanish. Dammit.
posted by furiousthought at 6:56 PM on June 26, 2007

I feel I should further qualfy my statement on the relative difficulties of these languages: it's going to be rather difficult to attain any degree of fluency in either language without some sort of cultural immersion.

I suspect as an English speaker in the United States, you would likely make significantly more progress in a classroom setting learning a language like French or Spanish.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:15 PM on June 26, 2007

You should learn the language of the culture you are most interested in.
posted by dydecker at 8:25 PM on June 26, 2007

I said they were a trivial obstacle, because even if you don't manage to produce them correctly, you'll still be understood, even if you have to deal with being a source of high comedy.

But that's only true up to an intermediate level. Chinese has so many homophones that once you reach a certain vocabulary level you must know the proper tones in order to produce the right word. If you don't really crack down learning the tones when you start, you have to go back and relearn all these words you thought you knew, a very annoying process which I am going through right now.
posted by afu at 11:20 PM on June 26, 2007

Everything I've ever read and experienced indicates that Mandarin is second in difficulty only to Cantonese, for the average English speaker.

If you have a fairly logical/methodical mind, Japanese isn't bad at all in comparison. In contrast to languagehat, I found that the honorific/informal forms of things were really pretty easy to wrap my brain around. The hurdle was reading & writing, but that's going to be identically crappy for either, and it's just a matter of repetition.

Culturally, I think learning Mandarin would be a much better option, since you can't really learn a language without learning at least part of the culture, and China is becoming such a force these days that I'm strongly convinced even a rudimentary familiarity with Chinese culture would be a good idea.

Mandarin's going to be my next language.

Either will look nice on a resume; neither will come in to play unless you're either in a field or looking at a specific position which has specific interaction with people who speak that language. (Which sounds like I'm stating the obvious, but it's important to remember.) Languages are a big deal, though, look at the culture of both countries, think about what you'd get more out of personally, and go for it. Picking one based on difficulty or marketability or future usefulness won't really do much for you. You won't care enough.
posted by blacklite at 12:03 AM on June 27, 2007

I said they were a trivial obstacle, because even if you don't manage to produce them correctly, you'll still be understood, even if you have to deal with being a source of high comedy.
This is only true at a very basic level of communication though (ordering food etc.).
Since tones distinguish what to the non-native ear are the many homophones of Chinese, if you want to say anything of even the basic complexity required for work-related interactions and the like you'll need them.
The same goes for comprehension. A major stumbling block when you're beginning is thinking you have understood, but actually having it all wrong because you heard a very similar sounding word and interpreted based on your very limited knowledge when in fact something else altogether was being said. Mistakes of this nature have been much rarer in other languages I've learned. With them, at least you know when you don't know.
You can get round bad tones with good sentence structure and vocabulary (as I and numerous non-Han Chinese friends know only too well) but again that's not a beginner's thing either.
I'd agree with the others who say that if it's not the beginning of a long-term study or part of preparations to come to Asia, the time might be better spent acquiring much more functionality in a different language altogether.
posted by Abiezer at 12:07 AM on June 27, 2007

The ONLY thing that intimidates me in Mandarin in the glut of homophones. The problem is compounded by the fact that Mandarin is typified by rapid-fire short, choppy syllables -- so you don't have a helluva lot of time to think (unlike, say, Russian, where you can damn near sip tea and casually look up words in a dictionary as they are being uttered.*)

On the other hand, this very aspect ironically helps you in the long run; it breaks up of the habit of mentally fussing over each discrete and piddling sound. Your mind starts zeroing in on patterns, rhythms and markers. You start hearing phrases "as a whole" -- which is what you should be doing anyway.

(*) Я шучу.
posted by RavinDave at 2:05 AM on June 27, 2007

I started learning Japanese in high school after around 6 years of Mandarin education, and found it infinitely harder than Mandarin. (I didn't find Mandarin that hard to pick up, actually) That said, my Mandarin-ed brain was probably blocking all incoming Japanese signals.

Even though Japanese would seem much easier to learn due to the fact that it has an 'alphabet', I think learning Mandarin will give you a foundation for learning Japanese (maybe later in your life? You have an interest in it, so you could pick it up later) as the two share quite a few characters. However, most Japanese Kanji characters that I have seen are written in the Traditional-style (fan ti) Chinese, while if you are learning Mandarin I expect you to be learning how to write in Simplified (jian ti) writing form. But with a background in Mandarin you can generally easily figure out the meaning of the Kanji character.

Learning Mandarin will also obviously be advantageous for your future career, no doubt about that!

(Personally, what really put me off Japanese was the various writing forms. I found them really confusing, hard to learn and impossible to remember. I quit Japanese school after ~8 months! Heh.)
posted by Mrs PuGZ at 2:50 AM on June 27, 2007

I watched my friend learn Chinese from the very start, and while it looked initially difficult (there are just tons and tons of character combinations to learn, though they do make a certain logical sense), the actual spoken part wasn't that painful. He was conversing (slowly, but conversing, nonetheless) in Mandarin after just a year of study when we went to Asia together.

I've personally tried to learn Japanese, and found it extraordinarily difficult. Not as difficult as Russian, mind you (which was only slightly more painful than Latin, which absolutely sucked compared to Spanish and French).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:05 AM on June 27, 2007

Speaking as someone who has formally studied Mandarin for six years and been living around it for an additional four years...given the amount of time and effort that you need to put into studying Mandarin to actually be able to use it professionally, studying Mandarin is hardly "practical."

Financially, I would have been much better off taking all those years of study and applying it to law/business/etc.
posted by alidarbac at 4:28 AM on June 27, 2007

But that's only true up to an intermediate level.

I'm sure you're right; I never got very far in either language, so I can only speak about the early stages.
posted by languagehat at 6:46 AM on June 27, 2007

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