When thinking of Asian languages, generally, people tend to gravitate towards the “CJK” trio – or “Chinese, Japanese and Korean”. (That’s actually an abbreviation, I didn’t make it up.) So, today, instead of talking about language learning in general, I thought it’d be interesting to do a four way comparison between Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. In particular, I’m going to try and answer one question: which language is the most difficult?
Read (watch) on to find out what I think!
Cantonese vs. Mandarin vs. Japanese vs. Korean
Alright, hey guys, welcome back to another episode of Language Diary, and we’re going to be doing something fairly exciting today. As you guys can see, we’re going to be changing the format a little bit, because the topic is a little bit too involved for me to just be talking on camera, I’m going to be using a presentation to use as cues to help me present this topic clearly. As you can see with the title, we’re going to be doing a four way comparison between the four Asian languages I’m somewhat familiar with: Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean.
Before we get started, quick tangent, as usual, if you have not subscribed to the channel yet, I would highly encourage you to do so, and it would mean a lot to the channel and for me. Just hit the subscribe button underneath the video if you’re on YouTube, and also don’t forget to hit the bell button after you’ve hit the subscribe button, a lot of people apparently do not know the bell button exists.
What I’m specifically going to be talking about is which of the four languages do I think is the most difficult. And before I reveal my answer at the end of the presentation, I would love to hear what you guys think – so take a guess and let me know in the comments below, just say, Mandarin, or Korean, or Japanese, or Cantonese.
In particular, I’d like to focus just on one aspect of these four skills when doing that comparison. I’m going to be recapping a bit of the first episode when I talked about listening in particular, that’s what we’re going to be focus on.
Each of the four skills comes with its own set of difficulties. For example, reading, for reading, you need to have a certain level of vocabulary and structures in order to understand what’s going on. For writing, you need to have clarity in terms of what you think, you need to have coherence, and you need to be able to mimic what you read – you don’t want to reinvent the wheel, you just want to copy and reuse. For speaking, you need to be fast, you need to be able to think on your feet, because it’s instant, someone talks to you, they expect you to be able to respond instantly, and you need to be very good at circumlocution. So basically, the art of expressing something, sometimes complicated, with the vocabulary that you have, which might be limited in the beginning. And finally, we’ve got listening – the challenge is that you need to be able to concentrate well, and you need to be able to spot context clues very, very quickly in order to grasp what’s going on.
So, I’ve always thought that listening is both the hardest skill and the most important skill to hone (but not because it’s the hardest skill – they just happen to coincide in this case). Because with listening, if you can’t catch something when someone is speaking to you, you really can’t catch it. People aren’t going to repeat themselves, they’re not going to wait, native speakers will get impatient sometimes if you have to ask them to repeat it. In conclusion, grammar, vocabulary, reading, speaking, writing, these are almost never the bottleneck in language learning – it’s usually listening.
So, that’s what we’re going to be doing a comparison of between the four languages. To start off with, I’m going to be presenting a few criteria to judge how, in terms of what we’re going to use to judge the difficulty of listening in each of these four languages.
The four criteria will be: pronounceability, so how easy or hard it is to pronounce certain languages; the ability to transcribe [what you hear] to the writing system, so in other words, reversibility; sound change rules, so for example, there are certain times where certain words come together and you need to change them [how they’re pronounced] and their prevalence [of these] in each language; and clarity of speech, a general sense of clarity among native speakers.
In order to do that, I’ve prepared four clips, they’re about 45 seconds each, and I’m going to be commenting on them as we go along. We’re going to start off with Korean, and I’m just going to do a bit of a comparison. Don’t worry if you don’t speak these languages, I will slow down and it’ll all make sense, I promise.
And you guys can follow along if you can read Hangeul, if you can’t, don’t worry about it. If you want to watch this clip standalone afterwards [without my running commentary lol], you can always search for these videos online and you can always watch them with the subtitles on and all that. Okay, here goes.
So this [여러 yeo-reo], for example, in particular, was challenging, because there was emphasis on it, and it was pronounced differently than it would be normally pronounced, which is yeo-reo. Difficulty there. Another one – 상한적 있다고 [sang-han-jeok it-ta-go]. This presents some difficulty because when you pronounce this individually, we have “sang”, “han”, “ceok”. But when you combine them, it becomes “sang-an-jeok”, which means “to hurt”. So in other words, there’s actually linkage between these words, which makes it difficult to reverse it. And “ceok” becomes “jeok”. It goes [from] an aspirated sound to a non-aspirated sound when it’s not at the forefront position, or pronounced individually, I guess.
So just to give a bit of context, in Korean, there are certain sounds, like this ㅈ, which is equivalent to a “j” sound in English, if it’s the first unit of a word, then it’s pronounced as a “ch”, a “c” “h” sound in English, as opposed to a “j”. So, there are some of these things that make it difficult. Continuing.
And this here, something I had difficulty reversing / capturing. If you go back, slow down a little but, it’s 내 나 긴한 동생 [nae na gin-han dong-saeng], so I actually thought that “na-kin-han” was one thing, when it’s actually “na kin-han”, which means “my very important” something something. So the splitting isn’t always obvious in Korean.
And here, 얘기를 해야돼나… [yae-gi-reul hae-ya-dwae-na] and then something. When people trail off, I couldn’t hear it, because he was trailing off when thinking about something, and didn’t actually finish that sentence, I guess. Things like these, very difficult.
Here’s another one. When this is pronounced standalone, this is pronounced 예능 [ye-neung], but he almost skipped over the first sound, I had to go back once to actually capture that.
And this here [근데 geun-dae], I think this was skimmed over, this was almost silent. I think you almost have to infer it from context. There are certain things that [you don’t hear] but are actually there. So to go from non-existent to existent, that was challenging to listen to.
So that was Korean, hopefully that was an interesting clip. We will continue with our analysis of Japanese. These aren’t very similar clips in terms of what they’re talking about, they’re kind of like talk show-ish, or later on, like an interview [format], or something like that. So continuing on in Japanese.
So there are certain things in Japanese, they can be very quick, and you have be very alert [to get what they’re saying]. Because you know when a presenter is announcing something, is pre-empting another [the next] segment of the show, they just want to get the introduction speech over that prefaces that next segment. Oftentimes, you’ll hear that these things in talk shows are very, very quick, and you have to pay extra attention to get these.
So for example, そうそれでは [so-u so-re-de-ha] that’s quick, 早速今夜のテーマに入りましょう [konya no te-ma-ni hai-ri-ma-shou]. That “te ma ni” was also very quick, so you have to pay extra attention. 幸せ “Shi a wa se” also becomes “shawase”, which was also very quick.
So there was それでは三ヶ国のペット勝負VTRまとめましょう [so-re-de-ha san-ka-ko-ku no pe-tto shou-bu VTR ma-to-me-ma-shou], so the まとめましょう [ma-to-me-ma-shou] was also very quick. Actually, the first time I heard it I thought I heard 見ましょう [mi-ma-shou], but then it was actually “ma to me ma shou”, which was almost condensed, because the in between sounds were almost like very quick and glossed over.
And you almost hear that when it’s fairly, when they’re quoting Gandhi [that’s NOT right – sorry, I forgot Gandhi’s English pronunciation for a moment!]. When they’re quoting, when they’re reading something, the narrator was very clear, he was also a little bit slower, so you can get different styles of speaking. Also, the narrator there was also fairly clear when speaking as well. So that’s Japanese.
So you’ll often hear that fixed phrases like these [so-re-de-wa], they’re often uttered very quickly, you have to pay extra attention to get them. But if you know these in advance, they should be okay. Moving on.
We have Mandarin [next].
One challenge in Mandarin would be phrases like these 短平快 [duan3 ping2 kuai4], they’re kind of made up, these are three adjectives 短平快 [duan3 ping2 kuai4], but if you have to just listen to it and know that it’s 短平快 [duan3 ping2 kuai4] in real time, that can be hard as well. And, [on a different note], there’s quite a lot of Internet slang in Mandarin.
So there are certain things that are [sped through], like in Japanese, like 就那個 [jiunege] instead of 就那個 [jiu4 na4 ge], so you have to be very careful when listening as well in Chinese.
[Another example] 怎麼突然答應又 [zen3 me tu4 ran2 da1 ying4 you4], when these things are [sped through], that can make it, they’re accelerated, that can make it difficult to listen to.
And you’ll hear that they speak fairly differently. She’s a 東北人 [dong1 bei3 ren2], she speaks a dialect, in an accent of Mandarin that’s a little closer to the Beijing dialect, or the Beijing accent, so it’s a little different from how she speaks, she’s from Hong Kong, so her accent would be more like a Southerner, so it sounds a little flatter and she speaks a little slower. So her Mandarin is a little bit easier to understand, but hers is actually fairly standard.
And then there’s this very quick phrase. So for example, 還是 [hai2 shi4] in a question can mean “or” or “still”. When I first listened to it, I took it to mean “or”, but there’s no choice, so it has to mean “still”. The great thing about Chinese programmes is that there’s always subtitles that are there, so you can follow along. 其實你給你自己定位還是電影演員？[qi2 shi2 ni3 gei2 ni3 zi4 ji3 ding4 wei4 hai2 shi4 dian4 ying2 yan3 yuan2] When you speed it up like that, it makes it very, very difficult [for listening], but I guess that’s the same across all languages.
Names, in particular in Chinese, are very hard to reverse. There’s no way to tell what [characters] a name [is made up of]. Actually, I read an article before, [where it says] one of the reasons Chinese programmes have subtitles, you never see that in any other languages, I’ve never seen it for French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean – only for Chinese, is because it’s impossible to reverse the specific characters of names unless you knew it before hand. Like 武則天 [wu3 ze2 tian1] is a very famous queen in Chinese history, so people would know that, but unless you have that context, you wouldn’t know it.
Alright that’s Mandarin. You’ll hear that Hong Kong people do tend to code switch between languages as well. So there’s that.
Moving on, so we have a quick clip in Cantonese.
So here we have 即係只係佢一個方法啫 [zik1 hai6 zi2 hai6 keoi5 jat1 go3 fong1 faat3 zek1], 即係只係 [zeai1*6 ziai2*6], so there are things like these that are always sped up. And you’ll hear that 即係可能 [zik1 hai6 ho2 nang4] turns into [zeai1*6 hoang2*4], it was almost abbreviated into one sound. So the 可能 [ho2 nang4] often gets abbreviated by the speaker. It turns into holang2*4.
The thing that’s difficult about Cantonese is that there often jump. So for example here, 我都有識好多係夜蒲一齊，係喇，結婚 [ngo5 dou1 jau5 sik1 hou2 do1 je6 pou4 jat1 cai4, hai6 laak3, git3 fan1], so I know a lot of people who hang out at night, yes, marriage. So what he meant to say was, “I know a lot of friends who like hanging out at night, have a nightlife, and then afterwards, after seeing each other for a while, they end up getting married”. You’ll often find that the in between progression is completely left out – it’s just implied. That’s one of the difficulties of listening in Cantonese.
Again, narrators, like in Japanese, very very clear, there’s no way you can miss even a single sound.
So, 即係 [zeai1*6] is actually one of the more common contractions, so you’ll have to get used to that if you’re learning Cantonese. 嗰個人 [go2 go3 jan4] becomes [goo2*3 jan2], so there are certain things like that you need to be aware of, but there aren’t a lot of these in Cantonese, you’ll come to find that in comparison, for example, with Korean. Female speakers do tend to speak very clearly in Cantonese as well. That isn’t to say every one does, but the majority of people tend to speak clearly, in my experience at the very least.
After looking at these clips and doing a quick analysis of them, I realize it’s not a very good complete representation, we see some common difficulties that exist in every language. For example, when you have overlapping voices, it’s difficult – even if you want to focus on one voice, somebody’s talking over another person, you can’t listen, even if you are a native speaker.
Quiet sounds. So you know how people, they start talking very loudly, and suddenly they go [for instance], “yeah, I think that…”. Let me think of an example, “yeah, he was at the party last time, and we kinda like just, we had a couple of drinks and, yeah…”. And when you trail off, and your voice suddenly goes quiet, in each language, irrespective of language, that’s difficult to get, when people trail off.
Influence from dialects, that’s difficult to work around as well, because when we learn, we, as foreign language learners, often learn the standard dialect. When you have different dialects, it stands to reason we’re not going to be able to get used to it immediately.
Mid-sentence changes are difficult as well – if you’re trying to say something and then you switched, then it almost seems like it doesn’t make any sense, because it’s not supposed to connect together, these two phrases. So when you change your mind in terms of what you want to say, that creates something that’s difficult to interpret.
Fixed phrases uttered very rapidly, we saw that with Japanese, and if we have, we saw that with Japanese, we saw that with Mandarin in particular.
And then we have made up phrases, as I explained earlier, something like 短平快 [duan3 ping2 kuai4], that’s not something that’s standard [as in found in the dictionary]. So when you hear stuff like that, it’s almost impossible to understand on your first listen. Names are difficult to listen to in any language, that’s common. And when speakers slur, that’s difficult to listen to.
And these are some common difficulties. So let’s do a comparison based on what we’ve seen so far. Based on these criteria. We’re going to fill this chart in bit by bit. Sorry it’s taking a little bit long, but there’s a bit of content today, as you know.
First of all, we have pronounceability, before we dive into it, let me just show you a couple of things. For Korean, for example, you can kind of look at this chart, and some people when they see it, they think, “oh, so you can map all the sounds in Korean on a chart”, but that’s not actually true. These are all the sounds you can make by combining all the consonants and vowels. But, there are also final sounds. In other words, you can actually combine these units, all of these, with these. So that makes a lot of combinations. So these are the possible combinations you can have in Korean.
Just to give a breakdown of Korean for those of you who’re not familiar with the language. When writing Korean, the system Hangeul is split up into vowels and consonants. One unit of word in Korean can be made up of two, three or up to four consonant and vowel combinations. These are all the all the possible combinations of all the vowels and consonants within each block. As you can imagine, there’s actually quite a few variations that’s possible in Korean.
Moving on, Japanese. This is it. These are all the sounds you can make in Japanese. So in terms of pronounceability, very, very pronounceable, not just because there are few sounds, but all of these sounds are almost a subset of English, so if you can speak English, you can definitely pronounce Japanese. Whereas with Korean, there are certain sounds that are not too straightforward.
Continuing with Chinese, all of these sounds are almost, I’m not going to say they’re as pronounceable as Japanese, but they can be mapped out [in a chart]. Generally, once you have the basics down, these are all the sounds you have. So very doable. There’s a bit of a learning curve in the beginning, but very doable.
Very similar with Cantonese, you can see we have the Jyutping chart in Cantonese at Cantolounge. So it makes it very pronounceable after you’ve gone over the initial learning curve. Obviously there are tones that kind of add an extra of complexity. But again, nothing that can’t be overcome with a little bit of practice.
So to start off with, I’m going to say that Korean is the hardest, Japanese is the easiest, and Mandarin and Cantonese are somewhere in between. Because for Korean, they’re the hardest because there are certain sounds that are not very intuitive for speakers for any other languages. There are the “r” sounds that are difficult to pronounce, there are some challenging sounds that aren’t intuitive, for example, 뇌 [noi], I don’t even know if I’m pronouncing it correctly, it means brain, by the way. If you look at the romanization, it doesn’t make sense, you’re just going to have to ask a native speaker. And when it’s pronounced in context and in a sentence, it changes, which makes Korean hard. Japanese is easy, because in any context, standalone, or it’s pronounced in a sentence, it’s the same. Mandarin and Cantonese are similar, except there are tones, so I gave it a two.
Next we have sound reversibility – I’m going to split it into two categories – just sound, and script. So reversibility back to sound. I’m going to give these languages – they’re all not very difficult. So what is sound reversibility, what do I mean by that? Sound reversibility is the ability to reverse what you hear back to the atomic sounds. So you can kind of spell them out (in some sort of romanization). So for example, 왜 [wae] in Korean, which is “w”, “a”, “e”, but there are certain ambiguities in Korean that make this reversibility a little bit lower. So there’s 왜 and 웨, which almost sound the same when uttered very quickly as part of the sentence, which makes it a bit more difficult to reverse it to that atomic unit. Whereas there’s no such problem in Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese.
For example, you hear 比較する [hi-kaku su-ru], that’s “h”, “i”, “hi”, “kaku”, “k”, “a”, “k”, “u”, and then “suru”, “s”, “u”, “r”, “u”. It’s just one block of text individually pronounced, you don’t get that problem. Korean also has the problem of linking sounds over [occasionally in Mandarin and Cantonese as well, but those are easier to reason with], so the example I gave when we were looking over that clip, 상한적 [sang-han-jeok] becomes “sang-an-jeok], which, again, reduces the reversibility a little bit. Not in terms of sound, but script to a certain extent, which brings us to Mandarin and Cantonese, which are very similar to Japanese, except I guess you have tones, it’s not too hard, that’s one out of four [possibilities], and in Cantonese, one out of six.
Which brings us to our next point, script reversibility. What do I mean by that? Reversibility in terms of what you hear and how easily you can transcribe that back into, for example, han-geul in Korean, hiragana in Japanese, and of course, characters [in Chinese]. And of course, it would stand to reason that any language that has characters is hard. Because you have to remember the character. Even if you type it, you don’t know that character, you just don’t know [which one to choose in the menu]. For example, one sound, for example, “che1”, that can match so many characters. So it’s not very reversible at all.
The reason I bring reversibility up is because if you can’t reverse something, you can’t check it up in the dictionary. So when you hear something, you want to know wha the word means. Well I don’t know how to input it in the dictionary, so what am I supposed to do, how am I supposed to check it up? So it becomes a case of “I have to read enough to gain enough vocabulary in order to understand what people are saying, and ignore words I don’t know when listening to other people speaking”, which is not an ideal situation. But that’s the nature of the language.
I should talk about Korean as well in particular. The reason Korean is lower is because of the absence of characters, but it’s still a bit complicated to reverse, it’s not a 1, even though it uses kind of an alphabet writing system. The reason it’s not 1 is because once again, there are sound change rules, there are ambiguities that make it difficult to reverse it. For example, there’s 바닥 [ba-dag] vs. 파닭 [pa-dag], they sound exactly the same, but I assure you they’re actually different things. You have to get context in order to distinguish them, and you have to know these words in advance. But unless you do, there’s literally, it’s very difficult to, if I just uttered those words individually, it’s very difficult to know which version of pa-dak I’m talking about – “floor” or the “chicken” version.
Sound change. For sound change, I’m still going to go with Korean as the most difficult, and Mandarin in the middle, but only for one small reason, Japanese and Cantonese are easy. The reason I’m giving these languages these relative scores would be for Korean, there are definitely advanced sound change rules, for example, when you have a unit that’s composed of four vowels and consonants, there are certain silent sounds in between, and that I would consider to be a sound change, because you aren’t pronouncing that. For example, 읽다 [irg-da], which means to read, but if you listen to it, you might just hear “i”, “g”, if we just romanize it. But there’s actually a silent “r” in between, so that makes reversibility hard and it makes pronunciation hard.
There are things like, for example, “식품” (sik-pum), which means “food product”, that, when you pronounce it as a word, it becomes “sing-pum”, just because it’s easier to pronounce. And there are certain rules like that that changes the official way you’re supposed to pronounce these words.
Mandarin, I’m kind of putting in there, not because it has changes in terms of how it’s pronounced, but there are tone changes. So when you put two third tones together in Mandarin, the first one changes to the second tone, and it gets even more complex when you have consecutive third tones together, then it’s not always clear how you’d change the tones for that. So I’m going to give it a 2 for that reason. As far as I know, there are no sound change rules in Japanese and Cantonese, so they get 1 each.
Last but not least, we have clarity of speech, all of them, generally, speakers of each respective language, tend to be fairly clear. But I’m going to give Korean and Mandarin a slightly higher score, just because Korean speakers, just because of the nature of the language, when they speak very quickly the clarity is lost very easily.
And with Mandarin, I gave it a slight higher score for a different reason. There are people who are still heavily influenced by their local dialects, which make it heavily accented Mandarin, and I’ve had that experience of being in that [position], for example, in Shanghai, I heard people and I didn’t understand them just because of their heavy accents. You don’t get that very often in Japanese and Cantonese. There’s the Kansai-ben in Japanese, but it’s something you can get used to very very quickly, it’s not a completely different language where it’s mutually unintelligible, it’s just emphasizing certain parts of speech a different way, the intonation is different with Kansai-ben, than it is with the standard Tokyo dialect. And Cantonese, I’ve never had any problems with that [taking away my bias as a native speaker!].
Adding the scores up, here’s the conclusion guys. The most difficult, for me, this is all very subjective obviously, Korean is the hardest, Mandarin and Cantonese are in between, and Japanese is without the single hint of a doubt, it’s the easiest in terms of listening.
So that’s my conclusion, hardest Korean, easiest Japanese. So does that match with the answers, the guess you had at the beginning of the video?
Anyway, as usual, there’s no, this isn’t really like a language challenge per se, but I wanted to give you guys a comparison to share some of the experiences I had in learning these four languages, and hopefully that was helpful, and if you want to read a transcript of this, you can always go to this link and read it instead.
So that’s it today, I’m sorry it was a bit longer than usual, but I wanted to do this video for such a long time, I think I’ll just make an exception. I would appreciate it if you could give it a thumbs up if you found it helpful, or interesting somewhat, and if you have any questions or comments, very welcome to leave them below, and I’ll do my best to get back to you. Thanks once again, and I’ll see you guys next time. Cheers.