October 14, 2019

How Easy Is It to Learn an Asian Language?


Just to stir the pot a bit…

I thought I would post this chart from my upcoming talk at the Polyglot Conference in Fukuoka (2019). I’ll be giving a talk in which I describe the structure of some of my favorite Asian languages, and what to expect if you decide to learn them (the talk is called “Which Asian Language Should I Learn?) and will likely be posted online in a few months.

Many English speakers are really daunted by the idea of learning an Asian language. I want to give them a quick and easy way to choose the language that is best for them according to their goals and their skill set.

For example, would you like to learn a new script, but Chinese is too scary? Try Korean!

Do you prefer a language without tones? Japanese or Indonesian might be up your alley.

I’ve rated each language for how easily they can be learned by an English speaker, broken down for Reading & Writing, Pronunciation, Grammar & Syntax, and Ease of Finding Language Resources.

These ratings are based on language science but with a healthy dose of my own subjective experience.

Disagree with any of these ratings? Change my mind! Let’s start a healthy (and useful!) discussion so that new learners can benefit from our knowledge.

After some discussion, I’ll update this post with more specific information about what went into the rankings. But first, I’d like to hear from you!

If you’d like to make sure you are notified when I post the update, please subscribe!

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  1. Hi!
    Thank you for this post, I share your interest for languages, and I would like to share my opinion.
    I am learning Japanese and Chinese (Mandarin) at the moment, so I found your post very interesting. So far, Chinese has been the most challenging for me.
    I do agree that it is hard to read Chinese. It is a lot of hard work to remember all the Chinese characters.
    I find Chinese pronunciation a little bit difficult and intimidating, though.
    There are 4 tones in Chinese, and it has been a challenge getting the right tone. I have some Chinese friends, and they’re always correcting my pronunciation. Sometimes, they look at me funny when I say something. So, I end up using English or I write what I said in Chinese. (I copy and paste from google, of course)

    In terms of Japanese, I’ve been learning it for a year, and I don’t think that reading and writing is very hard. Japanese writing system is different than Chinese. There is Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana and Romaji, so it makes it a little easier to learn and read. Plus there are a lot of resources online to teach you Kanji using mnemonics. I’ve learned Hiragana and Katakana in 3 days.

    Having Hiragana and Katakana (46 characters each) helps ease the learning process. I have friends who asked if they should write only in hiragana and katakana, which I thought was very thoughtful. So I’d say reading and writing in Chinese is much harder than reading and writing in Japanese. In terms of grammar and syntax, I personally think that it isn’t very hard, because there are only a few things that are new to foreigners. So far it has been easier for me to express myself in Japanese than in Chinese.

    I’m not learning Korean, but one of friends had learned Korean and she was able to learn the characters in a matter of days. She could read any word, even though she hadn’t seen it before, which I thought was amazing.
    So, yeah I agree that Korean is a good language to start with when wanting to try learning a second language, especially Asian languages.
    There are so many resources in Korean, and they have really good music and good Korean drama.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts. I’m an avid language learner.

  2. I love this kind of language comparison charts. They’re very informative, helpful, and also motivating. I’d love to know more about how you compiled this chart, so thanks for planning to update the post with more info. How much of it is based on you experience? Personally, I find that empirical advice is very helpful to language learners.

    Based on my linguistics knowledge and experience in learning some of these languages, I’d say the chart is pretty accurate. But I don’t think I agree that Mandarin pronunciation would be easy for an English speaker. It’s not so easy for me, but it might be just how I process sounds and tones. In any case it’s nowhere near how difficult Vietnamese is for me.
    Also, I love grammar so much that I can’t see Japanese nor Korean grammar as difficult, I just love getting lost in them.

    Looking forward to hearing your talk as soon as it’s posted.

  3. I’ve been studying Japanese on and off since 2008 and would definitley agree that reading and writing is by far the hardest (I think I’m still only up to about 400 kanji!). Though I actually think the grammar and syntax can be quite easy once you get the hang of it!

    Japanese grammar is quite rules based and structured, and once I’d learned the basics I found it clicked with me a lot easier. I actually found it a lot easier than European languages like French and Spanish where I’m constantly getting confused by irregular verbs and the gender of nouns!

    I might give mandarin a go next if everyhing is easy apart from the writing though 🙂

  4. This chart is so informative! Thanks!

    Maybe you can help me out – I have a question:

    I’ve been toying with learning Chinese, but I’m unsure whether to begin with Mandarin or Cantonese. I’m most interested in Cantonese, but it’s harder to find Cantonese resources, and Mandarin is more widely spoken, making it more “useful” in some people’s opinion. Are Mandarin and Cantonese at all mutually intelligible? Would it be wise for me to begin with Mandarin since there are so many resources available, and once I have a solid base, take the step to Cantonese? Or should I do some digging to find Cantonese resources and just start directly there?

    • Great question! I would start with Mandarin. Partly because there are more resources, and partly because most of the time Cantonese speakers write in Mandarin anyway (they rarely write in Cantonese). The two languages are not mutually intelligible, but Mandarin will definitely be a helpful stepping stone!

  5. Ashley ஆஷ்லே

    I’m learning Tamil and at first I decided to not learn to read Tamil in favor of just learning to speak, mostly out of hesitancy in learning a new writing form, but I decided to go ahead and take the plunge. I was able to learn the letters and their blends within 2 weeks. I don’t have the vocabulary to comprehend all that I’m reading yet, but I am able to decode and pronounce the words correctly. Now I just have to build the vocabulary. I’m glad I didn’t allow myself to shy away from this. Tamil looks so difficult, like a bunch of lines and loops when you first see it, but now I see the language and think it’s actually easier to sound out words than in English due to the many exceptions in English.
    பகிர்ந்தமைக்கு நன்றி! -ஆஷ்லே