Updated: May 18, 2020
You may have realized the importance of Asia on the global economic scene and want to get ahead career wise, or you MIGHT have just ruined your chances with that hot date because both of you couldn’t communicate without Google translate over the dinner table. Whatever your reason for learning Chinese, Japanese and Korean, you’re in the right place.
Although I haven’t ‘cracked the code’ with the choosing languages myself (I speak 7 languages), I felt that each language I learned after the other became progressively easier to take in and absorb. Why? It’s because they’re all intricately connected with each other in one way or another. It has to be noted though that if you are an English Native Speaker, the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State ranks Chinese, Japanese and Korean as ‘hard languages’ that require over 1.5 years to ‘achieve language proficiency’. This is three times the length of time required to learn Spanish, which requires just only half a year. Regardless of the difficulty level, learning any of these languages will help open up new doors of opportunity because as Nelson Mandela puts it, ‘if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’. This means more hearts for you to grab……
Below, I will talk through my own experiences of learning each language and what potential there is for learning these languages from a business perspective.
I'm cheating here because I am Chinese and grew up speaking both Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese Chinese. Chinese can be considered to be a ‘family’ of languages. The written Chinese language is rich in history and consists of about 50,000 unique characters. With no alphabet, that’s a lot of memorizing to do! Although Cantonese and Mandarin do somewhat share the same written system, Cantonese uses a ‘traditional’ writing system whilst Mandarin mainly uses a ‘simplified’ writing system. With regard to the spoken side of things, all varieties of Chinese are tonal. This means that a simple phrase of ‘I want dumplings’ can turn into ‘I want to sleep’ when pronounced incorrectly. Watch our video on more commonly confused Chinese words. With 4 or 5 tones in Mandarin to learn and between 6 to 9 tones in Cantonese, it’s not an easy feat.
Chinese seems like one big mess when you start learning it, tones that have to be carefully tread around and characters that have to be memorized may all seem quite hard to take in at first. I remember when I started speaking Cantonese and Mandarin as a kid, I would be laughed at by my parents for confusing my tones and saying something completely inappropriate or sending the wrong character in a text message. Believe me, mistakes are good for you and each time I made a mistake I remembered to correct myself the next time. I gained the opportunity to work in Shanghai and Taipei. It was then that I clearly realized the differences between Mandarin used in Taiwan and Mandarin used in Mainland China.
Due to the rise of the Chinese economy, Mandarin has been touted as THE business language to learn for the future. China also has the largest population in the world and with the highest number of Native Chinese speakers in the world; it’s a 'no brainer' why so many companies have switched their strategies to pulling in more Chinese customers. However with the complexity of the language and the fact that the global influence of China’s soft power is still quite limited, don’t start jumping on the bandwagon if you don’t really enjoy the language! You will give up if you do…..
Cantonese on the other hand, isn’t touted as a business language by many. In fact, with the increasing reforms within the school curriculum in Hong Kong, more and more young students are using Mandarin as a medium of communication in schools instead of Cantonese. The future of Cantonese does seem quite bleak with the fact that Mandarin is starting to eclipse Cantonese as a business language even within Hong Kong. Learn if you want to have the ‘niche’ factor.
Japanese is the official language of Japan, a country so rich and advanced in nearly every aspect. The written system consists of three alphabet systems: ‘Hiragana’, ‘Katakana’ and ‘Kanji’ (based on Chinese characters). Therefore, it means that you’ll have to learn two different alphabet systems as well as memorize unique characters. Unlike in Korean, there is no escaping with Chinese characters since ‘Kanji’ is regularly used everywhere. With regard to spoken Japanese, pronunciation isn’t as hard as Korean or Chinese since it is monotonic to an extent. However, it does start to get complicated when you bring in grammar and all the politeness levels. Depending on the situation, you might have to address the same person in a multitude of manners!
Japanese was the language that I had learned after English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Korean and it is by far the hardest language that I have attempted to learn. I am glad I chose to learn it after the above languages because both Chinese and Korean provided me with a nice and neat foundation to start learning Japanese. With my knowledge of Chinese, I could guess the meaning of similar sounding words and understand the meaning of commonly used ‘Kanji’ even if I didn’t know how to pronounce them. Furthermore, I soon realized Korean and Japanese grammar were fairly similar so it wasn’t so hard to start putting sentences together and start having simple conversations with the locals. However, it does get increasingly complex and the learning curve starts to steepen from the intermediate levels onward.
Japan is the world’s third largest economy and will most likely still remain at the top for the near future. From a business perspective, Japanese companies are highly innovative and have bases all around the world. Therefore, the chances of you ending up in a Japanese company aren’t unlikely at all. If you do unknowingly end up in one, it definitely helps to speak the language of the company for a higher chance of promotion and more opportunities work-wise. Japanese is a language which you might not get to use very often outside Japan but it does jump out at you sometimes.
The Korean language is the official language of South Korea and I had a chance to immerse myself within the culture and language during my time studying in Seoul. The written system is highly logical and comprises of mainly ‘Hangul’ (the Korean alphabet system). However, you do see a few ‘Hanja’ (Chinese characters) float into the mix whilst reading newspapers. Spoken Korean is also quite logical and relatively simple to get the hang of from the start. However, there are seven levels of formalities within the Korean language (although only around 3 or 4 are used in daily life) so you have to determine the ‘level’ of the person who you’re speaking to first before you start opening your mouth. That’s a lot of guessing and things can get off to an awkward start if you guess incorrectly.
Since I had learned English, Cantonese and Mandarin before Korean, the Hanja (Chinese characters) side of things weren’t terribly difficult, nor were the borrowed words from English such as 'computer' (컴퓨터). Furthermore, I felt that the alphabet system was fairly easy to memorize and many words sounded quite similar to either Cantonese or Mandarin. For example, the word ‘library’ all sound extremely similar in all three languages. Knowledge of Chinese particularly comes in handy when reading advanced texts which generally use a lot of ‘Hanja’ words. Therefore, Korean wasn’t a terribly difficult language during the beginning. Packed with my curiosity for the language and culture, I thought that I would conquer the language. Sadly, that didn’t happen. As I started working for a Korean company, I realized how complex the hierarchy system was. Incorrect uses of interjections and expressions to the wrong person can lead to severe awkwardness and a possibility that you’ll not be invited to the next party or dinner.
There is no doubt that the ‘Hallyu wave’ (the ‘flow’ of South Korean popular culture) has strengthened the soft power of Korea and I have seen many people start learning the language due to their love for K-POP and Korean Dramas. This influence and popularity hasn’t come to a halt yet which means that more international opportunities are starting to spring up as South Korean popular culture starts to spread around the world.
From an economic perspective, South Korea has an extremely sophisticated IT infrastructure. With internet connection speeds being unrivaled elsewhere in the world, South Korea can no doubt be considered a leader in this field. However, there is a shortage of skilled people who can facilitate the export of these cutting edge technologies to the world. With a rapidly growing economy, Korean is definitely a language worth investing your time in.
So which language should you learn?
At the end of the day it really does depend on what you enjoy doing and learning. If you are interested in the culture of a particular country, you’ll have an easier and more enjoyable time learning the language of that country. However if you want to look at the above languages from a business perspective, Chinese and Japanese are definitely strong languages to have under your belt at the moment. Korean does have potential but the future of Cantonese does not look so bright. If you are looking to learn all of the above and become a multilingual superstar, then Chinese would be the best starting point due to the Hanja and Kanji used in Korean and Japanese respectively.