Internship in Asia

Chinese, Japanese and Korean: What’s the Difference?

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Studying in China

Studying Japanese

If you’ve never learnt an Asian language, it can be easy to confuse Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Despite having a few similarities, these three languages are very different, and each one presents its own set of difficulties which may differ from the next. Unless you’ve managed to learn all three, you might be wondering what these differences are. To help you distinguish between the three, we’ve put together this short guide to explain the main linguistic differences between Chinese, Japanese and Korean.


Chinese, Japanese and Korean are all based on very different grammatical structures – some more difficult than others. Learners of Chinese will be pleased to discover that Mandarin grammar is far more straightforward than European languages, and the word order if very similar to that of English. There are very few exceptions to grammar rules, and (thankfully) no verb conjugations or complex tenses.

On the other hand, Japanese and Korean present more challenges when it comes to grammar. One main difficulty learners face when tackling one of these languages is their greater levels of politeness. Both languages have honorific forms, which play an extremely important role in day-to-day language. Different affixes and conjugations are used when speaking to people of differing levels of seniority to imply resect and politeness. The use of these changes the tone of the sentence, so learners need to pay special attention to these.  

Of the three, Mandarin Chinese has the most straightforward grammar system that allows learners more time to focus on the more challenging aspects of the language.


Studying mandarin in ChinaNo matter which of the three languages you choose to learn, coming from a non-Asian language background, speaking and pronunciation will take some getting used to. The Chinese language is based on 4 tones, which can drastically change the meaning of a word or sentence if pronounced wrongly. This can be confusing at first, and it can be hard to master and recall pronunciation of different words, but as with anything it gets easier over time.

While Japanese grammar is quite tricky, speaking isn’t so bad. Once you get past the noticeably higher pitch of native Japanese speakers, you’ll find it’s easy to grasp thanks to only having 5 vowels, the sounds of which are all used in English.

The Korean language is formed of vastly different sounds to Japanese and Chinese, making it quite easy to distinguish to the untrained ear. Korean is made easier by the fact it’s not a tonal language, however its guttural sounds like “eo” and “er” can be difficult to master. That said, many sounds are similar to those used in English, so once you get the hang of those trickier sounds, you’re well on your way to mastery.  


Reading & writing

There’s no denying that all three of these languages are daunting upon first glance. While it’s true they’re difficult, the good news is that they do get easier.

Daily life in China

Let’s start with Chinese; Chinese characters all have an equivalent Romanised form, known as pinyin. Based on the western alphabet, this is designed to help both young Chinese people and foreign learners understand how to pronounce characters. By learning pinyin and characters simultaneously, you’ll soon start to recognise more of them without their pinyin equivalent and progress to reading characters alone. Fortunately, many Chinese words are formed of multiple characters that you’re likely to have seen before. So, once you’ve got the basics under your belt, you’ll progress at a much quicker rate. The highest-level exam for foreign learners of Chinese requires exam takers to recognise 5,000 + characters, but don’t worry – you can achieve fluency with around 2,500 - 3,000.

Formed of 3 different alphabets, Japanese isn’t easy to get your head around at the start. The language consists of 3 alphabets; Hiragana; which represents the different sounds, Katakana; often used to transcribe imported foreign words, and Kanji; based on borrowed or modified Chinese characters to write nouns, adjective, and verb stems. These alphabets combine to form modern Japanese script, that isn’t easy to get the hang of but requires knowledge of fewer characters than Chinese to achieve literacy.

Internship in KoreaFinally, while Korean may look to the untrained eye just as impossible to read as Chinese and Japanese, it’s actually much easier to understand than other Asian languages. The Korean language uses the Hangul alphabet, which consists of 14 consonants and 10 vowels, represented by certain shapes. These shapes are combined into syllable blocks, which are easily pronounced once you’ve got to grips with the alphabet and sounds. The Korean writing system is far more logical than the Chinese and Japanese, making it easier to remember and quicker to pick up.

Despite their many differences, it can be said Chinese, Korean and Japanese are equally difficult. Each language presents its own challenges, which can be hard to grasp at the start, but which do get easier with study. Of course, the best way to master any language quickly is through immersion. By spending time in one of these countries, you’ll soon pick up useful phrases and get your head around the more challenging parts. What better way to do it than through an internship in Shanghai, Tokyo or Seoul? Check out positions with our partner companies or contact us to find out more! 



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