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Which is harder? Japanese or Korean?

In my previous post, I compared the difficulty of Japanese and (Mandarin) Chinese by looking at several aspects of the two languages. As I suspected, this drew out a large number of responses (or at least larger than what I’m used to in any case). However, I was surprised to see how civilized and thoughtful the comments turned out to be. So, I decided to do another language comparison, this time with Japanese and Korean. Before I start, I’d like to mention what I write here is strictly my observations and may not be entirely accurate.


It is often said that Japanese and Korean are very similar languages. Now this is true to some extent but you can’t forget that Japanese and Korean have completely different writing systems and more importantly, the sounds that go along with them.

With the exception of the /z/ consonant sounds (which Koreans usually can’t pronounce), the sounds in the Korean language are a superset of the sounds in Japanese. This means that in order to learn Korean, you not only have to learn most of the sounds in Japanese but also additional sounds, many whose difference I can’t even tell. This, I think, is the strongest argument for Korean being the harder language to learn. Because anytime somebody wants to try out a Korean phrase learned from a friend, I need to have it repeated about 5 or 6 six before I can tell what he is trying to say. And even then, it’s an educated guess at best.

With Japanese, though you sound like crap without the proper pitches, you can still make yourself understood with even the worst accents (most of the time).

The writing system

Now the comparison get more difficult because Koreans have invented an ingenious little writing system called hangul to cleverly handle all those different sounds in Korean.

For Japanese, you have to memorize 46 separate characters (not including the obsolete characters) for each individual sound. Since you have both hiragana and katakana, that amounts to a total of 92 characters that you have to memorize just to write 46 sounds. If you count the voiced consonants, small 「や、ゆ、よ」, etc., you only get a total of 102 sounds for learning 92 characters. That’s not a lot of mileage.

With hangul, you learn consonants and vowels separately and match them up like legos. You can combine up to a maximum of three consonants and one vowel. For example, if you learn 4 consonants and 4 vowels, you can combine each consonant to the vowel to get 4×4=16 letters. You can also add yet another consonant to each of these letters to get an additional 16×4=64 letters. You can even add yet another consonant though the possible combinations are a bit limited for the fourth consonant. If you consider the fact that hangul has a total of 19 consonants and 21 vowels, you can appreciate just how many sounds Korean has over Japanese. In fact, I don’t even know the total number of letters in hangul. Imagine what a nightmare it would be if you had to memorize a separate character for each sound!

A sample of hangul
Consonants: ㄱ(g),ㄴ(n),ㄷ(d),ㄹ(r)
Vowels:ㅏ(a), ㅓ(uh), ㅗ(o), ㅜ(u)

Possible combinations include:
나(na), 너(nuh), 노(no), 누(nu)
다(da), 더(duh), 도(do), 두(du)
라(ra), 러(ruh), 로(ro), 루(ru)
각(gag), 간(gan), 갇(gad), 갈(gar)
각(gag), 간(gan), 갇(gad), 갈(gar)
곡(gog), 곤(gohn), 곧(gohd), 골(gohr)
국(gug), 군(guhn), 굳(guhd), 굴(guhr)
낙(nag), 난(nan), 낟(nad), 날(nar)… etc.

Hangul, like the English alphabet allows you to write a lot more sounds with a smaller number of characters while still maintaining the unambiguous 1 letter = 1 sound aspect of Japanese. You may be thinking that in the end, all this means is that there are a lot more sounds and more letters to go with them. How does this make Korean easier than Japanese, which doesn’t need to deal with all these extra sounds to begin with? And my reply to that is, you don’t need hanja (kanji) in Korean.

In Japanese, due to the limited five-vowel, consonant+vowel sounds (with the only exception of 「ん」), a lot of words end up with the same pronunciation. For instance 「生」 and 「正」 are both 「せい」 in Japanese. However, the original Chinese pronunciation for 生 is “sheng” and “zheng” for 正. Similarly, in Korean 「生」 is “생” (seng) and “정” (juhng) in Korean. Japanese doesn’t even have a “uh” or “ng” sound. Let’s compare more kanji with the 「せい」 reading with the Korean version.

Kanji Japanese Korean

As you can see, out of seven characters that have the same reading in Japanese, you get a total of five different pronunciations in Korean, three of which do not even exist in Japanese. Most importantly, Korean has just one letter and one sound for each character just like Chinese. In Japanese, you often get two or even three letters because one wasn’t enough to pronounce all the consonants and vowels. What you end up in Japanese is a bunch of repeating, long, and hardly decipherable text without kanji.

I get a headache from just looking at this

Even with spaces, it’s not much improvement
しょうがく ごねんせいに しんきゅうした さいだいの メリットは、おとなの つごうで ちゅうがくせいとも こうがくねんとも よばれる ちゅうぶらりんの よねんせいから かいほうされて、どっしり こうがくねんの ざに こしを すえられることだった。

With hangul, because you have a lot more letters, the visual cues are a lot more distinct and there are fewer homophones. However, because the visual cues are not quite as clear as Chinese characters, you do have to learn where to put spaces. I think it’s a small price to pay for not having to learn 2000-3000 Chinese characters, don’t you?

You don’t need kanji/hanja in Korean because of the increased visual cues. But you do need spaces.

외모가 뛰어난 학생들이 그렇지 않은 학생들보다 학업 성적이 뛰어난 것으로 밝혀졌다고 10일 선데이 타임스, 데일리 메일 등의 언론이 이탈리아 연구팀의 연구 결과를 인용 보도했다.

I think it’s ridiculous when Japanese teachers don’t teach their students kanji or when somebody says that you don’t need to learn it. Yeah, you don’t have to learn it if you don’t mind being illiterate. Books, signs, restaurant menus, computers, everything has kanji in it and you don’t get the furigana either. But in Korea, you really don’t need to learn Chinese characters at all. Sometimes you might see it in parantheses on signs next to the hangul and newspapers may use some very simple characters such as 大 or 現 but it’s a supplement to hangul instead of the other way around. Just compare Yahoo! Korea to Yahoo! Japan. Not a single Chinese character in Yahoo! Korea. Yahoo! Japan? Too many to count.

Bottom line: In terms of simplicity in writing and reading the language, Korean wins hands down. Well-played Sejong the Great, well-played.


So far, it seems like Japanese and Korean are totally different. So what the heck was I talking about when I mentioned that they were similar? Well, why don’t we take a look at how to say, “I went to school at 7:00.”

Japanese: 私は7時に学校に行った。
Korean: 나는 7시에 학교에 갔어.

Can’t see the similarity? Ok, why don’t we add spaces to the Japanese, replace the Korean with hanja, and use the same style for the characters.

私は 7時に 學校に 行った。
나는 7時에 學校에 갔어.

As you can see, the sentence structure is exactly the same. Indeed, Korean and Japanese grammar has the same general ideas including particles and the main verb always being at the end of the sentence. However, that’s like saying French and English grammar are the same. Once you get into the details, you’ll find all sorts of stuff that are completely different. Let’s take a look at a few examples.


Particles in Korean are what you get if a bunch of people were to get together and say, “Hmm… Japanese particles are just too easy to understand. How do we make it harder to yet again confound those silly foreigners.” Then one of them will go, “I got it! Let’s change the particle depending on what comes before it!” Then the rest will go, “Oooh, that’s good.”

That’s basically how Korean works. The 「が」 particle in Japanese is either “가” or “이” depending on what it is attached to. The 「は」 particle is “은” or “는”, 「を」 is either “을” or “를”, and 「で」 is “로” or “으로”. Japanese students can now proceed to laugh at fellow students who chose to learn Korean instead.


Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Korean conjugation rules to really accurately compare the two languages in this regard. However, I do know one big difference is that Korean does have a future tense unlike Japanese. Also, I give you this entertaining excerpt from this site.

Past tense is another easy verb tense. Here is the basic pattern.

1.Take the dictionary form, drop the 다
2.Add the ending 어 or 아, which makes it the casual form (everything but the 요 at the end)
3. Add ㅆ under the last syllable
4. Add 어요 on the end.

먹 + 어 – 먹어
먹어 + ㅆ – 먹었
먹었 + 어요 = 먹었어요.

마시 + 어 – 마셔
마셔 + ㅆ – 마셨
마셨 + 어요 = 마셨어요

마시 + 어 = 마셔? I mean 마시 + 어 = 마시어 makes sense but 마셔? I don’t think my math is good enough to understand that. Also, notice how it says, “Add the ending 어 or 아” but neglects to mention how to decide which one to add. I’m sorry but this doesn’t look easy to me at all. But then again, when you have Japanese conjugation tables that look like this, maybe I shouldn’t complain.


Yep, both languages have them. And yes, it’s totally confusing for both languages.


In terms of difficulty, I think Japanese and Korean are at about the same level. Some parts are harder for Korean while other parts are harder for Japanese. However, considering the larger number of sounds and the different particles in Korean, Japanese is definitely the easier language to start in. If you’re not good at distinguishing new sounds and pronunciations, you’re definitely going to have a hard time with Korean.

In particular, that fourth consonant can get really silly. For instance, the word for chicken is “닭”, made up of ㄷ(d),ㅏ(a), ㄹ(r), ㄱ(g), and it’s supposed to sound something like “darg” but I can’t even hear the /r/ sound. And “없어” is supposed to sound like “uhbs uh” but to me, it sounds exactly the same as “uhb suh” (업서). Really, it’s just ridiculous.

However, once you master all the sounds and the basic grammar in Korean, you’re in for smoother ride the rest of the way. While Japanese students will be struggling with four different types of conditionals, looking furiously in the dictionary for the readings of 「大人」, 「仲人」, 「気質」, and 「問屋」, and trying to remember if it was 「静かな」 or 「静な」, you’ll be just sailing right by enjoying the benefits of having only one letter and reading for each Chinese character. You don’t even have to learn them, if you don’t want to.

Posted by Tae Kim in Misc. | 33 Comments »


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