Those from East Asia seem to be the most fascinating when it comes to writing scripts. They look so different, so exotic, and attractive to learn and pick up. Suppose you are wondering which writing is better to learn. In that case, we compare Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean writing in this article to help you decide.
Korean Hangul may be the easiest to learn, as Hangul is an alphabetic-syllabary system. Chinese may be harder to learn, but you only learn one writing script. You have to learn three writing scripts in Japanese, which makes it the hardest to pick up.
This article compares the writing systems of three main Asian languages, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. We explore their differences, which may be easier for an English speaker to learn.
Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean Writing
|Writing System||Logographic||– Alphabetic-syllabary|
|Character Set||– Traditional Chinese|
– Simplified Chinese
|Radicals||-Has radicals||– Hangul has a radical-like system called ‘Jamo’|
– Hanja has radicals
|– Katakana and Hiragana does not have radicals|
– Kanji has radicals
|Spelling||You cannot spell Chinese||You can spell Hangul, but not Hanja||You can spell Katakana and Hiragana, but not Kanji|
|Vocabulary Range||About 370,000||About 500,000||About 500,000|
|Writing Direction||– Top to bottom|
– Left to right
|– Top to bottom|
– Left to right
|– Top to bottom|
– Left to right
|Punctuation||Western punctuation, minor differences||Western punctuation, minor differences||Western punctuation, minor differences|
|Sample||快速的棕色狐狸跳过懒狗||빠른 갈색 여우가 게으른 개를 뛰어 넘습니다||速い茶色の狐が怠惰な犬を飛び越える|
Japanese, Chinese, and Korean writing is different in many aspects. This may point back to their history and development.
The Chinese language uses a logographic writing system. This means every character represents a meaning and is read as a single sound. This is uniquely different from other western languages or other foreign languages.
In the case of Chinese, most characters can be traced back to ancient object drawings. For example, the character moon (月）can look like the shape of a moon.
Korean Hangul uses an alphabetic-syllabary writing system. You basically have 24 basic characters.
You then take some of these Korean consonants and vowels and put them in a certain formation to form a syllable. Then you combine several of these syllables to form a word.
This means Hangul combines alphabetic concepts and syllabic style writing, which is quite unique. This system of writing is very uncommon in European languages or other Asian languages.
The native language of the Japanese people, Japanese Katakana and Hiragana, use a syllabary writing system.
Each Hiragana comes with 46 syllable characters. You then combine these Japanese characters to form words. Katakana also works similarly.
These syllable characters represent a sound or a syllabic unit. This makes them different from the Latin alphabet or other western scripts such as Cyrillic.
Japanese writing also uses Kanji, which is basically Chinese characters. These are logographic writing systems that you cannot spell. The Japanese pronounce Kanji words differently than the Chinese.
Chinese comes in two writing scripts. Simplified and Traditional Chinese. Traditional Chinese was the earlier version, evolved from ancient Chinese writing.
It is still used in some parts of the world, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. It is widely used in Malaysia and Singapore as well.
Simplified Chinese was first introduced in 1956 by the Mainland government under Chairman Mao. The idea is to simplify the strokes of Traditional characters to make it easier to learn. You may find the simplified characters easier to learn too.
Simplified Chinese is the standard script used today in many parts of the world. It is also the official language in Mainland China and is the script used in most Chinese publications today.
There is also Hanyu Pinyin, which is Chinese written in the Latin alphabet. It is, however, more of a pronunciation guide than an actual writing script.
Korean also comes in two writing scripts. Hangul and Hanja. Hangul is the more common script, developed by King Sejong The Great in 1443.
Before that, Koreans wrote in Chinese characters, called the Hanja. This was because they were heavily influenced by Chinese culture at the time.
Hanja and Hangul existed alongside each other for over 500 years, with the Hanja used by the more educated upperclassmen.
It was during the leadership of President Park Chung Hee in 1968 that banned Hanja’s use in public areas. It also cannot be taught widely in schools.
As a result, Hanja literacy in South Korea plummeted. This makes Hangul the Korean standard script today in both South and North Korea.
Hanja’s ban was relaxed in the late 90s. However, by this time, Hanja is less popular and is only used in situations to explain homophones. Hanja may also be used for proper nouns, such as names and brands.
Japanese writing can be written in three scripts, Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji.
There is also Romaji. Romaji is Japanese written using the Latin alphabet. It is, however, uncommon and rarely used.
Kanji are essentially Chinese characters and are the first written scripts used by the Japanese. Similarly, like the Koreans, the Japanese were also historically influenced by Chinese culture.
Katakana can be described as a ‘broken’ Chinese character. Japanese monks developed Katakana in the 9th century to make texts readable by the masses. These monks combine Chinese characters into 46 syllables to form Japanese characters.
Katakana is usually used in more formal and serious forms of writing. Translations of foreign words also tend to be written in Katakana.
Hiragana was created by women in the 8th century during the Heian period. This was because, at that time, only men could learn and write in Kanji.
Over time, Japanese men also realized that Hiragana may be easier to read since they are based on sounds. They also adopted it into their writing.
Both Katakana and Hiragana are Japanese alphabet sets with 46 characters each.
Unlike Korean, all three Japanese scripts are still in use today. This is because these standard scripts complement each other in some ways.
Kanji makes it faster to read, while Katakana and Hiragana make it easier to read. Kanji also helps parse Katakana and Hiragana, like a space between words. This also helps the reading process, making it easier.
Usage Of Radicals
Radicals are the ‘mother’ of a character. They could be used to form the basic form of the character or used as a way to organize characters.
For example, Chinese characters are organized by the radicals in the dictionary, much like the alphabetical order in English.
Chinese characters come with radicals. Radicals (部首 bushou) are usually seen as the main structure within a character. For example, the radical for the word 池 is 氵.
Radicals are used to organize Chinese words in dictionaries, much like the alphabetical order. Radicals could also be used to imply some meaning to the character.
For example, many characters with the radical 氵may be related to water. Examples include 池 (pool), 汗 (sweat), or 江 (river).
Korean Hangul also has radicals called Jamo. However, Jamos are not used similarly as in Chinese. Jamos are basic blocks to build a syllabic unit, not a word like Mandarin.
There are two types of Jamo in Hangul, Choseong and Jungseong. Choseong is consonant letters and Jungseong vowels. These radicals are then combined with other characters to build a Hangul syllable.
Japanese scripts such as Hiragana and Katakana do not have any radicals. This is because they are syllabary characters. You simply combine them to form a word.
Japanese Kanji, however, do have radicals. They are used similarly in Chinese. However, the number of radicals may differ since Japanese Kanji are closer to Traditional Chinese script.
Chinese characters are logographs. This means every character carries its own meaning. There is no need to assemble letters of characters in Chinese writing.
This means you cannot spell Chinese characters. You either remember it, or you cannot write the character out. When you read it, if you do not recognize the character, you cannot read it out too.
The Korean alphabet, the Hangul, is alphabetic-syllabic in writing. This means you can spell the words out. This is because the basic 24 Korean characters have no meaning, only a sound.
You then assemble them to form a syllable character. When you read Hangul, you can look at the basic characters and figure out how to pronounce the syllable character.
Japanese Kanji cannot be spelled but written out exactly like Chinese characters. The Japanese language may pronounce these Kanji words differently than Chinese.
However, Japanese alphabet sets, such as Hiragana and Katakana, could be spelled. This is because each character is a syllable representing a sound. You should be able to read Kana if you recognize the characters and know the sound.
If you look at Chinese, you may be looking at around 370,000 to 500,000 Chinese words. The final figure may depend on which dictionary you are looking at.
However, the good thing about Chinese is that you only need an active vocabulary of several thousand to be fluent in it.
In fact, just by knowing the 100 most used characters, chances are you should be able to read about 50% of common Chinese texts out there.
Korean Hangul may have up to around 500,000 words if you refer to the Standard Korean Language Dictionary (표준국어대사전).
The unofficial Woori-Mal-Saem dictionary listed a vocabulary of over 1,100,00 words. This is an open dictionary where people can enter words openly.
This would include slang and many colloquial uses of the language in both North and South Korea.
If you refer to the Nihon-Kokugo-Daijiten Japanese Dictionary (日本国語大辞典), Japanese contains about 500,000 words. This word may have been combined from all three scripts.
Like Korean and Chinese, you do not need a very wide range of Japanese vocabulary to read Japanese well. This is because if you look at Japan’s JLPT proficiency test, you only need around 800 Japanese words to pass the basic N5 level.
When it comes to writing direction, all three languages are written similarly. Traditionally, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese were written from top to bottom as vertical scripts.
In this writing flow, you start from the right side of the page and go left. The specific term is called right-to-left vertical writing.
However, it is more common to see all three languages written from left to right and then from top to bottom, similar to European languages. This is also called left-to-right horizontal writing.
This is the predominant writing style used in most newspapers, books, or websites. You may still see vertical writing texts at places such as spines of books or book covers.
Written Chinese has punctuation similar to western punctuation marks, with additional markers. The most obvious difference you may notice is using a full stop (。）to mark the end of a sentence instead of a period.
Aside from that, Chinese also uses special punctuation such as ‘《…》’. This is a book title mark. There is also an enumeration mark ‘、’ to list out items. This is different from English, which uses commas.
Korean punctuation largely also follows western punctuation marks, with some notable exceptions. One is using the enumeration mark ‘、’ to list items. On this aspect, Koreans use the mark similar to the Chinese.
There are also some special punctuation marks. For example, the Tilde (~). A Tilde mark is used to express a period or distance. There is also the middle dot (ㆍ), used quite similarly to make a list.
Japanese punctuation also mostly follows western punctuation marks, with some taken from Chinese. For example, the Japanese use a full stop (。) to end a sentence instead of a period.
The unique punctuation mark in Japanese is the Interrobang (‽). This punctuation mark is a combination of a question and an exclamation mark.
How Do You Tell Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Writing Apart?
You can distinguish Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing apart by looking at their appearance. Chinese looks the most complicated, with no circles. Korean looks the simplest, with a lot of circles. Japanese would look like a mixture of simple and complicated characters, with some half or ¾ circles.
|Simplified Chinese||Korean Hangul||Japanese|
|Complexity||Most complicated||– Least complicated|
– More repeated patterns
|Mixture of simple and complicated characters|
|Circles||No circles||Have the most circles||Some circular characters|
|Blocks||– Very blocky|
– More square blocks
|– Less blocky|
– Less square blocks
|– Less blocky|
– Less square blocks
|Curves||Least curvy||Slight curves||Most curvy|
|Sample||快速的棕色狐狸跳过懒狗||빠른 갈색 여우가 게으른 개를 뛰어 넘습니다||速い茶色の狐が怠惰な犬を飛び越える|
When it comes to Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean writing, It may be hard to distinguish them.
This is because these Asian scripts look quite similar. They look blocky, with intricate lines, curves, and circles.
However, there are some ways you can tell them apart. The key may be to look at the aspects below:
Generally, you may notice that Chinese would look the most complicated. Each of the characters seems to have more strokes in them. The strokes also seem more linear, without extreme curves or wavy lines.
Korean script may look the simplest. You may notice that Korean characters seem to use fewer strokes than Chinese. The strokes also look curvier, with things such as circles in them. You may also notice more repetition in the strokes or the parts in Korean Hangul.
Japanese may look like something in between Korean and Japanese. There is less sense of consistency in the writing. Some characters look overly simple, while some look very complicated. You may also notice very extreme curves that may remind you of, say, Thai or Khmer.
You do not see any circles in Chinese. In fact, the curved strokes in Chinese are the least aggressive. Most strokes seem to be rather straight and linear.
You should notice a lot of circles in Korean script. Some are small, and some are large. In fact, full circles are the perfect indication that the script is Korean. This is because Chinese and Japanese writing has no full circle.
You may see some extremely curved strokes that look circular but not a full circle. You may see some half of almost-circles in Japanese, such as the Hiragana character の (no)
Chinese characters are the most blocky, with most characters looking squarish. In fact, one way to tell that you are looking at Chinese is the frequent presence of squares or rectangles, big or small. The blocks may have strokes written through them as well. (e.g., 中 – Zhōng）
Hangul may look blocky, but you can tell they are less blocky than Chinese. Some characters may not look squarish, such as 어. You also may see circles and blocks in the text.
Japanese texts may look less blocky. You may not see many squares and blocks in Japanese texts, not as much as in Chinese.
Chinese characters tend to have some curved strokes, but they are generally not extreme. The curves also seem to help keep the characters within a square block.
Korean characters may also carry less curvy strokes. However, Koreans seem to save the curves for their circles.
Japanese may look the curviest, especially on some Hiragana-based characters.
Which Writing Would Be Easiest For English Speakers To Learn?
In the previous sections we have done some Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean writing systems. Chances are you may wonder which is the easiest to learn.
Personally, I would consider learning Korean. Several reasons may make Korean the easiest to learn for an English native speaker:
You Only Need To Learn 24 Basic Characters
Korean Hangul is essentially 24 basic characters. You then combine these characters in a way to form syllable characters. Then you combine several two or more syllable characters to form a word.
For example, you write the word 꿀벌 (Kkulbeol, honeybee) by combining the basic characters ㄲㅜㄹㅂㅓㄹ together.
This is much easier than, say, Chinese. It has a complicated writing system, and you must remember every character by itself.
With Japanese, you may need to learn up to 92 Kana characters to write Hiragana and Katakana. On top of that, you need to learn and memorize many Kanji as well.
You Can Read Korean Words Easier
Korean may also suit English speakers before you can easily read and spell Korean words.
You only need to learn the 24 basic characters and arrange them in a syllable character. You can now pronounce the syllable and words easily.
This cannot be done with Chinese, as you need to remember the character and how it is pronounced. There are no cues from the characters.
Even if you remember the pronunciation, since Chinese is a tonal language, you must also remember the tone.
With Japanese, you can spell and read out the Katakana and Hiragana characters. Still, you will face the same issue with the Kanji. You cannot pronounce the word if you do not remember it.
You Only Learn One Writing Script
Finally, in Korean, you learn one writing script: Hangul. This is in contrast to Japanese, where you need to learn three.
With Chinese, you also learn a writing script (Simplified Chinese). However, Hangul may still be better here since it is easier to pick up and learn.
Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean Writing: Wrapping Up
We have looked into the three major Asian languages and their writing systems. We discuss Chinese vs Japanese vs Korean writing, and how they are similar and different.
As an English speaker, Korean may not be as easy to learn compared to Malay. But it is the easiest in this list, for many reasons too.
However, learning a language is not a decision you make just by looking at the writing system. There are many factors in play too. If you wonder if learning Japanese or Chinese may be a better idea, check out this article too.
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