Battle of the Languages – Korean vs Chinese

As South Korea and The People’s Republic of China are becoming more influential on the international stage, both in business and politics, this is the exactly same path their culture and languages follow. Besides the linguistic situation being very complex within these languages, it is a similar phenomenon reflecting the relationship between these two languages.

In order to clarify the similarities and distinctions between the mentioned languages and thus make it easier for the speakers of non-Asian languages to decide which one to pick and start learning, or if they choose both, how to organize their learning better and derive some useful methods. This is especially helpful to young Americans who are getting more interested and motivated in learning Korean due to the rise of K-pop, more than any other Asian language. For example, in the period from 2013 until 2016, there has been an increase in the number of learners of Korean up to 14%. Young learners, both students and employees in America, have been showing more and more interest in the Korean language and rescheduling their duties in order to be able to squeeze in some time for Korean classes.

Not only is this just another fashionable way of spending their leisure time and a temporary wave of interest in the Asian culture, but it is a futile investment in one’s professional achievements. It means taking Korean or Chinese classes, or Japanese, or classes of any other language spoken in the part of the international market that a person can direct their business and career to, is a move towards granted and secure future. As the market of Asian countries is on the rise, an investment in acquiring local languages means hitting the right target. This fact being true is confirmed even by the British Council, in its “Languages of the Future” report, which said that Mandarin Chinese would be one of the languages of the future.

Through the analysis, or better said, comparison, of both languages, we are going to help people make a clearer choice of which language to learn.

Chinese and Korean vocabulary

Although a beginner learner would not even think that the Korean language is actually much more related to Chinese, this is true. Not only to Chinese, but it is also very closely related to Japanese as well. In terms of vocabulary, the Korean language consists of about 60% of the words originating from the Chinese language. The Chinese words in Korean are referred to as Hanja, the Korean name for Chinese characters (hanzi). When a person spend some time in both speaking communities, that person is able to see how lots of words sound exactly the same or very, very similar. So, knowing Chinese is an excellent start to make fast and great progress in learning Korean. To support the statement, here are the following examples:

Agree: Korean: 동의 (dong-ui), Chinese: 同意 (tóngyì);

Credit card: Korean: 신용 카드 (sin-yong kadeu), Chinese: 信用卡 (xìnyòngkǎ)

Courage: Korean: 용기 (yong-gi), Chinese: 勇气 (yǒngqì);

Thirteen: Korean: 십삼 (sibsam), Chinese: 十三 (shísān);

Dinosaur: Korean: 공룡 (gonglyong), Chinese: 恐龙 (kǒnglóng);

Victory : Korean: 승리 (seungli), Chinese: 胜利 (shènglì);

Skin: Korean: 피부 (pibu), Chinese: 皮肤 (pífū);

Impression: Korean: 인상 (insang), Chinese: 印象 (yìnxiàng);

Content: Korean: 내용 (naeyong), Chinese: 内容 (nèiróng).

As said, the words borrowed from Chinese are written in hanja, or with Chinese symbols, while native Korean words are written in hangul, the Korean alphabet. The entanglement of Chinese and Korean is the consequence of Chinese influence and an insufficiant development of Korean alphabet in earlier times in history. Today’s phonetic alphabet or hangul, was created in the 15th century during the rule of King Sejong the Great, but it did not come into widespread use until the 19th and early 20th century. This meant that being literate in those times required being skillful in reading and writing hanja. Therefore, the majority of Korean literature and a lot of Korean documents were written in hanja.

Writing Systems

In terms of writing systems, it seems that the Korean language is leading over Chinese. However, avoiding learning Chinese characters is almost impossible since most of the Korean vocabulary is based on Chinese words.

Unlike the Chinese language, Korean does not have characters representing syllables or morphemes. In hangul each character corresponds to a letter and it has just 24 phonemes, of which 14 consonants and 10 vocals, at the disposal.

On the other hand, the most challenging and the most complicated part of the learning process of Chinese is how to tackle the issue of Chinese symbols or characters. The symbols or characters usually represent syllables or morphemes. In order to be literate and fluent in Chinese, a learner needs to be able to recognize between 1500 and 2000 characters, to start with. A person of high education and knowledge is expected to know about 8000. In comparison of almost 47000 characters, or even 50000 characters according to some, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Syntax & Grammar

In terms of syntax, the Chinese language adheres to the pattern of SVO or subject-verb-object agreement. Korean, on the other side, follows the pattern of SOV or subject-object-verb. When it comes to grammar, Chinese grammar can be more complicated straightforward than its Korean counterpart. On the other hand, conjugations and particles can make Korean grammar harder to deal with, especially particles since they determine a word’s role in a sentence. Another characteristic of the Korean language is the fact the language is full of compound words and word families. There is an element that enables learners to predict what is the word about, its approximate meaning and a type of the word. Such an example is noted in the words defining languages. The pattern is that a learner adds a certain element to the already existing word. In the case of languages, it means the word stands for a country, but if you want derive a word referring to the language of that country, you simply add the given element which, in this case, stands for the word “language”. For example, clear example the Korean for “Japanese Language” is 일본어 (ilboneo)”, where   “일본 (ilbon)” means “Japan”. If we want to turn “Japan” into “Japanese Language”, we just need to add the  (eo)” syllable. Let’s say we want to refer to German instead. Germany is 독일 (dogil)”. Therefore, the “German Language” is 독일어 (dogireo)”.

Pronunciation

When it comes to pronunciation and script, the Korean alphabet of hangul is much easier to apply thanks to the phonetic characteristic of the alphabet where a sound corresponds to a character. This is a good point for European language speakers due to the similar logic their languages follow.

Chinese, on the other side, is much challenging in this category. Not only is it challenging in deciphering the sounds of the Hanzi characters, but another problem rising in sight is that Chinese has four intonations. To be precise, it has an extra neutral one. This means that a speaker should be very careful and of refined hearing affinity to be able to pronounce each word in the right intonation. With different intonation, the meaning and intention of the said vary and thus may cause misinterpretations, confusions and even mocking and insult.

Korean vs Chinese: Which one’s the easiest to learn?

Finally, the Mandarin Chinese writing system, the standard Chinese, is far more complex than its Korean counterpart. In other words, the writing system of hangul is a lot easier to learn than the Hanzi system.

In terms of grammar, the Chinese language scores a point due to its predictability and stability. This is a lacking feature of Korean grammar which can be alleviated by recognizing existing patterns, as in compound words.

A category which goes in favor of Korean is pronunciation. Its pronunciation is more predictable and straightforward than that of the Chinese language, without any tones to be taken care of.

So, how to approach the process of learning? If you happen to be a linguist or a even polyglot, you may base your learning process on recognizing the families and branches these languages belong to, only to be able to know what to expect and how to organize. Then, employ the noted similarities and differences to your favor. To learn both languages is the best choice because of the both countries’ international significance. Not only for this reason, but for practicality reasons as well since 60% of the Korean vocabulary originates from Chinese. Being thus intertwined, these two languages are better to be learnt both, starting with Chinese. With some functional knowledge of Chinese, you are opening the door Korean, but after all, the choice is only yours, isn’t it?

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