Should you Learn Japanese or Chinese?

This is a question that many people approach before beginning Japanese.  They search online for the answer to this prevalent question that has been asked thousands of times before this, and analyze the comparisons between the 2 languages that people provide on discussion boards.

Now I could do something similar.  I had spent a good amount of effort learning Chinese before I realized that I was dividing my time too thinly with a 3rd language.  However, the problem with this comparison is that it would be based on factors that vary too greatly among individuals to serve any real purpose.

If you’ve never asked yourself this question before choosing a language, it is probably because you had more interest in the country, culture, people, and media of the language, making the choice obvious.

If you are one of the people who is asking this question, you probably are after an answer to a more particular question, and that is the question I will answer with this post:

Which language will result in the greatest economic rewards (aka which will make me more $$$)?

China has the world’s largest population, has already surpassed Japan as the world’s 2nd largest economy, and is on it’s way to number 1 in the next few decades.  China is the future of industry, jobs, and the international scene.  If you want to have an edge in your career and start bringing in the bucks, you need Chinese.

Japan has a shrinking economy and population.  Large companies are being sued left and right, they are falling behind other countries in areas of technology they used to dominate, and there are not many jobs that require Japanese.  Learning Japanese is fun, but will not result in any real money, so do it only if you love it.

Wrong.

If the above is true, which it mostly is, Chinese seems the favored champion.  But why isn’t it?

1.  China has the largest population in the world.  You are competing with a lot more people who speak native Chinese.
2.  Chinese like to immigrate.  Japanese, not so much.  Same problem as #1.
3.  Chinese are better at English than Japanese are at English.  I’m sure there is some in depth reason behind this due to the educational system and a variety of factors.  This leads to #4.
4.  Chinese people conduct way more business in English than Japanese people do.  This is due to skill, pride, and preference.
5.  An extremely higher number of people are studying Chinese over Japanese.

The answer is Japanese.  Remember, Japan still has a massive economy, is at the forefront of the technology sector, and has no shortage of career opportunities for foreigners proficient in Japanese.

Trust me, you will stand out where it matters.


*Remember though that the real answer is to not choose a language based on how much monetary value you think it’ll provide you.



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.

Comments

Should you Learn Japanese or Chinese? — 21 Comments

  1. This post really rings true with my experience.

    Regarding why Chinese people seem to be better at English than Japanese people, I believe a big part of it is that Chinese university students are required to pass a very rigorous English exam in order to graduate. This is regardless of their major. The Chinese students I have met spend an enormous amount of time preparing for this exam – sometimes even more than on their actual major.

  2. I took a semester of Chinese in college because I wanted to see the difference between the two languages. Even though it was interesting it took away valuable time I could have been studying Japanese because I was being graded. I wasn’t doing it for fun, and wasn’t enjoying it as much as I do Japanese. It was a good experience though and know now what language I’m really passionate about.

  3. Speaking for myself, I’ve spent considerable time in both Japan and mainland China. I simply like Japan much better, so that’s where I’m spending my time and energy, regardless of what opportunities may lie in China.

  4. So, you’re saying that people should study Japanese because it has more utility value and allows people to communicate with more people than Chinese? Also, people should learn Japanese because there’s less competition?

    • Not quite. I’m saying that if you are trying to figure out which to study based on future job opportunities/money, Japanese is the better way to go.

  5. I’ve heard a common experience in Japan is that foreigners feel excluded and cannot make an in depth relationships. Unlike China, who eventually treat foreigners like one of their own and have a very warm atmosphere. I feel unless one already has a personal connection to Japan, it’s very hard to break the alienation you may face in the future. Therefore, China might be the better choice for those battling over the decision.

    For me, aside from my personal connections which were made after my decision to go to Japan, I have a strong passion for the culture there. I’m just generally more interested in Japan than China (like Jiseri, I also took a semester of Chinese, and tried keeping up my studies, but wasn’t as interested). So, China isn’t the country for me to permanently move to, rather just take a short trip to. But for those that don’t have a particular swing on interest levels, I would say China might be the better choice.

    But then again… why move to a country that you’re not truly passionate about? I would experience both cultures for yourself and see which you are truly drawn to.

  6. I already know mandarin. Not really good at chinese characters yet. I’m singaporean-malaysian. So its easier for me to choose:)

  7. I already can speak and read (not write: very well, at least, though I can type pinyin) Chinese already, so the answer is obvious for me LOL!

  8. A lot of it also depends heavily on where you currently live. For example, I’m in San Francisco and while we have a larger Japanese population than most of the country our Chinese population is huge. Like, approximately 1/3 of the population huge. Every government document, sign, or even announcement on the bus is trilingual in English/Spanish/Chinese, you see ads all over town in Chinese, several of my friends are of Chinese ancestry, and every landlord I’ve ever had here has been a Chinese immigrant with varying English skills.

    It would be trivial for me to get practice and immersion in the language just through living my normal life. It would be incredibly useful in a wide variety of situations from getting my toilet repaired to finding a job. But regardless I’m learning Japanese because it’s what I want to learn, not because it’s what will have the greatest practical aspect.

  9. I am very confused and I definitely need your help! I have more experience in Chinese rather than in Japanese, that means I can communicate in Chinese better than in Japanese. I have studied both languages in order to get my Master’s degree in East Asian Studies. The issue is that one cannot continue to maintain both languages for ever. It’s been really hard for me to memorize different readings of the same character – I mean the Mandarin reading plus the varying readings of the same kanji. It’s time to make a decision and drop one and I still haven’t figured out which one. I love both languages and cultures but I cannot make up my mind and keep going with just one for good. Japanese is very demanding as it is Chinese. It’s true that China will likely become a strong nation. Where I live, Malta (Europe), it’s really hard to find Japanese people; there are a few Chinese but no one can actually tell which one would be the best (job-wise). I agree that it’s hard to compete against a multitude of Chinese native speakers and most of them prefer to do business in English, but is this the main reason why a person should opt for Japanese and invest time and energy in order to gain a certain proficiency? Thank you!

    • This should come as no surprise, but of course I am going to favor Japanese, especially since I was in a similar situation to you.

      However, don’t base the decision on jobs and money. It’s one small factor, but it should be on a long list of many other factors in making your decision.

      But from observation, I notice that many people decide to make one language their additional native (or fluent) language and another language as merely “functional.” This seems to cure the limited time issue. However I’m the wrong person to ask on this aspect, as I did not want to go this route.

      • I have English as my fluent L2, and I want to make Japanese and French fluent also. however, before learning French, I intend to be functional in Spanish and German.

        I cannot say things that I don’t know, but here in Brazil, Chinese companies couldn’t care less if you spoke or not Chinese. It’s seem with good eyes if you can speak functional Chinese, but as all intern mailings are in Portuguese or, when it envolves other branches, in English, noone really needs Chinese to move up into the companies ranks. However, all Japanese companies here have the same maxim: if you don’t speak Japanese you can’t climb higher than a low-level manager. Thinking about this, if the same is true for other countries, I’d advice you to keep your Chinese only at a functional level and focus on Japanese.

        Just my two cents.

  10. One thing to keep in mind, China has the world second highest emigration to leave elsewhere to other parts of the world; India takes the top spot for highest emigration. As a BBC article I read two years ago pointed out, mainland Chinese (mostly from large cities) who have the money and education tend to leave for countries that speaks English (US, Canada, UK, Australia, even Singapore). This creates a void for those who have less chance before to fill in the vacant spot. However, competition is aggressive as there are large number of candidates. English is highly valued but you still have to master and know Mandarin to understand and show respect for the culture.

  11. I have been having really bad troubles between learning Chinese or Japanese, mainly because: While Chinese is something that is used more, it is not really in my field of interest IE that I love video games and Japanese culture more then Chinese. (Not implying that China doesn’t make good games, just saying that I prefer things like Sony and Nintendo.) So I might choose Japanese after rethinking really hard about this xD.

    • Learning a language that you’re not interested in is a losing battle. Unless you find something that really interests you about the language, or something that makes you feel the need to learn Chinese (not for a job, but something like a TV series that is ONLY available in Chinese and will never, ever be subbed) then you shouldn’t bother. My advice is to go with Japanese.

  12. Hello everyone,
    A lot of people here seem to be on the same boat as me, I’m so glad I’ve found this page. I’ve had this dilemma between Chinese and Japanese for at least 7 torturous years. I did a BA in both but even though I wanted to do a Master’s in Japanese Applied Translation I listened to everyone who advocated for China as the UK where I live is going through a Chinese fever at the moment and I went for Mandarin. Seven years after completing my Master’s I’m stuck in a dead end customer service job swarmed with Chinese customers who are often too rude for my liking. What makes it worse is that I can understand what they’re saying about me, my only “reward” for choosing Chinese. I would drop everything and choose to refocus on Japanese instantly but I’m plagued by the constant fear that Japan is falling behind and that the future is Chinese. Needless to mention that my love has and always will be Japanese but how do I ignore the fact that Japan is not doing so great at the moment whilst China continues to rise?

    • If you love Japanese, the answer is pretty simple: study Japanese.

      Countries have their economic booms and declines. Japan still continuously is a major source of the world’s innovation, technology, and business.

  13. Uoh! After reading this article, i somehow want to say, i love you Japan!

    Yes, we would stand out where it matters. Mandarin i believe is still important, but learn it after you’ve become a grandmaster in Nihon-go. *Smile

  14. I would like to first say thank you to everyone who has comment on this.
    I’m currently turning 23 and still on college, and decided to start taking some Japanese. Life just brought me to the moment that I decided to make that happen. I mean, I grew up with the golden Japanese era, so maybe was something that I was wanted to do but never fully was aware of it? Any ways, I had some classes, but couldn’t stop thinking to myself: what will this be useful for? I even got to watch this two animes(Death Parade and Serial Experiments Lai) in like two days or something). Which was fun, but was with subtitles, was it enough to make want to learn it? I would always afraid to end taking my time to study it and later on not use it and fade away.
    Reading your comments did help realize that Japanese can be useful, and finding people to speak both Japanese and English is hard. Im also native in Portuguese, which should help making my knowledge relevant. I will have a class of Chinese tomorrow just to have a taste of it. Funny as before reading about this dilema on the internet, I was almost sure that Chinese would be the pick for the use, but indeed, this whole “the Chinese are learning English and the Japanese not is really true”. In a way makes the Chinese smarter but for my case might save me from giving up on learning Japanese. Cheers everyone.

    • I think there is definitely value in trying both. See if you like it. If you don’t, focus on and enjoy Japanese.

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