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Kanji resemble Chinese characters because they were introduced into the Japanese language via Chinese.

Is it easy for native Japanese speakers to remember simplified Chinese characters?

I'm asking about their pronunciation and the shape of the characters.

  • 1
    Are you asking about remembering the meaning of the characters, their pronunciation, or both? – Christophe Strobbe Nov 28 '16 at 19:04
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Japanese learners of Standard Chinese have both advantages and disadvantages compared to native speakers of other languages. (I will simply write "Chinese" from here on.)

According to Hu Xinghua,

  • Many kanji still have have the same shape as the original hanzi. Out of the 2,500 hanzi in Table of Frequently Used Contemporary Chinese Characters, 1,683 characters are still used in Japan. (This number is higher when you include traditional characters, but this question is about simplified characters.) Teachers should tell students about these shared characters to increase the efficiency of learning hanzi.
  • In spite of changes in pronunciation since hanzi were borrowed by the Japanese, there are still a number of kanji that are pronounced the same or almost the same as the corresponding hanzi - though without the tones. Examples include 马, 他, 利 and 新 (xīn versus shin).
  • The Japanese did not only "copy" characters from China but also borrowed many disyllabic words. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Chinese students in Japan also borrowed Japanese words. As a result, Japanese and Chinese have many disyllabic words with the same meaning. Examples include 科学, 艺术, 哲学, 思想, 法律 and 国家. Identifying these words when teaching Chinese should help Japanese learners.

These are advantages that native speakers of other languages don't have. Linguists call this type of advantages positive transfer. (Native speakers of Korean who know a lot of hanja may have similar advantages, but they may be smaller due to the dominance of hangul, especially in North Korea.)

But Hu Xinghua also mentions disadvantages (or negative transfer):

  • Some kanji have changed a bit compared to the corresponding hanzi, e.g. 别 versus 別, and 决 versus 決. (As far as I know, this will have a lower impact on character recognition than on production.) In addition, some components or "radicals" that were simplified in China were not simplified in Japan, e.g. the radical in 镜 versus 鏡. Also, the Chinese simplified some characters in a different way than the Japanese. Finally, there are a number of characters that were invented by the Japanese (see kokuji on Wikipedia) or that were abandoned by the Chinese. (For this last category of characters, there should be no negative transfer; Japanese learners will merely have a smaller advantage over non-Japanese learners of Chinese. The script will still look less alien to them than to e.g. westerners.)
  • There are differences in pronunciation. For example, each Chinese character represents a single syllable, whereas kanji are often polysyllabic. Also, most Chinese characters have only one pronunciation, whereas kanji have at least two pronunciations (on and kun readings, and possibly other ones). (Fewer pronunciations should not in itself be a disadvantage, but Hu Xinghua says that the feeling of familiarity with Chinese characters leads Japanese learners to pay insufficient attention to their pronunciation.)
  • Some words look the same in both languages but have very different meanings. For example, 手紙 means "letter" in Japanese but "toilet paper" in Chinese. (These are examples of false friends.) (Note: Hu Xinghua only gives examples of polysyllabic words; nothing in his article implies that the meanings of individual characters have changed. However, a question on Japaese SE mentions that 湯 means "hot water" in Japanese, and "soup" in present-day Chinese. (The simplified version is 汤, though.))
  • Some words with the same meaning are written differently. For example, "dictionary" is 辞書 in Japanese and 词典 in Chinese.

Hu Xinghua concludes that Japanese students experience learning Chinese as relatively easy in the beginning, but hard at higher levels. The author concludes:

I believe that Japanese students may well increase the efficiency of Chinese learning by leveraging their advantages and minimizing the effects of their disadvantages on the basis of a clear understanding of the differences and similarities between Chinese characters and Kanji as well as their effects on Chinese learning.

There are two things I miss Hu Xinghua's article:

  • He does not state whether the positive transfer outweighs the negative transfer.
  • He does not mention the benefit of being familiar with the radicals used in simplified hanzi and the benefit of having learnt a stroke order for the kanji. These should give Japanese learners of Chinese an advantage over other learners, both in the recognition and the production of Chinese characters, especially in the early stages.

Two additional comments with regard to pronunciation:

  • Chinese is a tonal language. Japanese learners of Chinese have most difficulty in distinguishing between the second and third tones. (See Jung-yueh Tu et al, 2014, and Yuting Dong et al, 2013.) However, native speakers of other non-tonal languages are also faced with this problem.
  • When learning vocabulary, memorising the tones is an integral part of learning the words. Native speakers of Japanese tend to pronounce disyllabic Chinese words with a rising tone in the first syllable and a falling tone in the second syllable, regardless what the original tone is. (See Yuting Dong et al, 2013.)

References:

  • I can't see how minor differences, such as 别/別, and 决/決 or even 镜/鏡 can lead to negative transfer. The characters are easy to recognise by the users of the other script. Kanji is likely to be a source of positive transfer here. And the problem with non-equivalence at the word level isn't really caused by incorrect recognition or understanding the characters. 手 is still ‘hand’ in both languages, and 紙 is ‘paper’. – michau Dec 1 '16 at 5:47
  • Learning hanzi is not only a matter of recognition but also production. If you don't learn about differences such as 别/別, and 决/決 or 镜/鏡, you risk producing characters that don't exist in China. That kanji are likely a source of positive transfer is mentioned in the first three points. With regard to characters versus words: most Chinese words are polysyllabic, so learning only the characters is insufficient. – Christophe Strobbe Dec 1 '16 at 10:48
  • Good point, but perhaps you could add to the answer that it leads to the negative answer in production, and not recognition. But it also depends on one's goals. After all, a Japanese learner of Chinese may have no problem with the fact that the characters he writes are slightly off, as long as they are understandable. Such a learner has an enormous advantage over those who need to memorise all the characters from scratch. As for the second point: the question is about characters, not words. Perhaps examples of one-character words that are confused for one another would be relevant. – michau Dec 1 '16 at 14:40
  • @michau I have added a comment about interference in recognition vs. recall, and a parenthesis that points out that Hu Xinghua does not mention individual characters that have changed in meaning. – Christophe Strobbe Dec 1 '16 at 15:43
  • +1 Cool! It's pretty clear to me that the pros are much greater than the cons, but you provide arguments for both, so everyone can make up their mind. – michau Dec 1 '16 at 16:33
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Yes it is. However it is hard for Japanese to learn Chinese pronunciation because Japanese and Chinese read same kanji differently, for example Japanese read 中 as "chuu" but Chinese "zhong."

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