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I've been planning to study basic Mandarin for some time. Today I had to write neko (the word for cat) in Japanese using Kanji.

I just noticed that Simplified Chinese uses the same characters to describe a cat.

Is learning Mandarin and the Chinese writing system easier for people who know Japanese?

PS: I've picked up a bit of Japanese from anime and TV, but have no formal training in it.

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If you want to know Mandarin Chinese, you study Mandarin Chinese, and if you want to know Japanese, you study Japanese. That is the most logical way to do things, and the route most people choose. One doesn't learn a language in order to learn another one. If I want to learn Portuguese, I wouldn't take Spanish lessons first, even though I know Spanish and Portuguese have many similar words and structures. I don't know either language, apart from a few greeting words. So if I want to learn Portuguese, I will take Portuguese lesson, not Spanish.

True, Chinese and Japanese share a lot of kanji's. Knowing one does help with learning the other, but that is IF you already know one of them well. I don't see how learning to write the kanji "neko" (JP) will help if what you really want to do is learn how to write "mao" (CH). Does that not add learning time and effort, and sometimes confusion, on your part?

I am not sure if you are aware that, apart from sharing some kanjis and a set of pronunciations associated with those kanjis, Chinese and Japanese really do not have that much in common. Syntax and phonology are totally different. Knowing one does not really help much in those areas.

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  • Thank you for this answer. I answered a similar one re Portuguese and Spanish with similar opinions. It's very hard for some people to understand that learning a language is a process in itself and you can't use L2 to get to L3. In fact, it might confuse you even more. At a beginner level, the L1 is of course always present.
    – Lambie
    Oct 26, 2022 at 17:26
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    @Lambie It depends on the situation. I learned French, for example, and now I can read and understand all of the original Assimil books in the French editions, which is quite useful. Although it's true that many of those books are available in English editions as well, I've found that the French editions are usually easier to find and are often a bit easier to understand in terms of the logic and the way the sentences of the target language are broken down word by word. So, at least in that example, it's quite useful to be able to read those books in the French editions.
    – Brandin
    Oct 27, 2022 at 7:49
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    @Brandin An L2 does not help a person get to an L3. I'm afraid you didn't understand my comment which has nothing to do with reading in L2.
    – Lambie
    Oct 27, 2022 at 17:20
  • @Brandin Yes, the issue of available resources is probably the main reason you would learn one language as a bridge to another. Particularly true if your target is a smaller language. However, some have theorized that certain languages can have a "propaedeutic value" that helps better learn other languages. Research on that focuses heavily on Esperanto and the Paderborn method. There are some results showing that certain students do better, for instance, in English after doing 2 years Esperanto + 3 years English than students who do 5 years English. That said (tbc)
    – user10134
    Oct 27, 2022 at 21:45
  • @Brandin ... those studies are fairly rare and the methodology is not always full-proof. I wouldn't dismiss the idea out of hand, but the evidence just isn't there yet IMHO. The main effects would theoretically be on structural priming and on motivation levels. The latter seems to me to be the more relevant of the two. And that's what the results on the Paderborn method suggest: the lower levels of performance almost vanish, an interpretation of which is to say that students who otherwise felt overwhelmed have been given a confidence boost by learning an "easier" language. (tbc)
    – user10134
    Oct 27, 2022 at 21:52
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I would say "easier" is relative here. Going from learning Japanese to Mandarin is "easier" than going from Spanish to Mandarin. Japanese and Mandarin have a lot more similarities in their vocabulary and writing systems. However, those similarities can also make learning both languages challenging.

I've studied Mandarin Chinese for almost 10 years and have a friend in Tokyo I visit once a year. When we travel on the train, I am able to understand most of the signs. However, I can only read it in Mandarin, not in Japanese. This is because while Kanji uses Chinese characters, the pronunciation is different. To use your example: 猫 is neko in Japanese and māo in Mandarin. Additionally, because I am more comfortable with simplified Chinese characters there will be Kanji characters that are hard for me to recognize in their traditional form. These tend to be words that are not frequently used in that context when writing signs or giving directions in Mandarin. The feeling of knowing what something means, but not being able to express it well in Japanese has always been difficult for me.

While on the topic of differences, I should also mention that Japanese and Mandarin have different grammar. I also studied Korean formally which has a closer grammar structure to Japanese. When formulating sentences in Japanese, I tend to draw more on my Korean training for this reason.

In summary, based on my experience, going from learning Mandarin to Japanese was a much easier transition than going from Spanish to Mandarin. However, it is a double edged sword. While the similarities can help you to learn certain concepts faster, each language has their own unique characteristics. These differences can make even concepts that feel "the same" hard to grasp when learning another language.

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Understanding how the writing systems are related may be useful for gauging how much overlap there is.

Basically, the Chinese writing system was loaned into Japanese, with various rules and conventions at various times.

In brief, some characters were just "lifted" to have the same meaning in both languages, although the languages are completely unrelated (other than via cultural osmosis) but completely different pronunciations. These symbols are called kun. Others were applied differently, usually by loaning both a word's writing symbol and its pronunciation; but because the languages are so different, the Japanese pronunciation ended up sounding different (and often, Chinese has changed markedly since those times, so that the modern pronunciation is also quite different now). This is called on. There are multiple different on strata, sometimes for the same symbol.

An illustrative complexity in kanji are the radicals. The radicals in Chinese are sometimes chosen simply to suggest how a word is pronounced. But in Japanese, where the word often sounds completely different, these radicals have no mnemonic value; they are just another accidental quirk you have to learn (somewhat similarly to how foreign or ghost are spelled weirdly if you think about it; but this is just a fact of life which you internalized when you learned to write them).

I don't speak either language, but here is a simple example adapted from a site about Chinese radicals:

包 bāo, which means package, is made of 2 radicals:

  • 勹 bāo (wrap), is the phonetics radical
  • 巳 sì (year of the snake)

But the Japanese word is tsutsumi where obviously the phonetics radical offers no clue whatsoever.

As a rough parable, you don't speak Latin or Greek just because you speak English, or vice versa. English has loaned heavily from classical languages (and French, and Old Norse) so you will recognize many words and have some idea of what they mean – civis or polity are reasonably transparent if you want to start to learn classical languages, but many other words have unrecognizable forms or distinctly different meanings in English than in the languages they originated from. (But all of these are Indo-European languages, and so they share many lexical and structural traits. Japanese and Chinese are much more different from each other, more like Hungarian or Basque compared to English ... or, indeed, Chinese or Japanese.)

Tangentially, I happen to know Finnish, and I find it amusing to trace words which were loaned into a form which is hard to recognize. Some examples from this realm might help you understand how Chinese words might have been similarly adapted to Japanese. I'll bring up kauppa for "shop" (where you can perhaps recognize German kaufen or Icelandic kaupa which in modern Swedish is "köpa" and pronounced roughly "sher-PA") and ranta for "shore" or "beach" which is strand in German and Swedish. The adaptations to make the words suitable for a Finnish mouth are sometimes rather crude. The Finnish syllable system is more complex than the Japanese one, but similarly restricted in what combinations of sounds it permits.

Returning to your question; compared to someone who is unfamiliar with the writing system, you do have a head start; the writing system is a major stumbling block for many people who want to learn Chinese.

(This answer was inspired by the excellent exposition in Geoffrey Sampson's book Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction which devotes an entire chapter to the Japanese writing system and its evolution and quirks. I'm flabbergasted that literacy in Japanese is common at all, let alone higher than in many countries.)

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