Korean vs. Japanese

Korean language is similar to Japanese in a few ways. Someone studying Korean who is already somewhat familiar with Korean would have a significant advantage over someone who hadn’t studied either before.

The grammar is similar. Both languages use particles to mark parts of speech (subject, topic, object, location, etc.), but Korean tends to have two particles for every one that Japanese has; one for if the preceding word ends with a consonant, and one for if the preceding word ends with a vowel. Both languages use honorifics, put the verb at the end, use particles, etc. More on this later.

Korean has three distinct advantages over Japanese that make it easier to learn for beginners:

Spaces Between Words – Unlike Japanese, written Korean puts spaces between words (just like English). While children’s books written in Japanese tend to have spaces between the words, most regular literature does not, and this can cause beginners (and intermediate students as well) to have trouble figuring out where one word ends and the next work begins, not to mention giving reading a steeper learning curve in general. Consider if English didn’t have spaces between words: even at an advanced level, when you most likely know every English word you will encounter, itwouldstillbealittlebitharderforyoutoreadEnglishifitdidn’tusespaces,wouldn’tit?

A Simple Alphabet – Sure, Japanese’s two “alphabets” (syllabaries) can be learned fairly quickly, but each sound must be learned on its own, and there often isn’t much similarity between related kana. For example, “ka” (か) is a similar sound to “ki” (き) (both begin with “k”), yet they look nothing alike. In Korean, on the other hand, there is an actual phonetic alphabet with separate consonants and vowels, so that once you know “k”, you know that any word that begins with that letter will start with a “k” sound. “K” looks like this ᄀ and while you will likely never see it by itself, it will occur with vowels. To use the same example as Japanese above, “ka” in Korean looks like 가, and “ki” looks like 기 . Notice they both begin with ᄀ. You can learn to read and write 90% of Korean in a few days, and the other 10% is just weird pronunciation exceptions that may take a little longer to memorize. Kind of like how “ph” is pronounced like an “F” in English. Little rules like that.

You Don’t Have to Learn Kanji – Japanese learners know what a pain kanji (Chinese characters in Japanese writing) can be. There are hundreds that you need to know, and each one can have multiple pronunciations depending on the context and meaning, etc., and knowing kanji is pretty much required for everyday Japanese reading. Korean also uses Chinese characters (called “hanja” in Korea), but you don’t have to know them to read books or street signs. If you want to learn them you can, and it will help, but it’s not necessary the way it is with Japanese.

Unfortunately, everything else about Korean is probably going to be significantly harder than Japanese. For example:

Korean Has Multiple Versions of the Same Consonant – This is a big challenge for many native English speakers. Whereas English has one sound for “k,” whether you say it softly, as in “aww, look at that cute kangaroo!” or if you say it forcefully with a massive puff of air, as in “i’m going to kick your butt!!!” it still sounds the same to native English speakers. Korean has 2 or 3 versions of almost every consonant, and they will sound exactly the same to you. When you hear a Korean say them, you won’t be able to tell the difference, and when you’re speaking Korean, you won’t be able to pronounce the difference, because they will sound exactly the same! Some Koreans seem unaware of this issue because to them, they all sound very different! After all, if you grew up speaking Korean, they would all sound different to you, too. Think of it like how some non-native English speakers cannot hear the difference between short English “i” and short English “e” (the difference between “sit” and “set”). They obviously sound quite different to you, but some foreigners cannot hear (or pronounce) the difference. Perhaps it’s because during the formative years of brain development, they were never exposed to the difference. The point is, while not everyone has this issue, you are likely to struggle with hearing the difference between similar versions of Korean consonants. Ask a native Korean to pronounce the following syllables for you:

K – 가, 까, 카 (ga, kka, Ka)
T – 다, 따, 타 (da, tta, Ta)
P – 바, 빠, 파 (ba, ppa, Pa)
S – 사, 싸 (sa, ssa)
Ch – 자, 짜, 차 (ja, jja, cha)

Korean Has a Ton of Vowels – Japanese has 5 vowels: a, i, u, e, o, and they always sound they same. When they appear together in a diphthong, they are still pronounced fairly separately and clearly, arguably as separate syllables, even. Korean has at least 18 (including diphthongs) and many of them are going to sound exactly the same to you, especially when they’re surrounded by other vowels and the speaker is speaking quickly.

Korean’s Other Consonants Can Be Confusing As Well – Another issue that many non-native speakers will face. Korean N’s will sometimes sound like English D’s. And the M’s will sometimes sound like English B’s. For example, ask a native Korean speaker to pronounce “못해요” (cannot (do something)). Does the first word sound like the English word “moat?” Or does it sound like the English word “boot?” Or “moot?” Or “boat?”

They say that when you are learning Japanese, you can learn a new word, and native speakers will be able to understand you the first time you say it, even if your accent isn’t perfect. But in Korean, you will learn a word, and then when you say it to a native speaker, they won’t understand you. So you’ll say it again and they still won’t understand you. Finally, you will grab a pen and paper and write down the word you were trying to say and show it to them, and they smile and pronounce the word for you, which sounds exactly like what you were saying all along! (please email me if you know who said this… I’d like to cite the source but I can’t remember where it’s from)

Korean Grammar is Like a More Complicated Version of Japanese Grammar – The grammars are similar, it’s just Korean’s is more complex. Japanese grammar also seems like a simplified version of Korean grammar.

Korean is a beautiful language, it’s just quite a challenge. But having a background in one of these languages will only help you with the other. Good luck!