To begin with, in the beginning of any language, you will be confused unless it is very much like your own. For an English speaker, Korean and Japanese both are very different from English. If a Korean wants to learn Japanese or if a Japanese wants to learn Korean, it isn’t as hard for them because of the similarities in the grammar and vocabulary, but English can be a monster for them. For an English speaker, which do you think would be easier to learn to speak? Since I have learned to carry on conversations in both, but still feel a lack in both, I will tell you that Japanese is hard to read and Korean is easy to read, but as far as learning to speak and conversation, Japanese wins.
The major reason I say that Japanese is easier to learn to speak is because of the way the Japanese and Korean words are constructed. If you are learning Japanese words, every consonant has a vowel after it except “ん、” (n, pronounced -ng), and there are independent vowels, and only 5 vowel sounds. The vowel sounds are: “a” like in “father,” “i” (pronounced “ee”), “u” (a long “u”), “e” (a short “e”), and “o” (a long “o”). In Korean, the combinations of letters can feel absolutely crazy sometimes when you are trying to learn a new word, and they have vowels that we never heard of, and some of their vowels are so close that they would just be considered an accent in English. Here are some Korean vowels: 1. “a” (like in father). 2. “e” (a short “e). 3. “e” (another short “e” pronounced a little differently, but it is just too hard to explain, and many Koreans don’t even know the difference anymore, but I have heard in the past, they knew). 3. “o” (a long “o”) .4. “o” (another long “o” that I think of as the “Ohio Valley o” because they are the only people I have heard pronounce “o” that way besides the Koreans). There are several more, but you get the idea. The Korean vowels can become just downright complicated. Somehow, I have mastered them just by listening, but I am not sure how I did it. I just copied what they were saying.
The rules in Korean don’t say what the people are actually saying because my daughter went to language school and knows the rules. She speaks a lot more Korean than I do, but they would rather listen to me speak than her because I learned by listening to them, and she learning by doing what her language teachers told her to do. She got perfect grades, and the language teachers say she pronounces it right, but the Koreans seem to prefer my pronunciation. All I did was listen to what they were saying and try to copy it. Can you begin to see the complications in trying to learn Korean?
In Japanese, as along as you can read hiragana, their basic alphabet, you know how it should be pronounced. English reading is harder than Japanese basic reading. In English, we learn the name of the letter, and then we have to learn all the different sounds that letter can make. In Japanese, if you know the name of a letter, you can read the names of the letters out loud, and you are reading and pronouncing it correctly. We can’t do that in English. Can you imagine reading the word “reading” the way they read in Japanese? You would say “r” “e” “a” “d” “i” “n” “g.” You wouldn’t be blending any of those letters together. Korean reads more like English. The Koreans have simplified things and stopped using the Chinese characters like the Japanese use, and that helps. However, they blend things like English and let one letter have influence on another like we do in English.
When you write a Japanese word in English letters, if you know the pronunciation of their 5 vowel sounds, it is easy to read the word. However, if you write a Korean word in English letters, it can be a downright tongue twister to try to pronounce. I have a Korean friend whose last name is “Choy.” We pronounce it that way in English because it is actually a rendition of how you write his name in Korean, but in Korean, the “y” would be an “i”: “Choi.” However, if you listen to what the Koreans are saying when they say it, they are not saying “Choy.” They are saying “Chay,” and you want to ask, how do they get a pronunciation like that? The answer is, somehow, they think “oi” should be read “ay.”
One of the problems with writing these languages in English letters is the system of pronunciation in their language. However, if you write Japanese in English letters, their system of using English is pronounced like a Latin language and makes sense because they call the English letters they use “Romaji” which means “Roman letters.” They know they are using a Latin pronunciation, and if you have taken Spanish in school like many Americans, you get their pronunciation in a snap. However, the Koreans make up their system of phonics in English, and it is not like any other language’s phonics. Try to figure this word out: “cham-e-seo-ggeda.” It means “wake up.” However, an English speaker who was trying to learn to read that combination of English letters out loud would have a hard time. We never put an “e” in front of an “o” like that in English and wouldn’t even begin to know how it is pronounced. Do we have any words in English with a double “g”? We would be thinking, “What do I do with that “e” that is out there by itself?” We would probably pronounce that “a” like an “a” in apple, but they would pronounce it like an “a” in father. Do you understand why I say Korean pronunciation is complicated?
If you are scared of the Chinese characters, you should be. If you want to speak Japanese, learn the hiragana, the basic alphabet and learn the pronunciation, but unless you just want to be a scholar and be able to read books in Japanese, don’t bother with the Chinese characters unless it is the most basic easy ones. It will take most of your life trying to learn those Chinese characters if you go that direction. The Japanese words are easier to remember because their sounds are very balanced. If you want to learn Korean, you don’t have to worry about the Chinese characters at all. Just learn their basic alphabet which is easy if you can wrap your tongue and your thinking around the way they say their words.
The Koreans think deep. When they speak, they often use just one word for a sentence leaving you to guess what the other words should be, and the Japanese do the same. However, if you pick up one of their books and try to read it, their sentences become so long and convoluted that even other Koreans have trouble reading it. Theoretically, since they don’t use the Chinese characters anymore, reading in Korean is supposed to be easier than Japanese. However, their thought processes, their grammar, and the construction of their words can be a monster. As for Japanese, I can say that the Japanese Chinese characters are the real road block.
After you learn the Korean alphabet and some basic grammar rules, you could try to tackle reading Korean. I read the Korean Bible, but I have to really think to understand what is there, and I have purposefully studied Biblical words to be able to understand it. Every topic you want to be able to discuss in Japanese or Korean either one, you would have to study that particular set of vocabulary words. However, I am still learning religious vocabulary. I learn it from reading the Korean Bible. Koreans who speak English tell me they consider the English translations of the Bible much easier to understand than the Korean because when Koreans make sentences, they make very convoluted sentences. I can pick up a Spanish or Romanian Bible and read it almost like I read English because if I come to a more complicated word I haven’t studied, they are like English words and I recognize them anyway and understand them. However, you can’t do that with Korean or Japanese. You have to study every word. However, at least in Korean, you no longer have to deal with the Chinese characters. You have a chance at understanding without spending your whole life trying to learn. However, trying to figure out their patterns of thinking is something else. They even have trouble with the way the other Koreans think.
Japanese has less verb conjugations than Korean. If you want to learn future tense in Japanese and already know simple present tense, then you already know future tense because they use simple present tense for future tense. However, if you want to learn future tense in Korean, there are a couple to choose from, and you should learn both to learn to speak. In both languages, they add to a verb when we would just put an extra word there. For example, if I were to say, “I want to go,” we added “want to” to “go.” We also used the personal pronoun “I.” In Japanese and Korean both, they would leave out “I,” and they would add an ending to “go.” In Japanese, they would say “ikitai.” In Korean, they would say “kakoshipoyo” or “kakoshipda.” Can you see the difference in the complication of the Korean conjugations and the Japanese conjugation? No wonder the Koreans find Japanese easy. The grammatical patterns are very similar, but the Japanese words are much easier.
If you are thinking about tackling one of these languages, I hope this gives you an idea of which one would be more up your alley. Some people really enjoy the Chinese characters the Japanese use because they seem artistic, but do you have the patience to spend many, many years learning them? If you just want to learn to speak, Japanese is the one to choose if you want it easier because the words are easier to remember because of the way they are constructed. However, if you want to do more than just speak, but to eventually learn to read in that language, it won’t take as long to learn to read in Korean as it does in Japanese. However, to understand what they are saying and how to say it is much more complicated in Korean.
The Koreans will also slow your progress down in Korean, but the Japanese will not slow your progress, but encourage it. The Japanese would rather speak Japanese. If you speak to them in Japanese, they will speak back in Japanese, and you have a conversation partner to practice with, and the Japanese love it. However, the Koreans know how complicated their language is for foreigners. Even the ones who don’t speak English try to speak English. If you speak to them in Korean, they will try to speak back in English. They consider Korean too hard for anyone to learn, and their attempt to help the communication will slow you down in trying to learn to speak Korean. The Koreans actually think they are the only ones on the planet who can speak Korean, and they are almost right. Many foreigners learn to speak Japanese even though they can’t read it. However, not so many foreigners learn to speak Korean because it is just hard, and the Koreans know it. If you learn to speak Korean, the Koreans are completely shocked. If you learn to speak Japanese, the Japanese are very happy, but you are not the only foreigner speaking Japanese.