4 Ways I Use Chinese to Study Japanese

Chinese Foreign Minister Jiechi Yang shakes hands with
Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura.
While I am not a Chinese or Japanese language expert (far from it), I did commit almost three years of my life to the study of language learning, specifically cognitive linguistics (CL). Accordingly, when I teach English or engage in language learning myself, I tend to use cognition-based techniques; they are logical as they relate to how the mind works. I also love that CL centers around semantics; meaning is the focus, not syntax or grammar rules.

Nevertheless, although it is CL-based, this post is not meant to be an exploration of CL. I'd simply like to share my thought process and some of the methods I use now that I am trying to reinforce and learn more Mandarin while acquiring the basics of Japanese.

Naturally, I've written this post as a person who studied Mandarin first, then Japanese. However, if you're only studying Chinese or Japanese, you might find some of these methods useful as well. Hopefully, this will encourage you to pursue both languages. As ancient Japanese was derived from Chinese, if you're currently learning one of those languages, you have already built a great foundation for the other.

1. Pay attention to on-yomi readings of kanji, they will be easier to memorize

As anyone studying Japanese should know, kanji(漢字)are identified as either on-yomi(音読み)or kun-yomi(訓読み)readings. The former are extracted from Chinese (not just Mandarin, but the many regional dialects in China), while the latter are derived from Japanese meanings. Thus katakana, the writing system for foreign words and onomatopoeia, is used to write the pronunciation of on-yomi because they're not from Japanese. Of course, there are sub-classifications under each, but they're not important to know in order to understand how to read kanji.

Chinese learners know there is a Simplified and Traditional writing system. Simplified as its known now began its development in the 1930s as a response to illiteracy (some Chinese characters are so elaborate they have over 10 strokes). It's used primarily in Mainland China and the Chinese departments of Western universities. Unfortunately, much of the meaning behind Chinese characters are stripped away in Simplified, but luckily, the two systems of writing have an overlap of over 50%; there are several characters that look the same in both scripts.

Now, for those of us who'd like to learn both languages, we get to be utterly confused as Japanese kanji uses both Simplified and Traditional Chinese writing. Well, perhaps I'm exaggerating. I actually find this double-dipping as a reinforcement to my Chinese as I learned Simplified in college and Traditional in Taiwan.

Still, when studying, you have to be conscious of the differences. On-yomi sticks in my brain almost immediately because of its closeness to the original Chinese words. However, not all on-yomi is Mandarin-derived, so there's more brainpower needed to remember the ones formed from other Chinese dialects.

Take a look at the chart I made below:

(ya.mu, -ya.mi, yamai)

(byõ, hei)
ill; sick; sickness/disease
(kokoro.miru, tame.su)

 test; try; attempt; experiment; ordeal (Japanese); 
fit (Chinese)


study; learning; science (Japanese); subject/-logy (Chinese)
(fu, bu)

 negative; non-; not; bad (Japanese); ugly (Japanese); clumsy (Japanese); neg. prefixes (e.g., "ir-"; "im-"; "in-") (Chinese)

As you can see, some characters(病、不)appear the same in Japanese and Chinese across the board, yet sometimes, Simplified deviates(试)and kanji deviates from Traditional in the same manner as Simplified(学). Additionally, some on-yomi readings are quite different from Mandarin ones (i.e., "hei"; "gaku"). This is evidence that the on-yomi was taken from a different dialect. Furthermore, some kanji like "不" lack kun-yomi completely; there is no Japanese reading, only a Chinese-derived one.

Learning as much kanji as you can while occasionally reviewing the differences between Japanese and the two systems of Chinese writing will help you review if you're coming from a Chinese background, or better understand the "why" behind kanji—specifically on-yomi—if you began with Japanese. I love to make charts like this (without English; see #2), it's a great meaningful rote memorization drill.

2. Don't write your notes in your native language

I think one of the worst things you can do when tackling two foreign languages simultaneously— especially when you're knowledgeable enough to read and write at a decent level in one—is to lean on your first language (L1). If your second language (L2) is strong, use it to learn your third language (L3), or to continue learning your L2 if you have no desire to pick up an L3. If your target L2 and L3 are related like Chinese and Japanese, you will make more progress in your L3 while reinforcing your L2 knowledge.

Granted, as we say in linguistics, you will inevitably fall into the cycle of "generalization" and "overgeneralization" in the beginning. You will assume some of the mechanics found in the L2 are the same in the L3, but that might not always be the case.

Although there are some syntactical similarities (i.e., the counting system) between the languages, grammatically Chinese and Japanese are quite different. Check out my chart above again; the English meanings are not completely the same, so the assumption that the usage is identical is a form of overgeneralization, which is occasionally difficult to avoid with Chinese and Japanese.

All in all, to be frank, using your L1 past a certain point is being lazy. Learning a language is difficult, but when you don't use your L1 as a crutch, you'll find what you learn in your L2 or L3 will stick better. Also, translating directly from your L1 to L2/L3 and vice-versa usually doesn't end well. I admit, sometimes I do it in my head for expediency, but it's better not to make it a habit.

3. Follow Japanese users on social media and focus on the common kanji they use

It's important to do occasional "dry" reading about topics you might not necessarily be interested in when studying a language in order to practice all the vocabulary and grammar you need to know, but I enjoy reading the writing of everyday people who naturally aren't writing for a newspaper or textbook company.

I like sharing random photos on Instagram (especially of my food), and I primarily follow Japanese food Instagramers. Not only do I admire their creations, but I read the long descriptions they write of their meals. Everyday speakers of a language subconsciously utilize the most common, frequently used vocabulary and grammar patterns in their tongue, so I practice reading kanji by skimming Japanese Instagram posts.

Additionally, using this method, I learn a lot of vocabulary relating to food, something I love. When I start speaking more, this will give me a great base for when I want to discuss my hobbies or what I enjoy cooking and eating. More importantly, reading is one method of using a language. You can study all you want, if you don't use a language daily, you will fail when it comes to what we call "performance" in linguistics, actually using the language. 

I like to look at a post, read all the kana(仮名)or Japanese syllabic script (which experts agree you should memorize before doing anything else in relation to studying Japanese!), and take note of the kanji, especially ones I see frequently in everyday Chinese. If it's on-yomi (usually, kanji unaccompanied by kana), I guess the reading, look it up, confirm or reject my guess, then write down the common kun-yomi and on-yomi for the ones that are hard for me to commit to memory. I do this for a few minutes most mornings, but sometimes I don't write anything down. Nonetheless, I find I remember kanji relatively fast this way. This is like a mini version of corpus studies (which my nerdy self loves) in linguistics where hundreds of utterances or written forms of expressions are examined to see the similarities. 

How about a mini corpus study? Let's take a look at three users' descriptions of their food posts (click to enlarge):

All three posters used the kanji "" (Chinese: jia1; "home"; "family"; "household"; "expert"; "company"); two of them used the phrase "我が(の)", one used "自", and one wrote "族" as well as "庭".

From my Chinese knowledge, I know right off the bat that they're referring to something about their home or something homemade; given the context, it's not likely that they're writing about an expert or a company.

Thanks to Mandarin and kana, I can also infer that "我が(の)家" must mean "我們(的)家" ( wo3men5 (de5) jia1; "our house") in Chinese as "の" and "的" often (but not all the time) denote ownership. Further, "自家" (jika; "[our] home"); "家族" (kazoku; "family"; "household"; "members of a family"; "folk"); and "家庭" (katei; "home"; "household"; "family") must equal "自家" ( zi4jia1; "our house"; "our company/organization"); "家族" (jia1zu2; "family"; "household"; "clan") ; and "家庭" (jia1ting2 ; "family"; "household") in Chinese. 

After looking up the readings of the kanji "家", we discover that the on-yomi readings are "ka(カ)" and "ke(ケ)" while the kun-yomi are "ie(いえ)"; "ya(や)"; and "uchi(うち)". Additionally, the kanji means "house"; "home"; "family"; or "expert", the same meaning in Chinese. Therefore, all those synonyms for "home" in Japanese use the on-yomi reading "ka(か)", and the logical reading of the 家 in "我が(の)家" would be "ie(いえ)".

As you can see, doing a little light reading can lead you to learn new vocabulary and useful synonyms so you don't sound redundant.

When I'm not lazy, I sometimes write short Chinese or Japanese posts and engage Chinese or Japanese users. This is a great way to practice reading and writing for free as Instagram is a platform where users are generally open to interacting with complete strangers. If you're lucky, you will write something incorrectly and users will politely correct you (yup, speaking from experience here)!

There is a Japanese-Chinese bilingual user I follow, so I get double practice out of his constant trio of daily posts of yummy food in both languages. As he's Japanese, sometimes Chinese-speaking Instagramers correct him, so I learn some grammar rules without even interacting with anyone. 

4. Translate to yourself in Chinese and/or Japanese as you listen...to anything!

This is a somewhat passive technique to studying listening and/or speaking Chinese and Japanese at the same time. Nonetheless, its convenient because you can do it anywhere while listening to anything, and adjust how much you speak according to where you are. Simply translate what you hear in your L1 into Chinese and Japanese either in your head or aloud if appropriate (which makes practicing pronunciation easier). If you can't translate it in either language, make a mental note of the vocabulary or grammar structures you should brush up on. 

I love to do this while listening to an English TV program or music. Sometimes, I'll listen to something in Chinese or Japanese and see if I can translate it to English or Japanese/Chinese.

I hope you enjoyed this long-winded post. I love these two languages, and am working to get better at both of them. Happy studying!


  1. Love this post. This is pretty much how I teach myself "ancient" Vietnamese (before our language was romanized, we had a unique character-derived script called "chu Nom", and also used traditional CHN characters "chu Nho", hanzi basically). Over the years, I've seen a lot of similarities btw VN and JP if only because both of our cultures were deeply influenced by ancient China (add KRN to that list too). Using these similarities helps me derive meaning in a lot of our everyday superstitions, language habits, writing styles, etc.... it's pretty incredible.

    When I was learning CHN, I always leaned on my Vietnamese. Never English, it simply doesn't translate. You are amazing going from Eng>CHN. Gives me a headache just imagining that steep learning curve. I think going from L2 > L3, we should also consider what language family we're coming from. Like I wouldn't use my Spanish (L2) to learn Chinese (L3), as a native English speaker. But I would did use Spanish to learn French.

    What a mess. Love this mess. Thanks for this detailed and informative post. You're such a teacher <3

    1. Thanks!

      It really doesn't translate well at all. Although my textbook has English in it, I would find it very difficult to truly learn vocabulary from English to Japanese as it simply doesn't make sense. Also, there are so many things that are lost in translation...that only make sense in Chinese or Japanese, but have no meaning in English.

      I hear you about language families. Interestingly though, I've found countless similarities between Mandarin and Yoruba (!) that are beyond surface level. I think it proves on an anthropological level that Africa really is where everything began.

      It is a beautiful mess, isn't it? Thanks again for the lovely feedback!

  2. Hello, it's me again. :)
    I am starting to learn Japanese from yesterday since one of my close friends lent me his Japanese textbook when he was studying Japanese in his college. In my opinion, I think I have seen your chart at our CL class, right? You are marvelous!! Ha !!
    I may try to follow more native speaker of Japanese on Instagram. However, I think I may have to figure out how to use it smart. XD
    I am trying to write 平仮名 清音 in consonant(母音),it takes me a long time(perhaps 20 minutes) to memorize their pronunciation and their writings just for five characters. I remembered that I have heard some people said it is easier for Chinese native speaker to learn Japanese, but I found it may not so easy for me.
    "Practice, practice, and practice." As what I told myself.
    Anyway, thanks for this inspiring article for language learning. I like it!
    By the way, any suggestions for learning Spanish? I have studied Spanish for 2 years but 2 credits for each year, which means I have to learned it myself if I would like to recall those Spanish "memory" when I was sophomore and junior in college. Too old to recall them.(Just kidding!)
    I use Youtube video to review the number from 1 to 100 of an Spanish native speaker and my classmates in college has written self-introduce for me since she has passed the DELE exam of Spanish in some certain level. I would like to study Spanish by myself and study Japanese with my friend. Tell you a truth that when I am writing Japanese characters, I think I am just a kid who keep writing the same letters. But it really helps for memorizing.