Differences between Chinese and Japanese in a (not so) nutshell. Round 2 — Are Japanese and Chinese mutually intelligible?

Thanks for tuning into round two of my series on the differences between Chinese and Japanese. After explaining in my previous post that, contrary to common beliefs, they do not descend from a common lineage, I’d like to continue this series by answering another question I get asked quite often:

Are Japanese and Chinese mutually intelligible?

Rodmell House Madrid language courses Chinese and Japanese

The answer is NO, but for the spoken language only. To a certain extent, literate Chinese and Japanese speakers can understand each other’s written language since a large number of Sinograms (Han Chinese characters) are shared in both writing systems, although it’s not 100% accurate (many false friends do exist due to cultural differences or simply due to passage of time).

Until the early 20th century, Classical Chinese had an important role as a written language amongst the educated across East Asia (namely, China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and to some extent, Mongolia) comparable to that of Koine Greek in the Eastern Roman Empire, Latin in Medieval Europe, Sanskrit in the pre-colonial Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and China, as well as that of Al Fus’ha Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic or Quranic Arabic) in both the modern and ancient Islamic world (including non-Arabic-speaking regions such as Persia and the Ottoman Empire).

For the sake of simplicity, unless otherwise specified, I will try to only discuss Standard Mandarin Chinese and Standard Tokyo Japanese from this point on.

Tones vs Pitch Accent

When spoken, Japanese and Chinese share no phonetic similarities at all, as all Chinese languages are tonal (except for Shanghainese and some other innovative Wu languages), like their unrelated neighbouring languages, namely Vietnamese, Lao and Thai, whilst Japanese uses the pitch accent instead (strangely, Shanghainese also employs this system, as mentioned earlier). Mandarin Chinese has four tones plus a neutral tone; Japanese, however, has a pitch accent system (rising and falling intonations) that resembles the Korean, Norwegian, Swedish, and Serbo-Croatian paradigms.

For instance, in Chinese, the same sound can have up to 5 different meanings depending on the tone:

妈 (媽) mā: 1st tone, mother (noun)
麻 (麻) má: 2nd tone, hemp (noun)
马 (馬) mǎ: 3rd tone, horse (noun)
骂 (罵) mà: 4th tone, to scold (verb)
吗 (嗎) ma: neutral tone, yes/no question ending (particle)

Japanese, however, has a much simpler system: a set of sounds can have up to 3 different meanings, depending on which syllable is stressed (1st syllable, 2nd syllable, or accentless). The  word はし (hashi) can be rendered in Kanji (Sinograms), depending on the accent, as follows (it will of course differ depending on the region as well, but we’ll be looking at the standard Tokyo speech here):

箸 (chopsticks) — accent on the 1st syllable:  /haꜜsi/ [háɕì]
橋 (bridge) — accent on the 2nd syllable:  /hasiꜜ/ [hàɕí]
端 (edge) /hasi/ — accentless: [hàɕí]


When looking at these languages objectively, they both have very few phonemes. Standard Chinese has approximately 420 sound combinations, Standard Japanese has even fewer–only about 110 sound combinations in total. Compare these with the sound combinations in English–a whopping 158,000 possibilities! No wonder it’s so difficult for second language learners of English to pronounce all the words correctly.


Mandarin Chinese has 10 vowels: ͡[ɨ], ͡[ɯ], [a], [o], [ɤ], [ɛ], [i], [u], [y], [ɚ].
Japanese, on the other hand, has only 5 vowels: [ä], [i̥], [ɯᵝ], [e̞], [o̞].
As we can see from the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) transcriptions, even the most basic vowels such as /a/ and /u/ that are omnipresent in most human tongues differ in these two languages when pronounced by respective native speakers.


Mandarin Chinese has 25 consonants; Japanese, again, has fewer–it merely has 18.

Mandarin has many consonants that are peculiar to many Western European language speakers’ ears, such as the retroflex sounds commonly occurring at the beginning of many syllables (in pīnyīn: zh, ch, sh, r; in IPA: [tʂ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ], [ʐ]/[ɻ]). In Mandarin, the voiced sounds are missing, and the monolingual Mandarin speakers cannot usually distinguish the typical English voiced and voiceless pairs such as b/p, d/t, g/k, z/s, etc. (Curiously, Shanghainese has said distinction, and Shanghainese speakers can distinguish them in English.) That said, Mandarin does have a clear distinction assigned to aspirated and unaspirated consonants, such as the /t/ sounds in the English words ‘top’ (aspirated) and ‘stop’ (unaspirated), as well as the /p/ sounds in ‘port’ (aspirated) and ‘sport’ (unaspirated). The lateral sound /l/ in Standard Mandarin is a clear English /l/ as in ‘let’ and ‘light’ (but it’s not the dark or velarised English /l/ [ɫ] which occurs in words like ‘pole’ or ‘cool’).

Japanese, on the other hand, is considered by many learners to be fairly easy to pronounce due to its small repertoire of sounds and the fact that, except for /n/, Japanese generally does not allow a consonant to be pronounced without a vowel /a, i, u, e, o/ following it. In Japanese, all the voiceless stops /p, t, k/ are only slightly aspirated (like a cross between the aspirated English stops and the unaspirated Spanish stops). In Japanese, the /r/ sound is, similar to the Korean /r/, undefined laterally; meaning, it can vary between a range of /r/ and /l/ sounds occurring in English, such as [ɾ] in ‘better’ (North American English), and [ɺ] like ‘daddy’ (North American English), or [l] in ‘lot’ in Standard English, or [ɾ̠] like ‘rat’ in Scottish English. This ambiguity in /r/ and /l/ (they’re considered to be one phoneme in Japanese) makes native monolingual Japanese speakers unable to distinguish them in other languages that do make a distinction for these sounds.

Incidentally, there’s another variation to it–many Japanese speakers who wish to convey a vulgar nuance in speech would even roll their R to produce the trilled /r/ commonly found in Spanish and Italian. Watch out for it next time you watch a yakuza-themed film!

Grammar and Syntax

To begin with, the basic sentence structures of Japanese and Chinese differ.

In Chinese, the word order is always SVO (subject – verb – object), much like that of English.
Example: I-drink-water.
我喝水。 (Pīnyīn: Wǒ hē shuǐ.)

In Japanese, the word order is SOV (subject – object – verb), like that of German subordinate clauses.
Example: I-water-drink.
私は水を飲みます。 (Rōmaji: Watashi wa mizu wo nomimasu.)

Not only do sentence structures differ, but verbs also differ greatly.

Chinese, being an almost completely analytic language, lacks any form of conjugations and inflections; hence, verb tenses do not exist. Verbs are expressed mostly in their aspects (perfective, imperfective, progressive, etc.), using a particle before or after them. If clarification is needed, a temporal adverb will be added before it (today, right now, last year, etc.). Rarely, passive voice can also be employed when the agent of the action is not clear.


I’m eating right now. Literally, I [progressive aspect particle] eat: 我在吃饭。 Wǒ zài chīfàn.
I ate yesterday. Literally, I yesterday eat: 我昨天吃饭。 Wǒ zuótiān chīfàn.
She was asked (by me). Literally, she [passive voice particle] (I) ask [perfective aspect particle]: 她被(我)问了。  Tā bèi (wǒ) wèn le.

Chinese nouns and pronouns do not change their forms either, so there is no difference in form between a singular and a plural noun, or the noun/pronoun in the nominative (subjective) case or the accusative (objective) case. To denote possession, the genitive particle 的 (de)–like the ‘s in English– will be added right after the possessor.


A cup of tea, literally, one cup tea: 一杯茶 yì bēi chá.
Three cups of tea, literally, three cup tea: 三杯茶 sān bēi chá.
He sees me, literally, he see I: 他看我 tā kàn wǒ.
I see him, literally, I see he: 我看他 wǒ kàn tā.
My car, literally, I’s car: 我的车 wǒ de chē.
Your car, literally, you’s car: 你的车 nǐ de chē.

Japanese, however, being an agglutinative language, has quite a complex verb conjugation system as well as a dozen particles (that sometimes resemble the English prepositions) indicating noun cases. The verbs are always distinguished between the past and non-past (present and future tenses have the same form in Japanese) tenses, with various possible aspects (perfective, imperfective, progressive, etc.) as well as voice (active, passive) and formality (honorifics).


I’m sleeping at home (said to a friend).
Literally, (I [topic particle similar to a subject] – usually dropped in speech) home [locative particle similar to ‘in’] sleep [informal non-past progressive]:
(私は)うちで寝てる。 (Watashi wa) uchi de neteru.

I was sleeping at home (said respectfully).
Literally, (I [topic particle similar to a subject] – usually dropped in speech) my house (formal) [locative particle similar to ‘in’] sleep/rest (formal) [humble past progressive]:
(私は)自宅で休ませていただきました。 (Watashi wa) jitaku de yasumasete itadakimashita.

I’m at the store now.
Said to a friend: 今、店にいる。 Ima, mise ni iru.
Said to a stranger of the same age or equal social status: 今、店にいます。 Ima, mise ni imasu.
Said to an elderly or someone of higher social status: 今、店におります。 Ima, mise ni orimasu.

Tune in next week for round three of this series, in which I’ll be examining how modern written Japanese and Chinese differ!

And if you missed round one, check it out here!

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