How to Learn Chinese, Japanese and Korean at the Same Time

How do you learn three of some of the hardest languages in the modern world- Japanese, Korean and Chinese together? It’s very difficult, and I won’t lie. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And also, a lot of overlap. Just like Italian, English, Spanish and French have several similarities, so do Chinese, Japanese and Korean. There isn’t an equal relationship between the three languages. For example, there is a stronger relationship between Japanese and Korean and Chinese and Japanese than Korean and Chinese. Though you might be able to extrapolate some Chinese base words in the Korean vocabulary, the grammar and writing system couldn’t be more different. So here’s my tips and advice for learning all three languages. 

1. Choose a Base Language 

You’re going to be doing a lot of cross comparing between the three languages so I suggest you start by choosing a base language and nailing down the basics of that language. In other words, you’re going to be giving one language a head start over the others and then you will catch up on the other two later. Don’t worry about catching the other two up. Being able to compare and use your knowledge from your base language will only help you learn the other two faster. 

If you choose Japanese as your base language, I suggest learning Korean as your secondary language and Chinese as your third. Why? Because outside of the writing system, Chinese and Japanese aren’t that similar. Korean and Japanese grammar is very similar and even have some vocabulary words in common. Once you begin learning to write, however, use Chinese to help you. 

If you choose Korean as your base language, I suggest learning Japanese as your secondary language and Chinese as your third. 

If you choose Chinese as your base language, I suggest learning Japanese as your secondary language and Korean as your third. 

2. Let Your Interests Lead the Way 

If you’re big into k-pop, anime, politics, art of k-dramas, use those as outlets to passively and actively learn the language. Passive learning just means that you are not listening to understand everything, you are simply listening to cement what you’ve learned and become accustomed to hearing the cadence and feel of the language. You can do this by listening to music while your studying, watching a drama or movie while you eat, etc. Active learning means that you are actively looking to extrapolate vocabulary, grammar and cultural points, you plan to memorize and study them in detail. You can do this by using k-pop to learn Korean vocabulary or watching an anime episode for the new vocabulary. Whatever your interest is, let that dictate how you learn each language and how it may serve as a bridge between them. 


3. Use Grammatical Formulas to Your Advantage

Not many languages I know do this quite like East Asian languages.What you’ll find is that, despite how difficult the grammar Japanese and Korean have compared to Chinese, they all have formulas. What you’ll learn is that there are many set patterns to expressing an idea and after you learn the grammar point, you’ll just need to plug in the vocabulary word like a formula. 

 除了+noun+以外 + verb phrase 

Meaning: Except for/aside from + noun + verb phrase 

Example: 除了 周末 ,老板 每天 都 加班

All you have to do in this instance is plug in words! Creating formulas may illuminate some grammatical similarities between the three languages (especially between Korean and Japanese) that you can use to compare to one another and enforce your knowledge of them. 

It’s also just fun to see a grammatical formula in Korean and go, ‘Oh! That’s the same structure as Japanese!’.

4. Use Colors to Your Advantage 

I cannot stress this enough. You definitely want to use colors to distinguish the three languages so that you don’t accidentally confuse anything. By that I mean, choose three colors to represent each language and use that for ALL of your language study. So if Japanese is light pink, get a light pink notebook, try to write new grammar and vocab in light pink, or when imagining the definition of a word try to incorporate light pink somehow. For example, if you have the vocab word ‘cat’, imagine a pink cat or a cat with a pink collar, if you have the word ‘airplane’, picture a light pink plane, etc. My colors are Japanese=light blue, Chinese=red, and Korean=light green and all my language notebook colors correspond to the color I chose.

5. Keep Languages at Same Level 

This is very important. You need to make sure you’re on the same level with all three languages. The most difficult part is when you’re intermediate with one language and beginner with one and advanced with the other. You want to make sure that at the start you maintain the same level with all three languages. Otherwise, it may be hard to cross compare and take advantage of the overlap in the languages. It’s also just much easier for you in general. 

6. Create Goals and Study Plans

To keep all your languages on the same level, plan to study for each language the same amount of hours each week. You also need to create a study plan so that you know you are adequately covering the same material for each language. For example, one week you decide you’re going to learn to count to 10 in each language and learn 10 colors. Write that down as a plan for the week and plan for equal amount of study for each language. It’s best to plan about 6 weeks of study topics ahead of time so you aren’t tempted to fall behind in your studies. 

7. Don’t Give Up 

None of these languages is easy (despite what money grubbing, horribly structured, textbook companies will tell you). None of them will be learned overnight and none of them will be learned as fast as French, Italian, Spanish or any other European language. But don’t give up. These languages are sorely needed in the west, so learning them will eventually pay off quite a bit. Especially if you can prove your fluency. Just be patient with yourself, with the language and with the process and you’ll find yourself, step by step, able to watch episodes of Attack On Titan, Chinese movies, or Korean Variety shows without the subtitles! (Gasp, you exclaim) I know, I know. It’s a bold mission. But you got this, kid!


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