Mandarin vs. Japanese: What Aarki Employees need to know

With the news that Aarki is opening new offices in Japan and China, we outline the origins of both Japanese and Mandarin, and compare their intricacies and difficulties.

Since the announcement that interactive and creative advertising technology Aarki will be opening offices in both Tokyo and Beijing in the coming months, many employees will no doubt have to deal with the many difficulties of living outside of their own culture. What should employees know about the languages they’ll be expected to learn if they decide to relocate to one of the company’s international offices?

Standard Chinese (Mandarin) is estimated to have nearly 900 million native speakers and is the most spoken language in the world. When accounting for second language speakers, Mandarin and English are about on par, both having roughly one billion capable speakers. The Chinese language dates back to over 1000 BCE, and up until the 1900s was splintering into more and more distinct local dialects, which created the need to reunify the language. “Standard Chinese” was thus developed and adopted as an official language for the Chinese education system in the mid 1900s.

Japanese is estimated to be spoken by 130 million native and non-native speakers worldwide. The written language can be reliably traced back to our earliest findings of recognizable Japanese texts from the eighth century CE. It has been said that Japan inherited its writing system from China. Previous to this, Japanese only existed as a spoken language, although its origins are not entirely agreed upon. Japanese developed and changed the Chinese logographs to suit the spoken word, morphing the pronunciation and adding shorthand and phonetic scripts in the early stages.

Writing Systems

Mandarin

The alphabets of Germanic languages (such as English) differ entirety from Mandarin, but Mandarin can be expressed in the Latin alphabet using various systems of Romanization. A speaker of any language using the Latin alphabet can be taught to speak Mandarin potentially more quickly by taking lessons in their native alphabet. For those who don’t want to learn the Chinese logographic script or or want to remove an extra level of complexity from learning an entirely new language, using the Romaji, or Romanized characters, might be a better option.

The Hanyu Pinyin system is the ISO standard in the world today for the romanization of Mandarin. Pinyin translates to “spelled-out-sounds”. This method of phonetically spelling out Chinese characters was published by the Chinese government in 1958 and adopted as the ISO standard for the romanization of Mandarin in 1982.

The zhuyin or “bopomofo” method is commonly used for teaching Mandarin in Taiwan due to its less ambiguous pronunciation compared to pinyin, which requires the often-confusing tone-marking diacritics. Conversely, these ambiguities often arise for Mandarin speakers learning English. When learning Mandarin, however, they can be avoided by using the zhuyin/bopomofo method. Regardless, it may be hard to find instruction in the method on mainland China, as it is not very widely used for teaching outside of Taiwan.

Japanese

The Japanese “alphabet” is a mixture of Chinese logographs (kanji), hiragana and katakana. It is a phonetic alphabet, meaning each character in hiragana and katakana represents a sound in the Japanese language. Kanji are used for nouns and adjective and verb stems. Latin characters are sometimes used, mostly in the form of abbreviations and use of Arabic numerals in counting is common.

Romanization of Japanese
Learning Japanese solely through the use of the Romanized alphabet or rōmaji, is not recommended. This method introduces various inconsistencies in pronunciation and other problems. Learning hiragana and katakana is highly recommended: both use the Latin alphabet and can be used to represent every Japanese character.

When expressing Japanese in Romanized form, the Revised Hepburn method is most commonly used, although the Kunrei method is taught in elementary schools in Japan.

Notable Comparisons between Japanese and Mandarin

Tense

In Japanese, verbs are conjugated to include tense while in Mandarin they aren’t. For instance in Mandarin you would use “出席” (English: “to attend”) whether you had recently attended an event or were yet to attend an event.

Alphabet

While the Japanese alphabet is rooted in the Chinese characters, it uses a phonetic alphabet while Standard Chinese uses a logographic one where symbols are representational or metaphorical. Classically, each Mandarin character has a meaning (they are more than simply characters, they are morphemes) and have no relation to the pronunciation of words. Simplified Mandarin (zhuyin, pinyin etc), however, does use phonetic characters which are strung together to create words.

Word Order

Many Japanese words are also in use in Mandarin. However, in Mandarin, sentences are structured in the form of “subject-verb-object” while Japanese’s sentence structure is “subject-object-verb.” This may seem strange to English speakers who might say “I went shopping” while a Japanese speaker would arrange the same idea into the form “I shopping went.”

An interesting flexibility that both Japanese and Mandarin share is the ability to omit the subject of a sentence and still convey the complete meaning.

Honorifics

Japanese uses honorific verb forms and vocabulary to show the relative status of the speaker, listener and any mentioned persons. This differs in Mandarin, where honorifics are obsolete in the language, but are still employed simply through the use of polite compliments or by avoiding the use of casual words and slang.

Learning a language is always a daunting task, and for those that don’t enjoy it, it will inevitably become impossible. For Aarki employees finding themselves in the seemingly foreign lands of China and Japan, the best way to learn is to immerse oneself in the culture, leaning the history and language of these fascinating cultures.

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