How knowing Chinese helps you learn Korean… as well as a couple of ways in which it’s no help at all
I learned Chinese (Mandarin) years ago, living in China and studying under an excellent series of teachers, then working there for a while in private wealth management, managing clients and deals entirely in Chinese. I memorised many characters (in part due to hammering them home with Skritter) and by the end, I could read most of a newspaper in Chinese and discuss the contents with relative fluency. Something like C1 level, though I never cared for tests.*
So when I started studying Korean early in 2020 it took me no time to start noticing the places where knowing Chinese comes in useful for learning Korean. I thought this was fascinating — after all, I was always told that Korean is a language isolate (i.e. entirely unconnected to any other modern language).
After studying for around six months and having a basic knowledge of Korean (I can have a conversation in Korean but I’m a little slow and sometimes forget the endings of sentences… and every conversation involves me learning about 25 new words), I think I know everything about what advantages knowing Chinese gives the beginner Korean learner.
Little is written about this in English, so I thought I’d share. Here it is for you to enjoy.
By the way, I mention “Chinese” as a catch-all because the advantages are loosely similar between having a good knowledge of either Mandarin or Cantonese.
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* I took an HSK 6 once, failed it, and thought “meh, I could study for this and pass it, but I don’t care, I’m going to watch some more Chinese xiangsheng comedy.” I don’t study for tests if I don’t need to.
How Chinese helps you learn Korean… a quick overview
There’s no question that Korean and Chinese are totally different languages.
But even though that’s true, there’s a little shared history between Korean and Chinese, just as there is between Latin, Greek, or German and English. So just as knowing one of those languages would help you understand the origins of English words (“government” comes from Latin, “democracy” comes from Greek, and “house” comes from German)
So knowing Chinese will help you learn Korean in a few different ways, giving you maybe a 25% advantage over other Korean learners:
- A lot of words in Korean will sound familiar (as they come from Chinese)
- You’ll understand etymological roots of words in Korean, making connections between them as you’ll know what characters they’re associated with
- You’ll be able to recognise Hanja, the fairly few Chinese characters used in everyday Korean (and used commonly in literary/academic Korean)
Interestingly, you’ll have the advantages that Chinese speakers do (to varying degrees) learking Korean if you’re a Japanese speaker, too. From my understanding, Korean and Japanese both share ties to Chinese in similar ways. In fact, your advantage as a Japanese speaker would be much stronger than a Chinese speaker (who doesn’t know Japanese) as Japanese and Korean grammar are strikingly similar — some even say they’re translatable word-for-word.
However, it’s not all roses. There are a couple of areas where you won’t have any advantage learning Korean as a Chinese speaker.
- You’ll have no help in pronunciation — Chinese (whether Cantonese or Mandarin) pronunciation is quite distinct from Korean
- You’ll also have no help in grammar — Chinese and Korean share a few grammar features, but they’re mostly totally different languages.
A lot of Korean words will sound familiar if you know Chinese
Korean has a lot of borrowed words from Chinese that are in everyday life. So one way in which knowing some Chinese helps you learn Korean is that you can identify Chinese words in Korean.
The first time most Korean learners encounter a Chinese word would be the word for “bathroom”. In Korean, this is 화장실 (hua jang shil). I thought “that sounds familiar” and rightly so… it’s derived from 化妆室 (huà zhuāng shì), which is Chinese for “powder room” or “makeup room”.
The most common Mandarin Chinese name for bathroom/toilet is 洗手间 or xǐ shǒu jiān, which means “hand-washing room”. So knowing basic Chinese wouldn’t have helped. I had to know enough Chinese to make a connection between a less commonly used Chinese word (I don’t ever say “powder room”) and the Korean one.
Other common Chinese words in Korean that I learned in the first month or so of study were:
- 준비 (jun bi), “ready”, derived from 准备 (zhǔn bèi)
- 보통 (bo tong), “normal”, derived from 普通 (pǔ tōng)
- 후회 (hu wae), derived from 后悔 (hòu huǐ)
That’s just a random sample. There are many others!
Of course, there’s the Sino-Korean counting system, but that’s a bit obvious.
You can understand the etymology of Korean words more intuitively (through the Chinese roots)
If you know the Chinese origin of imported words into Korean you can a) understand them more quickly and b) learn them more quickly.
For example, take these words:
I learned the first two words 외국인 (foreigner) and 식당 (restaurant) very early on in my studies. I made the mental association between the Korean words and Chinese roots and that definitely helped me learn them: “Ah, 외 must be 外 (outside), and 식 must be 食 (food/eat).” It was kind of obvious from the sound and other related words with the same sounds. Later, when I came across the word for “eating out”, it made sense because it literally uses the root characters “outside food”.
Similarly, knowing characters helps you understand false friends or unrelated words. For example, the word for post office, 우체국, has 국 in it which usually means “country” (國). That doesn’t really make sense here. It’s in fact based on a different root of 郵遞局. That’s the same 국 however in 사무국, “bureau”. It has the general meaning of “department”.
All of this might seem ridiculously nerdy and deep if you’re just trying to get by in Korean. It is. I’m not suggesting you go learn thousands of Hanja just to make interesting intellectual connections. I’m more saying: if you happen to have done that already, you have an advantage.
You’ll be able to read errant Hanja characters when you see them.
Another way in which knowing Chinese helps you learn Korean is that you already have familiarity with Chinese characters.
As I mentioned in the previous section, this helps with understanding etymology. Modern Korean is 99.99% (if not more) Hangul, and Hanja is almost unused. But that doesn’t mean you don’t see Hanja at all — you definitely do!
Hanja (the Korean word for Chinese characters used in Korean) is relatively rare in modern Korean culture (outside historical texts and academia). But it is still used symbolically in many places, for example indicating sizes (like S/M/L in English).
I wrote a whole article on where you see Hanja in modern Korean. I was curious about it because I saw it pop up occasionally and thought what’s going on here? Why is there a random Chinese character? It led me down a path of wondering: do Koreans actually know many Chinese characters? (Koreans educated in a traditional Korean system may, but those educated in a foreign system wouldn’t, and those educated abroad almost definitely don’t unless they make some special effort.
So just to rehash a few common examples, if you know Chinese (particularly if you can recognise traditional Chinese characters), you’ll be able to understand the Hanja in
- Street signs with traditional names
- Signs indicating sizing
- Characters denoting names of people or places
It’s by no means necessary and you can get by without Hanja. But it helps!
However, you’ll have no help in pronunciation — Chinese and Korean pronunciation are very different.
Just to be clear — knowing Chinese doesn’t make everything easier in Korean. One way it doesn’t really help is in pronunciation.
Having heard Chinese people speak Korean and Korean people speak Chinese, I definitely don’t think the pronunciation of either is out of reach. But I would never say the pronunciation bears many similarities.
Chinese has tones, whereas Korean does not. Only two other major Asian languages make extensive use of tones — Vietnamese (in which they’re of vital importance) and Thai (in which you can make yourself understood without them, but you’ll sound non-fluent). Korean does not, and so being able to think in tones doesn’t really help.
Chinese has a few sounds that Korean does not, like the toothy q sound (起， 去 etc.). Korean has a ㅊ but it’s subtly different. Chinese also has a sharper ü sound (for example in 去 or 旅) which isn’t found in Korean.
Korean also has a few sounds that Chinese does not. Korean has some unique vowels, like its dipthongs (쥐,쉬) and some unique vowels (으, 어). Korean also has double consonants (ㅃ, ㄲ etc.), which Chinese lacks.
Of the two largest forms of spoken Chinese, Mandarin is closer to Korean in pronunciation than Cantonese is. But neither is significantly close.
You’ll also have little help in grammar — Chinese and Korean grammar are almost totally different.
Again, knowing Chinese helps you learn Korean — but it won’t really help in the grammar department.
There are a few grammar features in common. For example
- Counters — both Chinese and Korean have counters (Japanese does too, by the way). You use a different counter for people, animals, flat objects, long and skinny objects, etc.
- Numbers — Korean has two counting systems, and one of them is the Chinese one. It’s a direct import.
Wait, I think that’s it. I couldn’t think of a third one. There’s that little in common.
Korean is Subject-Object-Verb. Chinese is Subject-Verb-Object. So there’s one major difference.
But in the details, they’re still very, very different. For example, Korean makes extensive use of particles and verb endings to indicate formality. Chinese does not. A lot of the formality in Chinese culture is implied, and it’s possible a lot has been eliminated since the Communist party.
So, long story short, you have your work cut out for you learning Korean grammar.