Culture KOREA 101 Language

Can Koreans understand Chinese, Japanese, and vice versa?

CONTINUED FROM Do Koreans speak Chinese or Japanese? Why Chinese characters are seen everywhere in Korea? Who invented hangul 한글 the Korean alphabet?

Having learned the role of Chinese characters as the written lingua franca in Asia, you might feel inclined to assume that the people in Korea, China, and Japan must be able to communicate freely since they have adopted and use the same Chinese characters and have a large set of vocabulary based on them. So if you managed to order dimsum at a Chinese restaurant located in Seoul, you should be able to replicate your success in Tokyo, and also in Beijing, right?

To answer, it’s partially correct and partially incorrect. First off, it’s highly probable that they would understand each other to a certain degree should they try to communicate through written Chinese characters, because Chinese characters, an ideogram, hold a meaning, and it has the same effect as showing a picture to someone. For example, a Korean person traveling to China and Japan could write a Chinese character 水 (“water”) and show it to a server at a restaurant and get a glass of water without a problem. But here’s the reason why I said “partially correct” – with grammatical differences being the biggest factor (although Korean and Japanese have the same grammatical structure), the way they are spoken is a point of divergence. For every Chinese word, there are two ways to read it – one is hundok 훈독, which represents the meaning in native Korean terms, and umdok 음독 which represents the sound that resembles the Chinese pronunciation. For example, the same Chinese character 水 (“water”), is pronounced su in Korean umdok and mul 물 in hundok, while it’s shuĭ in Mandarin Chinese, and sui すい in Japanese umdok and mizu みず in hundok, adding more complexity and setting them further apart from each other.

Having learned the role of Chinese characters as the written lingua franca in Asia, you might feel inclined to assume that the people in Korea, China, and Japan must be able to communicate freely since they have adopted and use the same Chinese characters and have a large set of vocabulary based on them.

Knowing how even this one Chinese character is spoken differently depending on where you come from, with the grammatical differences, it should appear obvious by now that communicating through just pronouncing the Chinese characters is nearly impossible, although you can get lucky sometimes as they have similar sounds across all three different languages. So back to ordering dimsum – if you want to find out how your favorite dimsum tastes in three different cities, I suggest that you either 1) have it written in Chinese characters on a flashcard and carry it with you (might not work well in Korea and leave the server “lost in translation” because hanja is not widely used nowadays), or 2) be adventurous and learn to say it in their local language – don’t be surprised if you get something completely different from what you thought you ordered, though (um… wait… I ordered… chicken feet?).


If you are a fan of historical Korean movies and dramas that feature the tumultuous times of the Late Period of Joseon and the Japanese Occupation Era (1897-1945) as the backdrop Mr. Sunshine (tvN, 2018), Miljeong 밀정 (The Age of Shadows, 2016), and Amsal 암살 (Assassination, 2015) are some of the greatest titles I personally recommend), you must have noticed that Korean characters seem perfectly capable of communicating with Japanese characters in fluent Japanese, which might have led you to wonder if Koreans are somehow naturally bilingual or whether the two languages are compatible with each other, possible to switch back and forth on a whim like a reversible jacket, requiring no extra effort in translating – both are very reasonable speculations.

Mr. Sunshine (tvN, 2018)
일제와 1000대 1로 싸워 이긴 사람, <밀정>에 담겼다 - 오마이스타
Miljeong 밀정 (The Age of Shadows, 2016)
Amsal 암살 (Assassination, 2015)

The reason for the bilingual fluency of the Korean characters in the movies is due to the historical fact where the Japanese Imperialists obligated the Koreans to learn their language in school and even have their native Korean names converted to Japanese style during the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945). Even today, there is a significant portion in the Korean population, especially those born during the time of Occupation, who are still able to carry out a conversation in Japanese – something that’s been deeply ingrained in them.

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But fast forward to present day Korea – only those who choose to learn it know how to speak Japanese, and Koreans are much more likely to know English than Japanese, as it is part of school curriculum. Korean and Japanese are two distinctive languages, both spoken and written, and it’s not possible to communicate directly without the help of a dictionary or a translator. For an average Korean, however, the Japanese language is probably the easiest foreign language to learn, thanks to the similarities found in their grammatical structure (syntax and morphology) and pronunciation. However, the sad history made an impact on the Korean language which still lingers on – a considerable amount of Japanese vocabulary and expressions (labeled “the vestiges of Japanese Imperialism” by Korean people) have become part of the Korean language, and they are still being used today unbeknownst to the Korean people’s knowledge. But ironically, they help Koreans learn Japanese with relative ease (no need to memorize a new word!).


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