So you want to learn an East Asian language?

“Well, this looks like fun!” Yes, many people do enjoy studying Japanese or Chinese or Korean yet for many others; it’s a mind-blowingly difficult task learning a new language, let alone one with a completely new system of writing and grammar. This is why many people proclaim that studying an Asian language is much more difficult than learning French or German or another European language. To quote this fantastic infographic by VOXY, Japanese, Chinese and Korean are considered “hard for native English speakers”. They are estimated to require 2200 hours of Classroom study to become proficient or 88 weeks of total immersion in the language. Ouch. Compare this with the paltry 575-600 class hours or 23 weeks of immersion to pick up Spanish and many will start to question their motives for studying an East Asian language!

The one thing these excessively difficult and downright confusing languages need is dedication, 2200 hours is trivial if you really want to learn one of these languages. You need to find your motivation and constantly remind yourself of it. Want to understand anime without the subtitles? Have a fascination with obscure North Korean Propaganda? Fancy living in China for a while? Just looking to travel through the wonders of East Asia? All perfectly valid reasons, but you will need to turn these reasons into what drives you to succeed in these languages. But, what is the best method to achieve these goals?

Self Study


Well, this has its ups and downs. You can buy some textbooks and other resources and get cracking right away; there are even plenty of resources on the internet so you can get started at little to no cost! But there are issues. Primarily, it’s going to hit your conversational skills unless you make friends with some native speakers. I did this for the best part of 2 years and then finally started speaking with a native tutor and my Japanese improved dramatically overall over the following year. Having others to speak to makes it a lot less messy as well as your overall language skills being more coherent.  Secondly, it’s going to be expensive should you want to certify yourself or attain qualifications in the language you’ve been studying. Exams here in the UK cost money, £75 for a JLPT (Japanese), £10 -£55 for a HSK (Chinese Mandarin) £25 for a TOPIK (Korean). Add on the cost of the overpriced practice papers and past question booklets and it can get pretty dear by the end of it.

Also, don’t bother with the all in one “comprehensive” courses, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur and its ilk frequently get panned for being expensive and in general, not as good as studying with a selection of resources. Do some research and discuss resources with people already studying. I recommend the Reddit boards for learning Japanese, Chinese and Korean, all of them are friendly and have some pretty definitive ideas for people getting started. Also have a look at the BBC’s introduction to each language!

Private Lessons

A fine option that works for many people, a properly qualified tutor will be able to teach you how to read, write and speak your chosen language in a manner tailored to you and your strengths and weaknesses. There is only one issue; it’s extremely cost-prohibitive. Most decent tutors will set you back around £25 per hour, so that’s £55000 for your estimated 2200 hours of study necessary to achieve language proficiency. You could join a night class or take classes with a group like Berlitz. Yes, they will be cheaper but it’s not going to go to advanced levels and it is still somewhat pricey.


Obviously, this is only a viable option for a very select group of people reading this article but yes, making your chosen language a degree subject or even studying it as an external module is a decent choice. Obviously this depends on your University and their teaching standards. In the UK, Asian Studies is a popular choice and often quite competitive. Most courses have departmental exchanges in your language’s country for one year as standard. In the USA, where many of our audience comes from, “Eastern Asian Languages” has experienced a 94.9% increase in Higher Education places since 1985, making it easier than ever to get involved with them at college level than ever before! Studying in Asia directly is possible but you’ll need prior language knowledge and either a lot of money or an amazing scholarship.


This will henceforth be known as the YOLO option. In all seriousness, moving abroad even if it’s just for a year is complicated, many people will go out to Asia to teach English or as part of a company transfer and never come back. The difficulties that lie in moving to a country in which you do not know the language are numerous therefore it is a good idea to study up a little before you move, if you stay for a good year or two, you’ll most likely become pretty proficient so long as you make the effort to interact with native speakers and explore the country around you. As mentioned before, teaching English is probably the best gateway out there, TEFL/CELTA courses are commonplace as well as the existence of numerous programs such as JET make it particularly easy for foreigners to get out there.

So to conclude, it’s hard. It’s going to take a lot more work than most other languages. Chinese, Japanese and Korean are routinely considered the hardest languages for English speakers to learn and it takes time, dedication and motivation to pick up but after the initial challenges, it’s just like studying any other language! All I can say is that I hope I didn’t put you off it and good luck!

About these ads

3 thoughts on “So you want to learn an East Asian language?

  1. ‘the YOLO option’! That’s hilarious.
    I’m learning Japanese through self-study, and I agree with what you’ve said. Are you aware of Lang8, a website that allows native speakers to correct and comment on posts you write in the language you’re learning? That’s where I find native speakers to talk to, otherwise I’d be a little stuck.

    • Thanks, I do try to be a bit light-hearted when I write!
      I’m not aware of Lang8, I’m pretty Genki loyal and I’m studying Japanese at Sheffield University here in the UK come September!
      I have an upcoming article about resources and I’ll have a look at Lang8 and stick a short review on it in the article.
      Thanks for your comment!
      Euan ^^

  2. Pingback: Some resources to help you learn an East Asian Language: Part 1 | Asia-Crunch

Did this post interest you? Get involved with the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s