What is an Asian language?
That question might be harder to answer than you think.
For a lot of people, what first comes to mind are the widely spoken East Asian languages: Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
But what about South East Asian languages like Vietnamese and Malay?
What about South Asian languages like Hindi and Bengali?
What about Russian? What about… English?
The continent of Asia is home to over 2,000 languages, and billions of people.
Furthermore, many languages that originated in Asia are spoken elsewhere by diaspora communities, and languages like English, French and Portuguese have made inroads into Asian countries and even developed into new unique varieties.
Since you’re reading this post, however, we can probably assume you aren’t interested in learning English (or, if you are, that at least you have quite a head start!). Maybe you’re interested in learning one of the popular languages that comes to mind when you think of Asia, like Mandarin Chinese, or maybe you’re interested in a somewhat less popular one, like Khmer.
We’re going to take a broad view of learning Asian languages, and try to help you out regardless of what Asian language you’re interested in learning. We’ll talk about the specifics of some more common Asian languages, but if you’re interested in learning a less common one, we’ll give you some tips for finding your own resources and getting started.
But first, we’re going to talk about what some of your reasons might be for learning an Asian language.
Let’s look at just a few.
Possible Reasons for Learning an Asian Language
When deciding what language to learn, there are numerous reasons to choose one spoken on the Asian continent and/or by the many people of Asian descent living all over the globe.
Some are practical reasons. People who go into international relations and business can usually benefit from knowing an additional language, period, especially if it’s a language they can use to communicate with potential business partners. Some Asian countries in particular, like Japan and China, have a huge economic and media influence in the world today. So knowing Japanese, Mandarin or a different Asian language could be an especially super useful skill that gives you a competitive edge.
For many people, a fondness for or direct connection to a certain Asian culture sparks the desire to learn a language. Language can open the door to travel, communication with native speakers, the ability to enjoy books and film firsthand, and more. Maybe you have friends who are Vietnamese and you would love to be able to speak with them in Vietnamese. Maybe you’re fascinated by Indian literature and would like to read it in the original. Maybe your parents, grandparents or other relatives are from China and you want to travel there with them someday (or eavesdrop on their conversations).
Aside from personal connection, learning a language spoken in any country you’re visiting, even a little bit, can enrich the overall experience. In addition, while traveling, you get to help others who don’t know the local language, so if you’re interested in doing any traveling in Asia, it may be time to hit the books! Suppose you’re in a grocery store in Tokyo, and you see a fellow English speaker struggling to communicate with the cashier in Japanese. If you speak Japanese, you have the ability to help out both parties. It’s a great advantage anywhere to know the commonly spoken language(s), and it’s a great feeling to be able to help someone else.
Language sensitivity is another advantage, and also just something important for anyone to consider. To some English speakers who aren’t as familiar with Asian languages or cultures in general, Asian languages can seem similar to one another. If this is the case for you, once you’ve studied even a little of one Asian language, such as Korean (which is actually a language isolate), it becomes obvious how different it is from, say, Japanese or Lao. Not only can this save you from embarrassing mistakes and save the Asian people around you from having to deal with those mistakes, but it can enhance your appreciation for the differences between Asian cultures.
Learning an Asian language can give you a chance to enjoy the popular culture of that language no matter where you are. For example, maybe you like to listen to K-pop or J-pop. More and more people globally are listening to and enjoying pop music from Asia.
How to Choose an Asian Language to Learn… and Begin!
Which Asian Language Should You Learn?
There is no obvious answer to this question. Your reasons for committing to a particular Asian language may be personal or purely practical, but if you’re unsure or stuck between two or more languages, here are a couple factors to consider that may help you make up your mind.
One is how many people in the world speak the language. For example, Hindi has around 490 million total speakers while Korean only has 71 million, so if you’re looking to choose a language that will simply allow you to communicate with the greatest number of people, Hindi would win out over Korean.
However, the consideration of this factor also works in the other direction. If your objective isn’t simply to communicate with a lot of people but to specialize career-wise, you may be better off going with a lesser-known language. For example, if you’re going to be a translator and want to lock down an in-demand language pair, you may want to look around job boards to see if any of the languages you’re interested in are in high demand to be translated into English (or another language you know to a native level).
Another thing to consider is the nature of the written language. In Japan, for example, there are two phonetic alphabets, hiragana and katakana, along with kanji, a written form that uses Chinese characters. All these forms are used daily. So, because Japanese has a more involved writing system, it may not be the most appealing or practical language for you to learn—depending on your interests, desires, abilities and other factors, of course. If the multiple Japanese writing systems seem intimidating, for example, you may want to go with Vietnamese, Thai or Korean, as these all have one main writing system that’s relatively simple.
Once you’ve narrowed down which language you’re going to learn, congratulations! You can begin your language learning journey!
Tips and Tricks: How to Approach Your Asian Language Learning
Explore the wide variety of online practice resources.
These days, many of us have tiny computers we carry around in our pockets or purses. This makes it easier than ever to learn a language whenever, wherever. Even if you don’t do on-the-go learning, simply being online greatly increases your options.
- OpenCulture is a website that links you to free language classes online, and will also link you to movies, music and textbooks. For Asian language learners, OpenCulture has courses in Khmer (Cambodian), Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Lao, Russian, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.
- FluentU is a language immersion website that offers real-world videos—like news, music or whatever interests you the most—in the language you want to learn, along with quizzes to help with vocabulary memorization, and downloadable audio files for offline learning. For Asian languages, FluentU currently offers courses in Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian. You can start off as a complete newbie and use FluentU all the way through the advanced levels, using material that you personally find interesting and entertaining the whole time.
- Duolingo is a fun app you’ve probably heard of already. It focuses on honing vocabulary and grammar with quiz-like games. It’s a fun, on-the-go way to practice language skills. The app is designed to introduce new words, phrases and grammar to you in short exercises and tests, and you can go back to brush up on what you may have forgotten. Duolingo is currently offering courses in Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Hindi and Mandarin Chinese.
- StudyBlue is another online resource and app that allows you to create your own learning materials as well as use others. Best known for making virtual flashcards, StudyBlue has millions of study materials already. Currently, StudyBlue offers materials for a number of Asian languages. The great thing about StudyBlue is that you can choose to make your own flashcards, which is perfect for specific vocabulary lists, or use a pre-made set, if you want to save yourself some work.
Not finding the Asian language you want above? A simple search for “learn [language]” can yield a lot, and a video search can be especially useful. You also may want to check out this massive guide to free language resources on the web—it’s likely you’ll be able to find something for your target language.
Listen to music in the language you’re learning.
Hearing the language being used helps with new vocabulary and pronunciation. In addition to listening, repeating aloud what you’re hearing is going to be beneficial. Whether you do this in your own home without distractions or in traffic during your daily commute, this is a way to both listen to and use the language.
This is where your obsession with popular Asian music can really come in handy. YouTube has a variety of K-pop and J-pop music videos, and you can also stream K-pop, J-pop and other Asian music on the global charts on Spotify.
Here are some recommendations for a few major Asian languages:
Invest in good workbooks and textbooks.
Invest in recently produced textbooks, workbooks and dictionaries. Since all languages are constantly evolving to keep up with changing culture, you’ll get the best results from using a recently written source. However, this can get expensive, so try checking out bargain bookstores and websites, or look for college students selling their old books.
If you’re not sure what to buy, try checking out some recommendations and reviews on YouTube, like this review of Japanese textbooks.
Explore Asian culture and history through TV and movies.
Language is closely tied to culture and history, so you’ll want to get a good sense of both. It’s important to keep in mind that some pop culture (like pop music that’s made for international consumption) can be more representative of a particular constructed facet of a culture than the culture as a whole. It’s also important to understand that a culture isn’t necessarily equivalent to a country.
There may be multiple different regional cultures that speak the Asian language you’re learning, all of which are equally legitimate and most of which are probably the result of specific historical and political events.
However, just because culture and history are serious and complex subjects doesn’t mean that you can’t frequently learn about them through fun media. Historical dramas can be a fantastic way to get a feel for events that shaped a culture, and these are popular in several Asian countries right now.
For example, the Netflix series “Kingdom,” set during Korea’s Joseon era, deals with the onset of a zombie apocalypse… okay, so maybe this isn’t all exactly historically accurate, but the point is, you could still learn a lot from watching some of these shows.
In addition to historical dramas, moves and series that cover modern-day subjects can be incredibly helpful for learners—and the best thing about enjoying them is that you can learn about a language and a corresponding culture at the same time.
Aside from some of your more obvious streaming options like Netflix and Amazon, AsianCrush is a great site for finding Asian movies and shows to watch. You can search by region, and possible regions to filter by include China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the U.S. and Vietnam.
Try out recipes.
If you don’t have a restaurant in your area that serves food from the culture(s) whose language you’re learning, you can try your hand at making dishes yourself.
If you’re a beginner, you may not want to start out using recipes that are actually written in your target language, but you can gain a lot from recipe websites and blogs that are run by people who have a strong connection to a target language culture. Even if the sites themselves are in English, you’ll often see dishes and ingredients given in the original language and then explained, and you may get important cultural insights as well.
Here are some good examples:
- CamboKitchen. This is a recipe blog specializing in Cambodian food. The writer/cook behind the site, Cat, lives in Australia and is of Cambodian heritage.
- Hungry Huy. This blog is written by a Vietnamese American whose parents ran a Vietnamese restaurant in California.
- Maangchi. Maangchi is a New Yorker by way of Korea whose recipes you can find both on her website and on YouTube.
As you research and then cook a particular dish, take the opportunity to study key vocabulary along the way. Look up the names of the ingredients you’re using. Then, once you’ve made the dish yourself, try to write your own version of the recipe in the target language. Even if you only get as far as the list of ingredients, it’s something to build on!
Check out some blogs.
Look for blogs written specifically for the language you’re learning. In addition to FluentU’s Asian-language blogs, you can find many great blogs for learning Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian and other languages.
If you want to travel, you might also try to find travel blogs or blogs written by people studying abroad in a target-language region. In addition to picking up tips and new learning strategies, you may find new spots, shops or restaurants to go to on a future trip. You can then eventually move up to reading blogs in your target language written by native speakers.
Japan Blog Directory is a website that makes it easy to find Japanese language and culture blogs by sourcing various blogs and putting them into one easy-to-access place, so you don’t have to scour the internet by yourself.
For other more popular Asian languages, you can search “blogs in [language]” and get lists like this. For less commonly learned Asian languages, you may be best off searching for a type of blog in your target language, for example, “lifestyle blogs” or “music blogs.”
Consider enrolling in a course offered by a school, community center or college near you.
Especially if you don’t have friends or family who speak the Asian language you’re learning, face-to-face interaction with a professional/native speaker and fellow students can be really beneficial. Using the language, even outside of your comfort zone, is the best way to learn and improve.
Something to consider when picking what resources and techniques to use is that a combination is almost always good.
Maximizing the different ways you’re learning and using the language is really beneficial, as it ensures you’ll have new experiences with the language all the time.
At the end of the day, your language learning journey is your own.
Learning any Asian language comes with its challenges, but there are plenty of resources out there to help you navigate them!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.