The only words in Chinese that I know are "Ni How" (hello) and "she she" (thank you). And the only words I know in Japanese are "Domo arigato Mr. Roboto" (thank you very much Mr. Roboto). Yet I am able to tell the difference between when a person is speaking Chinese and when a person is speaking Japanese.

How am I able to do this?

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    $\begingroup$ What answer are you expecting other than "they sound different"? $\endgroup$
    – Seanny123
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ What algorithm does my brain use to determine that they sound different? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ You might get a more interesting answer at linguistics.stackexchange.com - I'm certainly not an expert on those languages but I suspect they have different sets of phonemes or at least different phoneme combinations that make them distinct. I suspect different inflection patterns, too. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ Why ask about languages then? Why not any other two entities of a class? You can probably discriminate a cat and a dog, and yet it would take you a lot longer to think about all the characteristics that tell you an animal is a cat versus a dog. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ I would say it sounds a bit on the over optimistic side to think there are algorithms that people know that are ruining in the brain. A bit mad really. On the other hand you could ask computer linguists might tell you about algorithms they might use. But that's not brain by far. So yeah, what Seanny says is right they sound different and if you have heard some samples of each you will be able to tell. $\endgroup$
    – r0berts
    Commented Mar 28, 2018 at 15:12

1 Answer 1


Japanese is not very tonal, is spoken very fast, and has relatively few phonemes. Consonants are often followed by a vowel. Chinese on the other hand is highly tonal and is spoken relatively slowly, as information is encoded extensively in tone. They are almost complete opposites. There are also various phonemes that occur more often in one language than the other, and emphasis is very rare in Japanese (e.g. it's "wa-ta-shi", never "wa-TA-shi"). It is also very regularly paced, with each syllable usually taking the same amount of time. Chinese varies the syllable lengths considerably.

Compare the following (romanized) Japanese

mou ichido itte morae masu ka

with the equivalent (romanized) Mandarin Chinese

qǐng zài shuō yíbiàn

It's clear that they are different languages, and that one is far more tonal than the other. These both mean the same things, asking the speaker to repeat what they had just said.


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