After finding that my efforts to go deeper into Japanese were providing diminishing returns, I decided to start something new and began learning Chinese (Cantonese). I was thinking that I would have to be prepared to accept a decline in my ability to use and understand Japanese, and to some extent that has been true. I haven’t been able to read as many Japanese books as usual lately. However, to my surprise, I find that there are some instances where learning Chinese has actually improved my Japanese ability. I ran into a sentence today where I found two specific instances of the benefits of learning Chinese for my Japanese ability. For those of you that may have fears and concerns that starting another language is the simple tradeoff of giving up depth in your L2 for gaining breadth with a new language, I would like to introduce this discovery.
The sentence I ran into was part of the creed for a Japanese company:
I didn’t know the word 和衷 (harmony – but not like musical harmony) and I had never seen the character 衷 in Japanese before. But fortunately, I had just learned the word 折衷, in Chinese, which means, “to compromise”. I can’t say this completely solved the unknown for me, as I still didn’t know the exact meaning of the word or how to read it. It did, however, allow me to be more familiar with the characters than I would have been if I had not begun studying Chinese. I think that is a subjective benefit, which is very valuable. A more objective benefit was that I could type the word with Cantonese input and copy it into a Japanese dictionary to discover the meaning.
The second benefit was with the word 當る. In this case, a more traditional form of the character 当 had been chosen for the creed, probably to make it look better. This was easy to recognize as it is used in many common words in Chinese that have a direct correspondence in Japanese. One example would be 當日, which corresponds with 当日. If that isn’t enough, my Chinese dictionary, Pleco, shows the simplified version of characters next to the main entry, and I can see that 当 is the simplified version of 當 every time I look up a word including that character.
These are two concrete examples, but I think that a lot of the benefits are too vague to articulate. In conclusion, I think that the breadth you gain from learning Chinese will actually help you gain more depth in Japanese.
Finally, I also want to note that I recently saw a video from famous polyglot Steve Kaufman stating a similar observation. Now we can go on and learn that shiny new language and be sure that, assuming we are still actively using them, our other languages are not only safe from decline but may stand to benefit as well.