Learning Japanese: Why Learn Romaji?

Download the mp3 here [3:17 minutes; 3MB]

First, what is Romaji? Romaji is the representation of Japanese sounds using the western, 26-letter alphabet. What’s it for? Japanese writing is made up of three different systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. If you notice, Romaji isn’t one of the three systems. The symbols commonly used in Japanese writing have little or no meaning to most people in the western world. Why? Because most people in the west grew up learning the alphabet A to Z. Romaji puts Japanese into a format that most Westerners can read and understand. For example the symbol らhas absolutely no meaning to the vast majority of people living in the United States. But when you attach the romaji, “ra” to it. This character now has a meaning. A person from the west who sees this symbol will now recognize it as “ra.” Brilliant, right? Well, yes and no.

There pros and cons to consider when learning Romaji.

The main benefit of learning Romaji is that it’s great for beginners. If you have no concept of what hiragana or katakana are, Romaji can be your saving grace. It’s probably the fastest way for Westerner to start learning Japanese. It’s definitely the way I got started. Although romaji won’t give you great pronunciation (I think that comes by being around and learning from Japanese natives), this method does give you a sense of what Japanese sounds like. Another benefit with romaji is when learning kanji, there are hundreds of kanji that I simply don’t know. Not all kanji look like the items and concepts they represent, so once again, romaji to the rescue.

On the other hand, I have noticed that very few Japanese people actually use Romaji. The only time I see Japanese people using Romaji is when they are trying to communicate with foreigners who are learning Japanese. However, when Japanese people communicate with each other they use one of the three writing systems: sorry…let’s say them again, hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Using romaji also blocks an opportunity to write and use actual Japanese symbols, so it’s kind of like learning Japanese in vacuum. Learning the writing system takes time. So having as many chances as possible to see and write Japanese symbols can make a big difference in your comprehension.

In essence, learning romaji is very effective for picking up initial Japanese, and for learning new kanji, but the danger is that romaji can become your crutch. When you acquire new Japanese, use it so much that you don’t need the romaji for it anymore. This will help you (and me) learn and use Japanese as it’s used in Japan.

Still learning too,

Donald Ash

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Donald Ash is an ATLien expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last six years. While in aforesaid time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator, writer, designer, editor, programmer, and occasional bad artist of thejapanguy.com blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
  • I really enjoy the information on this blog. I came across it while searching on Yahoo

  • Donald Ash

    If you’re doing a link reference, that would be great :)
    Thank you.

  • Michel Bouchet

    I came across your post while looking for some information about ROMAJI on the net.
    While I find your writing interesting and I would say mostly true. I would add one point, relevant for people who are relying on ROMAJI for learning Japanese.
    Most of the time the kana list ら〜ろ is represented in ROMAJI using the consonant R.
    And this is not necessarily the best choice, though it can certainly be explained through historical reasons.
    While using the R is probably a good choice for people having Italian or Spanish as their native language, it is for sure a bad choice for those having English, French or German as their native language. For them using the L instead of using the R would obviously be IMHO far better.

  • Tom

    The problem is that you link romanji with writing. If you want to speak fast and effectively then it is best to get the romanji on the go and start speaking and learn the kana when the speaking is going on

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