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Learning Japanese: Why Learn Romaji?

By Donald Ash | Podcasts

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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 Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last ten years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
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