Learning Japanese via Romanized Characters (Romaji)

Tae Kim, the author of the very same Guide to Japanese Grammar that I used so early in my studies (and could likely stand to review parts of), recently shared an interesting e-mail he received in which someone strongly suggested that Kim use romanized Japanese in his guide.

This led to a fairly interesting discussion about learning Japanese like this. Two comments caught my eye: one from Andrew, who is learning to speak via romanized Japanese in order to speak with his new wife's family; and Matt's reply, which includes the following text:

Another example: A pronunciation handbook that my school used to employ teaches that V and B are the same sound made the same exact way, because that is the easiest way to express it in kana. Then, confusingly, there is a diagram that shows how you form your mouth for V and F: they are grouped together because ‘they are the same sound.’ That is annoying because now it mixes F up with V, when it is already mixed up with H according to their syllabary. They also learn that D and J are the same sound and both are expressed as デ. I will admit that this is an extremely bad case, but this book was used during the formative stages for many of my students at one of my schools. This isn’t including the ubiquitous problems, such as being taught that TH sounds like ザ or ゼ. In one of my classes, I spend three full weeks trying to get my students to say ‘The’ correctly. I do this almost the moment they become enrolled in my school: It take time to fix the mistaken notion that TH=Z, which was the way they were taught in the first place

That's ... pretty bad. Learning English is difficult enough without having to sort out misinformation regarding the very basics of the language.

Anyway, I'm not so militant about it as others, but I am certainly on the pro-kana side of this. Unless you have some pretty special circumstances, I think it's a wise idea to just buckle down and get hiragana and katakana under your belt if you're serious about learning Japanese. You can learn Japanese without doing so, certainly, but I'm not sure what you stand to gain from doing so.

(Notice: An anonymous poster left a helpful comment on a blog post of mine about one month ago, but it was stuck in the spam filters that I didn't realize that I even had until recently. The comment has been posted along with my reply. My apologies for the oversight and thanks for the useful information. I hope that you're still checking in with us.)


Anonymous said...

watashi mo jon-san ni sansei desu ne.


Brian said...

Jonathan, I think you have chosen wisely to stay out of debates that will will never be argued well enough to convince either side in the issue.

Having said that, I am going to go ahead and be a hypocrite and come down on this issue fairly strongly.
It is true that children in Japan do learn written Japanese before they learn to speak, but neither do they use Romaji either! In preschool, many start to learn Hiragana, my daughter can read already and she just turned four a few days ago.

In my experience I have found Romaji to be a seriously troubling part of modern more society. You see there is no one standard Romaji, but there are various Romaji systems to cause confusion and inflict pain on the innocent. When, I taught in elementary schools in the Sibuya Ward in Tokyo many of the teachers hard there students write out name tags in Romaji. However, they used Monbukongakusho's Kunrei-shiki system of Romaji. When, I tried to read their names I mispronounced most till I had them use their normal Japanese name tags. The teachers there were quite surprised that I could read Kanji/Hiragana but not Romaji.
And, So was I!
Here is an example:
In the Kunrei-Shiki System
Syou = Shō (or) /ʃṓu in the international phonetic alphabet.

I would never have guessed that
Y = H ?!? Would you?

Brian said...

One, more thing:

"Then, confusingly, there is a diagram that shows how you form your mouth for V and F: they are grouped together because ‘they are the same sound."

F and V are both labiodental fricatives. The only difference between them in one is voiced and the other is voiceless.

Although, I personally think B and V are more a like.

Jonathan said...

It's true, romaji can be pretty confusing. I honestly can't read too much of it before it all starts jumbling together in my head, honestly.

Yeah, some romaji is rather weird. Like "kanadukai" for かなづかい. I can understand the need to distinguish づ from ず, certainly, but that's a pretty poor choice, in my option.

Words with a long おお sound can be problematic for English speakers. I think many folks would read "ookii" as "ukee."

Another problem is that of spaces. Where do you put them? Should it be "ikunda"? "Iku nda"? "Iku n da"? None of these strike me as appealing options.

I remember way back when, I saw something like "ikunda" and was very confused when I couldn't find いくむ, いくぶ, or いくぬ in my dictionary. :-p