Tools

What is Romaji and Should You Use It? The Cold Hard Truth.

There are many ways to learn Japanese, and one of the most popular is through the use of Romaji. Today I want to ask and answer the question, what is Romaji and should you use it?

First I’ll give a brief explanation of it, and provide some examples so that you can see it in action.

Then I’ll talk about how most people use it to learn Japanese, and both the good and bad things about it.

Finally, I’ll conclude and explain my thoughts on if you should be using it to learn Japanese, of if you should avoid it altogether.

The Definition of Romaji

As you probably know, Japanese has three separate parts that all combine to make their writing system. But no beginning student of Japanese can read those thousands of characters!

So how can educators teach people learning Japanese how to speak Japanese through the use of books, without first having to teach them how to read Japanese?

The answer is simple: Use the English alphabet instead.


So instead of teaching students how to read the Japanese characters in the phrase:

  • この字はどういう意味ですか?

They transform it into Roman letters so that it looks like this:

  • kono ji wa dō iu imi desu ka?

There have been several different systems for this ローマ字 (rōmaji) in the past. Each one had a slightly different take on minor parts of the system like whether to transcribe elongated vowels with a line above them or simply use a second letter.

But regardless of the one you end up using, the basic premise is the same.

The main thing to note is that Rōmaji (the elongated ‘o’ is the correct way to pronounce it) is not a part of the Japanese writing system.

It is something that only foreigners who want to learn Japanese use.

How Romaji Is Used To Learn Japanese

When people are first introduced to Rōmaji, it is usually on a blog, in a phrasebook, or in a beginner’s book on learning Japanese.

The first thing the book does is provide examples of English words that are similar to, though to exactly the same, as the Japanese sounds in the language.

For example, a book might say “The a-sound in Japanese is similar to the one found in the English word father.”

Then every time you see a Japanese word in the book with the letter a in it, you fall back onto that ah-sound from father in order to say the new Japanese word.

  • ashita – Tomorrow
  • amerika – America
  • aka – Red

This means that Rōmaji’s primary purpose is to teach you how to speak Japanese. To a lessor extent it also teaches you how to listen to and understand other people speaking Japanese, but I’ll save the in depth discussion on that part for a little later on.

So what doesn’t Rōmaji teach you? How to read Japanese.

No matter how much time you spend using Rōmaji to learn Japanese, it can never be used for reading native material such as manga, novels, or even Japanese websites.

The use of Rōmaji for a Japanese educated is limited to only speaking the language.

The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Using Romaji

Some people hate Rōmaji and tell you to stay far away from it. Others think it’s harmless and end up relying on it a little too much for their own good.

I think that it should be treated like training wheels when you’re learning to ride a bike. You can use them at first, but the entire point is to get you going on the real thing.

Regardless, I wanted to go over the advantages and disadvantages of using it, so that you can make the decision for yourself.

The advantages to using Rōmaji are:

But even though there are some genuine reasons why it can be a great tool at first, there are some serious limitations that should you should be aware of.

The disadvantages of using Rōmaji are:

  • English sounds aren’t exactly the same as Japanese sounds.
  • It’s not used in Japan, so it won’t help with getting around.
  • Native material only comes in one flavor: The (real) Japanese writing system.
  • You miss out on the deeper meaning, since English letters are only phonetic.

Think about your own personal goals with the language. Ask yourself what it is that you want to do with Japanese, and then see from the two lists above if Rōmaji will help you with it, or actually hinder you.

Should You Stop Using Romaji?

I think that if your goal with learning Japanese is a simple one where you can communicate with natives at a basic level, for example if you are touring Japan, then it is probably OK to use Rōmaji since it will suffice for what you want to accomplish.

But beyond learning a few basic phrases, if you ever want to become fluent or literate in Japanese, then you’ll need to ditch Rōmaji, and the sooner the better.

The main problem with Rōmaji is that, despite its attempts to do so, it does not reflect the actual sounds of Japanese.

I think that using it for too long can actually turn from being helpful, to harmful.

The ironic thing is that I never realized this until I saw Japanese books that taught people how to speak English.

Guess what, they do the same thing that we do: They use their own writing system to teach the other language.

For example, here is one example that I saw:

えふびーあい
FBI

Now for those of you who can read hiragana, you know from the above example that the way Japanese people are taught to say “FBI” is “efu bii ai”

As an American, I laughed when I saw that and I said to myself “But that’s not how it actually sounds in English.”

Bing!

Light goes off.

It’s the same thing when we try to use our alphabet to learn Japanese.

So to answer the question, “Should you use Rōmaji?” I have the following questions for you to answer:

  1. Are you only planning on being a tourist? Then yes you should use it.
  2. Are you learning how to read hiragana or katakana? The yes you should use it.
  3. Anything beyond these two above situations, and you should not be using Rōmaji to learn Japanese.

So that brings us to an important question for this site in particular.

Will There Be More Romaji On This Blog?

Since I’m saying that people who want to learn Japanese to a higher degree than just visiting the country one time should stop using Rōmaji, I must stop using it myself on this blog to help teach Japanese.

The reason is that, as native English speakers, our eyes are naturally drawn to the Rōmaji first when it’s available under a Japanese phrase.

This will, unfortunately, lead to bad pronunciation for the phrase in question.

Having said that, I will be using Rōmaji to teach hiragana, along with native recordings, for the new course I am working on. Stay tuned as I’m pretty excited about its potential!

But besides that, you won’t be seeing it on this site for any new posts. I’m going to leave the old ones as is, since I don’t like to play the “revision game” and change all posts every time I change a philosophy of this blog.

I won’t look backwards. Only straight ahead.

P.S. If you don’t know how to read hiragana yet, then click here to learn it now.

What are your thoughts on Rōmaji? Let me know!

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