Culture

Which is More Important, Spoken Japanese or Written Japanese?

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Learning Japanese can be quite a task. Not only do you have to learn the native sounds for the audible portion, but you also have to learn what all those symbols mean for the visual side of things. Should you only focus on one at a time? If so, which is more important, spoken Japanese or written Japanese?

I’ve heard it both ways from people, and their arguments were pretty solid. One thing we all agree on at the end of the day is that you will want to learn both at some point.

But having thought about the differences between the two sides of Japanese, I’ve come to the conclusion that the spoken part of it is more important than the written part.

Let me explain why.

Out of the Two Parts to Japanese, Which Came First?

If you read a book on the history of Japan, you learn some interesting facts about when people started inhabiting the island, how the country used to be run by warlords, and much more.

You also learn how the Japanese people didn’t have a written language for a long time!

In fact, the written language that was first used for the Japanese language was actually the Chinese system of writing. Which means that the Japanese written language wasn’t even original. Rather, it was someone’s else, and Japan said “Yeah, let’s use that too!”

What this means is that the spoken part of the Japanese language was the original (and only) form of communicating for the Japanese people. It was, and is, the core of the language with the written part growing out of it.

This makes sense when you consider that, out of the 7,000+ languages that exist currently in the world, only about 3,800 of them have a written part. [source]

In other words, it is quite normal for languages to exist, and be considered complete, with only a spoken part to them.

Whereas the reverse situation, a language that is only written and not spoken, is pretty rare. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but if you know of one, then let me know in the comments section.

Regardless, this is a case where the spoken part of Japanese clearly beats the written part when it comes to importance.

When There’s a Problem Between the Two, Who Makes the Compromise?

Since the Japanese system of writing came from the Chinese language, there were some problems with the two of them not really working together. It makes sense that a written system that fits Chinese, wouldn’t necessarily work for Japanese too, right?

So the question was, “Who is going to change to resolve this problem?”

The answer is that the written part of the language changed to match the spoken part. 

This is why the two kana systems (hiragana and katakana) were invented, and also why the Chinese readings of words 音読み (on’yomi) actually use Japanese pronunciation, and not the original Chinese pronunciation.

So we have proof that long, long ago when there was a problem, the spoken word won the fight and the written word yielded to it.

But even more recently with the huge importation of foreign words 外来語 (gairaigo) from other languages into Japanese, you still see the spoken part of Japanese being treated as more important than the written part!

That’s because when a word is taken from one language, like the English word cameraman for example, and then adopted into Japanese, in this case カメラマン (kameraman), it is done solely based off of its phonetics (the way it sounds) with no regard for how it is spelled or written in the original language.

In addition to that, the original sounds of the word are changed to fit within the native sounds of Japanese.

Are you seeing a pattern here when there’s any kind of change within Japanese? The spoken part it treated like the king, and the written part just has to deal with it.

Again, the spoken part of Japanese beats the written part.

If Only One of Them Could Exist Moving Forward, Which Would it Be?

Let’s take a “what if” situation for a world that could possibly exist in the future.

What if something weird happened and either spoken Japanese, or written Japanese was eradicated from the world? If people had to collectively vote, which would they probably choose?

Now, I can only use conjecture, but here’s why I think people would choose to keep the spoken language and nix the written part:

(1) – They’ve already experienced it once, and they were fine.

Granted it was a long time ago, and Japan was a much different place back then than it is now, but the fact remains that Japanese people lived life with only the spoken part before, so there’s a confidence that it could be done again.

(2) – It’s easier to communicate to one another by talking.

Think about asking someone to do something for you. If you speak with them, it might take a few seconds to get your message across. But if you had to write it down, not only would you have to have a pen and some paper, but it would take you much longer to write it out and than the other person would have to read it. So from a “Path of Least Resistance” viewpoint, people would much rather communicate by talking than by writing.

(3) – There’s more of an emotional connection with the voice.

Even though you can read a piece of paper that someone put a message on and feel the love from it, it will never beat when the other person actually says the words aloud for you to hear. Think about when someone is feeling upset, do you think that writing them a message could ever have the same effect as your soothing voice, even it the words were the same? I personally feel that the same emotional feelings that are conveyed by saying something, can never fully be matched by writing it.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with any of these three points?

The winner for this part is the spoken word, and boy is it on a roll! Having lost once more, will the written word be able to make a comeback in this final section?

If You Learned One to Mastery First, Which Would Be More Beneficial?

When you look at the way that most people learn Japanese (natives of course) it’s all based off of sound in the beginning, and than once they are considered fluent enough to communicate with adults, they start learning the written part.

Is this the best way to learn? It’s certainly not how most foreigners learn the language, as most people buy a book on the language or read a blog to learn the Japanese language.

I think that if you were going to learn one side to mastery first, than the spoken part would be better for a few reasons:

First of all, you would learn correct pronunciation, intonation, rhythm, stress, and so on. All of the things that you can’t truly learn from a visual source (reading) since they only exist in the audio world. Since reading the language is essentially soundless, there’s no problem learning to read if you’re fluent with speaking.

But the reverse is not true: if you can read perfectly, you still might not be able to understand the spoken language at all due to the aspects I just mentioned.

Secondly, you would also learn to use the language at a normal speed in conversation, which is probably one of the hardest thing to do for students who primarily practice the language from reading materials.

It’s easy to slow down when you read since it’s usually just you and the words aren’t going anywhere, but talking involves another person and they’re going to want to go at a normal speed, which will seem too fast if you’ve learned Japanese primarily with your eyes (rather than your ears).

And finally, when you consider the direction of the trend for how people consume information, it’s headed towards watching more video (on TV, YouTube, Facebook) and away from reading things (newspapers, books, blogs, etc.).

In today’s world, it’s probably more useful to know the spoken word, since it is quickly becoming the preferred method for both providing and receiving information, for most people.

The spoken word remains undefeated @ 4-0!

Game. Set. Match.

Like Most Things in Life, The Best Situation is Actually Both!

Now I don’t want you to think that I’m just knocking on the written word! There are absolutely  some things that it does far better than the spoken part, such as recording history and therefore transferring information from the past into the future.

Where would we be today if we didn’t have any written materials? You see what I’m saying?

Certainly there are cultures that pass on their history through oral means, but I feel that writing something down that happened, and than sharing it with millions of people long after you’re dead is pretty incredible.

Still, I really just wanted to make you think about what would happen if you had to pick one part of Japanese over the other. The truth is that the language, as a whole entity, is both the spoken and written word working together in harmony with one another.

If you only knew half of it, then you would be missing out on a lot! That’s probably one of the reasons why Japanese natives place such a huge importance on learning both parts to mastery: Because you gotta’ know both to be fluent in the language.

I also think it’s easier to learn the language when you do both at the same time, as they tend to reinforce each other through multi-sensory learning. Many times I’ve tried to remember how to say a Japanese word, only to have the kanji pop into my mind’s eye, which reminded me how to say it.

Go for both! That’s my real advice.

And here’s how you can learn to read and speak Japanese too.

What do you guys think?

Do you agree with the points I’ve made above? Do you think some of them are wrong? Let me know by leaving a comment about it below!

4 Comments

  • Taylor

    Hello Nick,
    I enjoyed reading your article about which is more important, spoken or written Japanese 🙂

    This gave me some perspective 🙂 I had never thought about whether written or spoken forms of a language would be more important. I also hadn’t known there were languages without a written form although now that its been spelled out for me it makes perfect sense. Silly nieve me 😛

    I don’t know anything about how the Japanese language works. It’s so interesting that their written language (to me) looks so unpronouncable and yet, people learn it!

    You had mentioned in your article that people should learn both at the same time because they complement each other. I would be curious to know what you mean by that. Is it at all similar to how the English written and spoken word interacts? Please explain, I’m very interested 🙂
    Thanks!
    -Tay

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I know what you mean. I never really thought about languages all that much growing up, but then once I started learning Japanese, I actually learned a lot about languages in general and how the different parts of them work together. 

      When I had mentioned that I think people should learn both at the same time, there are a few different reasons for this:

      Reason (1) – It engages what’s known as Multi-Sensory Learning. I could talk about this one thing for an hour, so let me give you the super condensed version. Basically, we all have a separate memory for each of our five senses. 

      So when you learn to read and to speak Japanese at the same time, you engage more of your senses than if you only learned one part, and you therefore store the same information in multiple places in your brain which makes it easier to remember.

      Reason (2) – It allows you to always be learning Japanese. If you are learning how to speak Japanese, then you’ll need to practice speaking it all the time. Sometimes this isn’t really practical, like when you need to be quiet or you’re out in public.

      But if you are also learning how to read Japanese, then you can focus on doing that during these times where speaking it isn’t really an option.

      I could give you even more reasons why you should learn both parts of the language at the same time, but then this comment would turn into its own post! 

      So I’ll just end it here. Thanks for the great question! 

  • Arie

    Interesting read! I was interested in learning Japanese at one point or another, but I never really took the time to practice learning the spoken or written language.

    I do think you made good points in that it is better to learn to speak it first, since you would learn the correct way to pronounce the words as well as being able to speak it more fluently.

    I always thought that the written language looked too similar to the Chinese language and I can easily see others getting mixed up with the 2.

    My question is, what would you say is the best advice for learning how to speak Japanese fluently first? Would you say watching Japanese tv shows/movies be a good way? Or is it better to take a certain course of it online?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, the example you mentioned about confusing the written part with Chinese is actually something that’s happened to me a few times. You gotta’ be careful sometimes when a word is written without any kana in the mix.

      As for learning how to speak Japanese, while you could certainly watch lots of Japanese shows, the difficulty level would probably be too high for someone who is starting out. In these cases, the worse thing that can happen is that you would feel overwhelmed and quit learning all together.

      I think that the best way would be to take a course aimed at teaching you Japanese by using comprehensive input. That simply means that you understand what you’re learning, while you’re learning it.

      A fantastic one to check out is the Pimsleur audio course. It has several different levels, but the Beginner’s one is fairly priced and does a great job at introducing the language to you. You can read my full review of it by clicking here. Thanks!

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