Rōmaji ( ローマ字 / ろーまじ) is the romanization of Japanese words into English letters. It’s a great tool to help you sound out Japanese words when you don’t quite know how to read Japanese yet. You could say it’s the fourth method of writing Japanese after kanji, hiragana and katakana.
Let’s take a look at exactly what rōmaji is, what it looks like in action, whether it’s a good idea to learn Japanese with it and what resources you can use to grasp Japanese using rōmaji like a pro.
Rōmaji is often used to help non-Japanese speakers sound out Japanese words without having to figure out the syllabaries inherent in the language. You may be surprised to learn that it’s also used by Japanese people, who mostly grew up having to learn rōmaji in school to communicate with foreigners.
Here’s an example of what rōmaji looks like:
The rōmaji system was developed in the mid-16th century by Portuguese missionaries who needed to communicate with Japanese people without having to learn all that crazy kanji. As you’ve seen, it’s effective enough that it’s still being used to this day.
Here’s what a rōmaji table using single kana would look like:
Note that, although the characters ら (ラ), り (リ), る (ル), れ (レ) and ろ (ロ) are transliterated as “ra,” “ri,” “ru,” “re” and “ro,” respectively, the Japanese “r” sound is very different from the English one. Here are some tips on how to pronounce the Japanese “r” sound.
Here are the rōmaji sounds of characters that use dakuten (゛):
|ぢ||ヂ||ji (or dji)|
|づ||ヅ||zu (or dzu)|
And here are the rōmaji sounds of characters that use handakuten (゜):
Finally, here’s a rōmaji table with compound kana:
A few things to keep in mind about rōmaji:
The key here is to reproduce the Japanese sounds as accurately as possible using the Roman / Latin alphabet.
Of course, it is possible to learn Japanese with rōmaji. Whether you should learn Japanese using the Roman alphabet is another matter. There are a few pros and cons you should take into consideration.
So should you learn rōmaji? Of course! It’s a vital part of learning Japanese and is very easy for English speakers to pick up since there really is very little to learn.
Should you exclusively learn rōmaji in lieu of the other Japanese writing systems? We don’t recommend it if you really care about becoming fluent or plan to visit Japan.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t start with rōmaji then move into the other writing systems as you learn.
Whatever you decide, there are resources available that allow you to learn Japanese using rōmaji. We have gathered some for you below!
Memrise is a fun app that’s formatted almost like a video game, with clear goals and objectives as well as spaced repetition learning (SRS) that can help any beginner master Japanese and other languages.
This particular lesson from Memrise introduces over 200 common Japanese words taken from the “Genki” learning system, one of the most popular Japanese textbooks out there.
You’ll find everything you need to form a solid beginner vocabulary, including animal words, useful verbs, time-related vocab and so much more—all entirely in rōmaji. If you want to know more, check out this Memrise review.
Pimsleur is an online program that focuses on mastering spoken Japanese before delving into kanji and the kanas. The method, which has various levels depending on your Japanese knowledge, features interactive flashcards and audio language lessons you can listen to pretty much anywhere.
The program is excellent if want to learn spoken Japanese, as it focuses mainly on speaking and proper pronunciation. There’s a bit of reading instruction, but the main strengths of the program are in its thorough audio lessons.
While Pimsleur is a bit pricey, they do offer a free lesson so you can assess whether or not this program is good for you. You can also give this Pimsleur review a go while you’re at it.
This multimedia software from Oxford Dictionaries is essential to have on hand while you learn Japanese with rōmaji.
This language-learning program focuses heavily on audio instruction as a supplement to a workbook that’s presented almost entirely in rōmaji. You can listen to the coursework in the car or while doing other things, then sit down with the book to reinforce what you’ve learned.
Beginners will benefit the most from this software and the audio CDs, as they’re tailored specifically for novice learners. Use this program if you want to jump right into speaking and listening.
This resource, which comes with downloadable audio, is great for those who want to start their Japanese-learning journey with rōmaji.
The step-by-step course focuses on spoken Japanese and reading rōmaji before delving into listening skills and kana.
The writing systems are introduced gradually over the course of the program. However, most of these are accompanied by rōmaji, and you can easily choose whether you want to follow along or prefer to stick to the rōmaji.
This is definitely a great resource to have on hand as a newbie, especially if you’re using rōmaji to ease your way into the Japanese writing systems.
Isn’t rōmaji an incredible tool?
Although we don’t recommend that you exclusively learn Japanese using rōmaji if your goal is to be fully fluent, it’s still a really handy little system of writing to use if you want to dive straight into speaking the language.
In order to be considered fluent, you’ll eventually have to learn the kana and kanji. You can use the resources above alongside online learning programs like Coscom Japanese to cover the basics.
You can also turn to FluentU, which has a collection of videos with dual-language subtitles.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Work hard and study! Or should I say, ganbatte benkyō shiyou!
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)
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