Learning the Japanese writing system can seem as difficult as successfully deciphering a toddler’s drawing: Nothing you have learned this far prepares you for it, and making a mistake can have drastic consequences.
Japanese writing looks completely different from English and some learners are put off by it.
But unlike little Timmy’s drawing, Japanese has a neat built-in cheat you can use to help you along: rōmaji!
Rōmaji is the romanization of Japanese words (into English letters) and it is a great tool to use to properly sound out Japanese words when you do not quite know how to read Japanese yet.
Let’s take a look at exactly what rōmaji is, whether or not it is a good idea to learn with it and what resources you can use to grasp Japanese using rōmaji like a pro.
What Is Japanese Rōmaji?
You might have heard about the Japanese syllabaries and writing systems. To recap:
- Kanji is the traditional system of writing which uses complex characters largely borrowed from the Chinese writing system.
- Hiragana treats syllables as individual characters and is used mainly to to make grammatical additions to kanji.
- Katakana is used to “Japanify” foreign words.
Rōmaji is a fourth method of writing, used to help foreigners sound out Japanese words without having to figure out the Japanese syllabaries. It is also used by Japanese people, who mostly grow up having to learn rōmaji in school, to communicate with foreigners.
Here is 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.
In the years since, rōmaji has definitely had its practical purposes. It also has its pretty serious downfalls. Let’s look at both sides, shall we?
Should You Learn Japanese with Rōmaji?
It might seem like an easy way to get into Japanese, but it is not always a good idea to learn Japanese with rōmaji. This is often debated and there are different opinions on the topic.
In the end, how you learn Japanese is up to you and you alone, so if the prospect of learning Japanese with rōmaji is appealing to you, go for it! Before you make that decision, though, consider these pros and cons:
The Pros of Learning Japanese with Rōmaji
- It can help with word association, especially with the hiragana syllabary. Rōmaji and hiragana often go hand-in-hand for the Japanese learner. Rōmaji is the syllable sound while hiragana is the syllable character. When you are first starting out, you will use rōmaji to learn hiragana.
- Rōmaji is used to type in Japanese quickly. While many physical Japanese keyboards have hiragana keys, most digital Japanese keyboards require rōmaji in order to properly select hiragana or kanji characters. In this case, you will not be able to type in Japanese unless you understand the basics of rōmaji.
- Rōmaji can be used to focus on spoken Japanese and get conversational faster. If you do not want to learn the kanas and kanji, you can use rōmaji to skip straight to the spoken part. This might be a good choice for you if you are only traveling to Japan or are learning the language exclusively for speaking purposes.
The Cons of Learning Japanese with Rōmaji
- It is not actively used by native Japanese speakers and writers. While rōmaji is used by Japanese people to communicate with foreigners on paper, it is not used for any other purpose except for typing up kanji and hiragana online. If you want to learn Japanese, learning the appropriate writing systems is the key to fluency.
- Rōmaji will leave you at a disadvantage once you start learning Japanese homophones, homonyms and complex pronunciations. Homonyms and homophones are two or more words that sound the same but have completely different meanings and/or spellings. Without the kanji to differentiate the words and the proper context, you may run into some comprehension problems.
For a great example, just take a look at this Japanese tongue twister: In rōmaji, it is written as “sumomomomomomomomonouchi.” It means “both plums and peaches are members of the peach family,” but written out in rōmaji it just looks like sheer madness! Write it in kanji, and it suddenly makes a lot more sense: 李も桃も桃のうち (すもももももももものうち).
- Knowing only rōmaji is impractical in the long-run. It is certainly possible to learn Japanese with rōmaji, but if you plan on visiting or living in Japan you might find yourself wishing you had learned how to read. Think of how often we read while traveling in a place that uses English: Traffic signs, business storefronts, maps, etc. are all things we read while traveling in a new place.
Imagine being in Japan, trying to get from Point A to Point B, but having to stop every ten minutes to ask a Japanese person what a character on the map means. Things would be much easier if you would just learn hiragana, at the very least. You can easily knock out the basics of hiragana in one night!
So should you learn rōmaji? Of course! It is 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 do not recommend it if you really care about becoming fluent or plan to visit Japan.
That does not mean you cannot 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!
Learn Japanese with Romaji Thanks to 6 Rocking Resources
Memrise (Genki I — Romaji)
Memrise is a fun app that we have mentioned before here at FluentU. And for good reason! This app is formatted almost like a video game, with clear goals and objectives as well as spaced repetition learning 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 will find all the basics here to form a solid beginner vocabulary, including animal words, useful verbs, time-related vocab and so much more—all entirely in rōmaji.
The Pimsleur Method
The Pimsleur Method 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, pronunciation rules 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 is a bit of reading instruction but the main strengths of the program are in its thorough audio lessons.
While Pimsleur is a bit pricey ($575 for five premium levels) they do offer a free lesson so you can assess whether or not this program is good for you.
Watching FluentU videos is a great way to learn Japanese with rōmaji.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
“Oxford Take Off in Japanese”
This multimedia software from Oxford Dictionaries is a vital product to have on hand while you learn Japanese with rōmaji.
The language-learning program focuses heavily on audio instruction as a supplement to a workbook which is 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 learned.
Beginners will benefit the most from this software and the audio CDs as they are tailored specifically for novice learners. Use this program if you want to jump right into speaking and listening.
“English-Japanese (Romaji) Picture Dictionary”
Every language learner needs a decent dictionary. This handy little book makes learning with rōmaji super easy though the use of engaging pictures.
This dictionary is not the most in-depth resource for learning Japnaese (there are only 58 pages), but it is a great place to start for associating images and words with rōmaji. It will get you started with a vocabulary of over 600 words before you even attempt to learn the writing systems, which will put in a pretty good place for later learning.
Although this dictionary is designed for children, it is still a great resource to have on hand for rōmaji learners of any age or level, even if it is just for casual reference. Search for the Kindle edition or physical book on Amazon!
“Colloquial Japanese: The Complete Course for Beginners”
This resource, which is available on CD and in book form, 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, and by the time you reach the end you should know all the hiragana and katakana characters as well as about 250 kanji. 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 are using rōmaji to ease your way into the Japanese writing systems.
Isn’t rōmaji an incredible tool?
Although we do not recommend that you exclusively learn Japanese rōmaji if your goal is to be fully fluent in Japanese, it is still a really handy little system of writing to use if you want to dive straight into speaking Japanese.
Work hard and study! Or should I say, ganbatte benkyō shiyou!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist who writes about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.