In my inbox

I got the following email the other day. I thought it was interesting for a number of reasons and instead of replying, decided to share here instead.

Hi,

You make a good grammar guide, but sadly few people will ever use it. It is foolish not to put the guide in romaji and have it help people that are tourists or beginners in Japanese. Japanese has all over 200 kana, with all the variations. A better approach is to have both the romaji and kana.

Not using romaji, which appears partially due to people being infected with Jim Breen’s madness, is doing more to hinder Japanese instruction than to help it. When a casual user needs to look up a word in Japanese or understand some pointers for speaking Japanese, hitting them over the head with kana and kanji is absurd. Even Google translate has a romanization option. Everybody looking to learn Japanese is not a full time student and many want to speak it and not learn kanji or kana. Furthermore, many Japanese know how to use romaji, because that is how they input Japanese on their keyboard or phones (before it is converted to kana or kanji).

I’m just letting you know, that not everybody agrees with Jim Breen’s ridiculous, elitist, and pompous anti-romaji crusade.

Feel free to discuss in the comments.

105 thoughts on “In my inbox

  1. I understand both sides of the argument here. Personally, I prefer romaji, mainly because before I begun learning Japanese I fandubbed Anime songs. Being the noob I was back then, the foreign syllabary was far out of my reach ;P

    Now I can read kana, though since I learnt through experience and not study, I sometimes forget the odd character. Having romaji is just a bonus, and for me it’s a checking tool to see if I actually did read the word right.

    But I can also just as easily shove the kana in a romaji translator if I really have dramas. For this grammar guide, considering its intents and purposes, romaji is not necessary. And I need to improve my kana-reading speed somehow!

    • Rachael: I tried staring very hard at a kana, and trying to read the ones to either side or up and down without moving my eyes. Then the kana separated by one character, and so on… maybe it teaches your brain to recognize patterns from different parts of the fovea or retina!

      Other than that just practice reading a kana/kanji before you pronounce or hear it, the way we are unconsciously used to doing in native languages. Although they say reading is faster if you don’t mentally ‘pronounce’ words as you read them, I think it helps to think of the pitch patterns when learning.

  2. Just having to know kana to understand the guide makes me feel better learning both kana and the lessons of the guide. Plus, using things like “Rikaichan” for firefox helps me just fine to read kanji i don’t know.
    I really love the way this guide is made, ’cause it almost force you to understand before going forward, instead of simply saying “it is this and that”, leaving you without any real knowledge.

    Memory is important. I can competently say that reading actual alphabets instead of reading how to read them is waaaaay better. And i can read also cyrillic and arabi, not just roman and japanese.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. I would agree, IF your website were intended for people trying to learn some basic phrases for their week-long vacation to Japan. But it’s not. I’m teaching a student Japanese right now and I’m not even letting him see Roman-ji. A native English-speaker’s eyes will automatically snap to English letters on a page, especially if he or she is still struggling to memorize all the characters.

    Also, I can tell by this comment thread that very few people use your guide. :P

    • “A native English-speaker’s eyes will automatically snap to English letters on a page, especially if he or she is still struggling to memorize all the characters.”
      ^ I agree 100%. I find myself doing that a lot of the time.

  4. he has a point but i’ve always seen the guide as intended for people with intermediate skills who won’t be completely thrown off by kana. if you cannot read hiragana, katakana and a minimum of kanji then there’s not much point in learning japanese grammar imo.

    • Well, when I approached the guide i was already able to read kana and (only a dozen) kanji, so i cannot of course say yuou’re wrong at all, but well, as i myself did, one should learn on their own to read an alphabet (it is not so very hard), and then get on the grammar. There is no very way of “teaching an alphabet”, ’cause that is only a mnemonic and practice thing.
      And then speaking of japanese kana, kana really are simple, they have not various readings such as cyrillic (when an “o” sometimes becomes an “a” and stuff) or english or french. So yes, in the end if you cannot even read a language there’s no actual point in trying to learn its grammar.

      • As for readings, pitch patterns and voicing in Japanese is difficult enough. It isn’t substantially harder or easier than English, both have information which is important for verbal communication that must be memorized apart from the written representation of words.

        Sort of like how the Korean characters were designed to be learnable in a single morning for a wise person, and even just 10 days for a stupid person. But with pronunciation shifting away from the written language on top of vocabulary/grammar etc, very few people learn Korean ._.

        • I guess i’m finding it easier than you ’cause i’m italian: in italian vowels always are spelled in the same way, as kana vowels are. I’m finding japanese pitches quite natural to pronounce and about the kana alphabets themselves, just needed some practice to memorize them, their sounds are not difficult to me.

          I’m interested in learning to read korean, i will take a chance as soon as i’ll have time. :D

          • Yeah, see, thats one time I’d advocate romaji. In lieu of audio clips (the ideal solution), standard phonetic alphabet readings, so kinda romaji, would assist greatly in learning the tonal aspect. Of course, that’d also be reliant upon picking a “standard” region (Kanto?) and showing the tones for that region alone. Furthermore, thats a niche well into the realms of vocab and not grammar so not applicable to Tae Kim’s guide.

            • Rōmaji is not reliable to teach readings: its readings may be a lot different depending on who reads it, furthermore many of the “geographical” pronounces of the letters are not regular. The only effective way to actually explain pronounces without using audio is using IPA. Anyway Kim’s guide’s name is “Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese”. Japanese: the language, not only its grammar. It is fair to explain as good as possible the pronounces and sounds of the language, though it is obvious that the grammar related part would be bigger.

  5. If someone is asking grammar in romanji i bet he hasn’t look harder… I took me a long time to find a site like yours with everything in kana and not on romanji… Sorry if i’m rude but if you need romanji you need to study harder!!

  6. I’m a university student learning japanese and I have to say I appreciate you NOT using romanji. Seriously, after a couple of classes learning Hiragana, Katakana, and some Kanji, I really couldn’t go back to the English Alphabet.

    Once you take that first step to learn their alphabet, your eyes get trained to recognize and read their words as if it were Romanji. Writing in the Japanese alphabet helps me to read faster and process faster and for that, I’m grateful.

    Also, there’s no point in using Romanji, barely thing will be in Romanji in actuality…

  7. I am extremely grateful that your guide does not use Romanji. I actually quit studying Japanese because all the material I kept finding was always in Romanji. Hehe, it was actually cause of your site that I began studying again, being that I finally found what I’ve been searching for. Rewriting all the materials became too time consuming and halted any study of the actual grammar and words.

    Romanji is only a hindrance in my opinion and would only serve to cripple me. I personally learn how to read and write faster than speaking a language. The Romanji sadly still appears in my mind when i hear or think of a word in Japanese, although I’m actively trying to change that. Also, implementing Kanji within a context immediately in one’s studies is a much better method than the one I began with. So naive back then…haha.

  8. I can’t believe the most comments I ever got was on a post about whether to learn KANA. Why would an adult who claims an interest in a language/country deliberately choose to be illiterate?

    • Most of the answers in (partial) support for Romaji were a theoretical argument about their utility in LEARNING.They were about the transitory space between complete representational incomprehensiveness, and literacy, not an alternative to literacy in any case – even Andrew, the most avid poster-supporter (who is lucky to have a native speaker as a partner), clearly stated that insofar as he was not interested in literacy, this intermediate representational form can help somewhat – and yet even he couldn’t keep away from kana and kanji, despite his lack of interest in the effort required.

      Nobody would choose to be illiterate, so it’s best that you continue enforcing kana/kanji prerequisites for various levels of your guide.

  9. I hate using romanji maybe in the beginning to learn hiragana and katakana. I would like to see some furigana so it can help pronounce kanji…I’m not a expert.

  10. I will venture to say, you will not be able to learn Japanese without learning how to read and write it… and IF you want to learn Japanese, learning to read and write would be the best step you can take toward that goal.

    if you’re trying to learn something new(Japanese) than why are you afraid of learning something new (kana, kanji… which are uh.. also Japanese)?

    …of course if you aren’t seriously trying to learn than why are you posting criticism of a website that teaches you how to learn? you ought to stick to your ’50 dirty things to say in Japanese’ pamphlets.

  11. After years of using kana, I actually find it difficult to try and read romaji now. My wife never studied Japanese before, and she learned Hiragana in a total of 3 hours studying. It’s not that big of a stretch. I think any semi-serious student would make the effort to learn it. I can’t see the non-serious student or “tourist” getting much use out of the grammar guide anyway. So, thanks for not using romaji and I hope you continue to avoid it.

  12. In my opinion, using romaji to start learning how to read is a very wrong idea. Once your brain gets used to this, you will end up mentally converting kanji into romaji instead of kana. You will find it hard to force yourself to mentally convert kanji into kana directly. E.g. you would probably convert 明日 to ashita then あした. Practise makes perfect, but practising it wrongly makes it perfectly wrong. It is always better to let your brain recognise that you are learning a totally new language, or else you’ll eventually end up like a foreigner using japanese (both spoken and written), because you are much more likely to think in english before the sentence gets translated into japanese.

  13. If you aren’t willing to learn the kana, you’re clearly not devoted enough to learn such a complex language. When unfamiliar kanji come up, they are written in hiragana. Nobody will expect you to learn every kanji, which is extremely difficult, but kanji for everyday use should be learned. There is really no way you can learn useful Japanese without at least learning the kana (unless you want to understand anime or something).

    When learning English, one should try to think like an English speaker. When learning Japanese, one should try to think like a Japanese speaker. If Japanese people learned all English words by converting them to kana, there would be a problem. And Japanese keyboards have kana on them, so they don’t need romaji to input characters. I originally tried to learn Japanese using a romaji guide, which was ignorant. I hid from the Japanese language, and it took me a year to give it another try. I suppose you could say that telling people to learn English using an alphabet is elitist?

    If you want to learn Japanese, try to change your outlook on language so you can understand it; don’t try and change Japanese so you can understand it.

  14. I seen this and I decided I really wanted to reply. If someone is really set on learning a language then learning kana should not be an issue. I personally learned kana in a week and a half. That was with me taking my time about it.

    Since then I don’t see much a use for romaji. In fact I deliberately try to avoid places that use excessive amounts of romaji over kana to avoid falling into bad habits. I only used romaji to help me learn kana. After that I did not really need it anymore.

    Plus multiple problems can occur if someone relies on romaji too much. For example 「づ」 is often in romaji as just “zu” when is reality it should have a faint “d” sound at the start.  「つ」 is sometimes in romaji as “tu” if you rely on romaji too much you may get confused and literally pronounce it as “tu”. Same can be said for other characters such as the particle 「を」 and of course the “r” sounds 「る、ろ、れ、ら」 and the カタカナ equivalents. The “r” sound does not sound exactly like the “r” in English so someone could end up falling in bad habits if they rely on romaji.

    Of course you might eventually correct yourself. However if you already fell into the bad habit of pronouncing it that way it makes it all the harder to correct yourself when trying to speak and learn the language.

    Plus being illiterate will just make it harder to learn vocabulary. Sure, you learned your native language and could probably speak it fairly well while still being illiterate. However you where surrounded 24/7 with it almost non-stop.

    So unless you live in a household with people physically speaking Japanese around you it is going to be much harder to learn being illiterate. It will probably still take longer even if that was the case.

  15. I think a knowledge of the kana is important, and should be learnt as early on as possible. However, I don’t dismiss grammar textbooks or explanations for refusing to use the characters. On the contrary, after buying Barron’s Japanese Grammar guide I took the unbearble romanisation as an opportunity to review the kana and learn the kanji for various words in context, inkeeping with the tone of this guide, by using a dictionary to translate the romanji into kanji as I take notes based on it.

    Having said that, this is probably the best, and most readable, guide I’ve come across, and to be honest it’s all the better for pushing the readers to avoid laziness.

    I should also give my thanks, the guide has given me the structure and motivation I need to try and learn this language and get it crossed off my bucket list :)

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