When students start learning Japanese they often being with Romaji believing it is Japanese. Romaji is the transliteration of an aspect of Japanese into a western writing system. While this sounds useful, because it means Japanese can thus be written in western letters, this is a false assumption, because of the fact that romaji only captures one aspect of the language per romaji scheme chosen. The most important thing to realise is that romaji is not Japanese. That is right. Romaji is not Japanese. I always advise beginners not to learn it and instead learn hiragana as quickly as possible. I recommend that you do the same.
We can distinguish two main functions of romaji, namely phonetic transliteration, and syntactic transliteration. The first tries to mimic what Japanese sounds like to the western ear. The second tries to mimic the order that is found in the kana tables. Romaji can,to a degree, accurately reflect the pronunciation of Japanese, thus making it easy to read as the reader’s brain can instantly turn the words into internally vocalized words. It can also,to a degree, accurately reflect what the kana is supposed to look like. However, Japanese with written romaji becomes hard to read because what is written and how it should be internally vocalized are two completely different things.
So why use romaji to teach Japanese, when one can use Japanese script instead? I guess the idea is that the phonetic scheme lets non-Japanese readers understand written “Japanese” easily without having to know how to read real Japanese to make sense of it. However, why would you want to understand written Japanese without having to know how to read real Japanese?
Students of Japanese learn romaji because they don’t really want to learn Japanese or they have the false idea that romaji is Japanese. In the end it is either poor teaching on the part of the teacher or laziness on the part of the student. The idea that kana is difficult to learn is also false. Learning kana, Hiragana and Katakana, is not something that will take months, if one will be studying Japanese anyway. It takes about a week to memorize hiragana to a level that continued practice (which is what someone who’s studying will be doing anyway) and exposure to Japanese texts will perfect for you, even if you don’t really try.
Ideally, students should never be exposed to romaji at all in their educational material, save when the pronunciation for the kana is explained. However, when it is used, it should be remembered that students will understand that Japanese written in western letters does not accurately reflect the way it is written in Japanese.
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