Take the 2-minute tour ×
Japanese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Romaji is somewhat of a conversion from kanji, hiragana, and so on to the Roman alphabet.

What are the disadvantages of learning only or mostly romaji aside from being unable to read/write in kanji? I dont think there are many advantages.

share|improve this question
1  
It's called the "Roman alphabet". Both the English and Japanese names have their origin in Rome (ローマ). –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Jun 1 '11 at 22:52
2  
for those of us who think that romaji (or the concept at least) is useless, take a look at how chinese children learn their kanji. –  Gerard Sexton Jul 4 '11 at 13:50
1  
@Gerard: I do not think methods to learn Chinese are applicable to Japanese in any way. For a start, Japanese has a somewhat simple syllabary that can be used to spell any of its words and is only about 3-4 times bigger than the roman alphabet (not even taking in account the different scripts one need to learn in order to read roman letters). –  Dave Sep 2 '11 at 0:26
    
@Dave: I think Gerard wasn't talking about westerners learning the Chinese language, but Chinese people learning the Japanese language. Chinese-jin versus Chinese-go, as it were. –  Andrew Grimm Sep 2 '11 at 10:13
1  
@Andrew: that's perfectly how I read it and understood it. And my comment still applies: regardless of whether you are native or not, learning basic Chinese hanzi poses a fundamental problem with how to memorise the readings, whereas Japanese specifically has its syllabary for that: kanas. –  Dave Sep 2 '11 at 16:27
show 2 more comments

7 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Your question body contradicts the title, so I'll answer both questions:

Advantages of roomaji (I never thought I'd say this!):

  • No need to learn new characters
  • Can be "read" by most people, even if not understood. Although anybody who doesn't know Japanese will get even the pronunciation wrong.

Disadvantages of roomaji:

  • Complete inability to read and write in Japanese. I can't just "set this aside". If you're learning a language, you will most likely want to/need to be able to read and write it as well. Japanese people write in Japanese, and by extension anybody who wants to learn Japanese beyond tourist-level "Which way to the airport?" or a few anime catchphrases will need to learn to read and write in Japanese.
  • Kana make the way Japanese is broken into syllables much more obvious.
  • Due to the number of homophones, telling words apart is difficult (this applies to kana-only text as well)
  • Learning kanji enables you to understand where words come on. A lot of words in Japanese are compound words formed from multiple kanji. If you know the kanji, you can usually guess the meaning of the word and its reading - even if you've never seen it before!
share|improve this answer
    
Perfect sum-up! (and in case that needed pointing out: I think it's clear the disadvantages outweigh the advantages by a good margin ;-) –  Dave Sep 2 '11 at 0:13
    
You have a bias. What do you mean by "can be read by most people"? Are you mentioning the fact that the population of the world who can pronounce from a roman alphabet is more than half of the world population? But that seems to be irrelevant here. If you consider the pupulation who are using Japanese, I am sure that more people can read hiragana, katakana and kanji than can do roman alphabets. –  sawa Oct 9 '11 at 4:17
    
@sawa: Did you see how I put "read" in quotes? If we take a person who doesn't know Japanese at all, they will be able to understand latin letters more than real Japanese writing. They won't be able to understand the meaning, but they'll be able to recognize and reproduce the text, and perhaps even make an attempt at pronunciation. That's why romanization can be useful for names and whatnot, although the meaning will the opaque if you don't know Japanese. Also, most Japanese people can also read romanized Japanese. –  Matti Virkkunen Oct 9 '11 at 17:19
    
1. Do you have a basis for claiming that a person who doesn't know Japanese at all will be able to understand a latin alphabet more? 2. What about a person who knows Japanese? What is the basis for claiming that they know latin alphabet more than Japanese? And I know of no Japanese who can read romanized Japanese better than reading Japanese. –  sawa Oct 9 '11 at 17:55
    
@sawa 1. Isn't it pretty obvious that letters you can recognize will be more understandable and memorable (even if opaque), when compared to letters or symbols you don't even recognize? 2. I never said better, please don't put words in my mouth. I'd bet that most Japanese people are able to read and understand romanized Japanese, if need be. –  Matti Virkkunen Oct 9 '11 at 20:54
show 5 more comments

The real question is "Advantages/disadvantages for whom?".

For students of Japanese, Romaji is really useful when they start out, because they don't have to learn anything to be able to read it (although without learning Kana, they'll probably end up reading it incorrectly, especially if they're native English speakers :(). Another advantage is that Romaji text (unlike normal Japanese text) has spaces, which can really help the beginning student recognize word boundaries. Another minor advantage is that Romaji (especially Nihon-shiki or Kunrei-shiki, which is not so common in western Japanese teaching materials nowadays) sometimes makes it somewhat easier to catch verb conjugations where the stem-final consonant remains the same but the vowel changes (e.g. wakaru -> wakaranai).

These advantages make usage of Romaji acceptable for beginners, but there are disadvantages that make it a terrible burden for students who want to progress beyond that level. Most of them have already been described by Matti, so I wouldn't repeat them.

Japanese speakers are the second audience for Romaji usage, and they are often ignored in such debates. Most of the advantages and disadvatages for learners of Japanese don't apply to them, since they can already perfectly read and write kanji and kana. The reasons they would choose to use Romaji (as they, indeed, do quite often) is different:

  • Writing in Japanese when when using mediums that don't support Japanese text (such as computer software that has no Japanese support).

  • For typographic effect. This use of Romaji is incredibly common in advertisements and in logos.

  • For typing Japanese on the computer. Japanese keyboards have kana, and you can certainly set it to kana-mode use the kana keys for input, but from my experience, most Japanese actually prefer to input Japanese in Romaji-mode instead.

share|improve this answer
    
Just a small comment to your sub-item on Japanese speakers' use in typing: while it is true that people generally prefer to use romaji-input IME, when it comes to cellphones, the preference goes strongly toward 9-key kana input (I've seen people fiddling around forever to enable 9-key input on iPhone because they didn't want to use the romaji input). –  Dave Sep 2 '11 at 5:43
add comment

By transcribing everything into latin alphabet (heck, even to hiragana/katakana syllables), written Japanese will lose most of the legibility than if it were to be written in full kanji+kana. It may be hard to describe, but let me give you a nonsense english sentence:

Wheel you go two the par tea two knight at ate? Eye think it's awed they are having it so far aweigh. Eye wont to reed this book, have you red it? Herald was in this mourning's gnus. Eye bet heal be surprised to here that.

The above is what Matti was saying in his third point about homophones/homonyms.

Not only that, by not using kanji, you lose the ability to instantly make out what is being said in a text, something that is very essential in speed reading (which is also why I have a hard time playing those FamiCom games; they lack kanji for the most part).

share|improve this answer
add comment

I've softened significantly from my beginner-level "all romaji should be purged from the earth" fanaticism. There are two related questions here, "Should I avoid a roomaji-based textbook like the plague?" and "Can I get away with learning Japanese without studying kanji?"

The TLDR version is "No" and "Yes, but you obviously will be illiterate".

"Should I avoid a roomaji-based textbook like the plague?" - No, roomaji does have some significant advantages in some contexts

  • If you use a computer, you're going to use it anyway. Not a single one of my Japanese coworkers types on the computer using kana keys. You type in roomaji and let the IME figure out the kanji/kana. Welcome to the future.
  • For those who are primarily focused on grammar, pronunciation and not really intending to learn the writing system, it provides a mechanism for them to look up and write down words (and ask questions on JL&U). Spaces look strange in kana, but workable in roomaji.
  • For absolute beginners, it allows them to actually look up a word you wrote to them
  • Since you asked about 'advantages in learning roomaji'... well... you don't learn them. As long as you pick an intelligent roomaji system (ie, not Hepburn), you can focus exclusively on pronunciation, and don't need to study the written language simply to read vocabulary words.**
  • If you use a roomaji-using language program, you can try one of the "full set" kanji studying methods simultaneously with studying Japanese structure without interference. Heisig is fairly adamant that you should learn ALL of the kanji in his book before studying onyomi, kunyomi or compounds. Using a roomaji based text would allow you to study the language while following his method.
  • To be bluntly honest, every textbook I've seen that has tried to mix studying grammar and kanji at the same time simply fails to do so. As a result, most texts do their actual coverage with a set of 1st-3rd grade kanji and the kana set, and then give you a dozen or so kanji to brute-force memorize (full readings, writing, and 3 token compounds) per chapter. Pedagogically, this is awful. If you're going to study both, and I recommend it, you're going to need to make your own curriculum anyways, so you might as well not skip out on roomaji-based resources that could be useful.
  • Many of the best Japanese resources in the world work with roomaji. GG4th (not sure about 5th) comes in a roomaji version, as does the Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar.

"Can I get away with learning Japanese without studying kanji?" - Sorta... but here's where you'll face issues

  • Related to my last advantage. There are quite a few resources (reference works) that are only available with heavy doses of kanji. I don't know of a roomaji-version of a kokugo dictionary.
  • Again related to reading materials. If you skip studying kanji entirely, you don't get a chance to read manga, political fliers (more fun than it sounds), novels or Japanese newspapers.
  • There are occasional meaning-connections (and particularly bad puns) that only make sense with exposure to the kanji underlying a particular word.
  • "Learning kanji enables you to understand where words come {from}. A lot of words in Japanese are compound words formed from multiple kanji. If you know the kanji, you can usually guess the meaning of the word and its reading - even if you've never seen it before!" - stolen blatantly from Matti
  • "Due to the number of homophones, telling words apart is difficult (this applies to kana-only text as well)" - also stolen from Matti. But this isn't too much of a serious concern if you're explicitly not that interested in reading/writing.

** Some have claimed that using roomaji somehow retards development of proper pronunciation. This is simply false, and I have to question if those adhering to this idea have ever studied a western language. Does "ll" or "j" in Spanish cause anyone any trouble after the first 2 weeks?

share|improve this answer
    
A wonderfully detailed answer. +1! –  Andrew Grimm Sep 3 '11 at 7:44
add comment

I personally think there are no advantages to using romaji whatsoever. I think it's just a crutch beginners use to not have to memorize them, but it should be something you embrace. Hiragana and Katakana do not take that long to learn (assuming you have the motivation). Once you can read and write them well, it's almost hard to go back to reading/writing romaji. From there, you go on to kanji. It's also difficult to go back to using pure kana once you're comfortable with kanji.

share|improve this answer
add comment

The disadvantages are all in the corner cases. Some romanizations represent づ and ぢ as "zu" and "ji" respectively, which is less than perfectly accurate since those are also used to represent ず and じ (I represent them as "dzu" and "dji" myself, but one can't force others to do so). And that's not even touching upon the issues with katakana and strange combinations such as ウィ and the like.

share|improve this answer
1  
This would be a disadvantage of particular romaji systems (notably Hepburn), not necessarily of a better system like kunrei. –  jkerian Sep 1 '11 at 21:09
3  
@jkerian: and you inadvertently name another major disadvantage of Romaji: there is no single agreed-upon standard. What people call "romaji" is at least 3 or 4 completely different systems used by different groups. –  Dave Sep 2 '11 at 0:23
add comment

One disadvantage of romaji is that some textbooks will say write せんせい as sensee as opposed to sensei. If you learn the former, then when you go to learn actual kana, you'll get all confused. For instance, is it romaji? roomaji? or roumaji?

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.