Choices in learning Japanese

Japanese is a Japonic language associated with ridiculously unique people, interesting shows, and world-renowned video games. The language has two alphabets (hiragana and katakana, collectively called kana) and one expansive set of characters (kanji). It can sound a bit intimidating, but don’t be daunted by this; you have a choice of just how fluent you want to be. For my personal learning, I wish to be able to associate any set of characters with any other set of characters I want, so in Japanese, I work on nearly all of the combinations, both ways:

  • Associate the kanji with the kana
  • Associate the kanji with the romaji
  • Associate the kanji with the meaning
  • Associate the kana with the kanji
  • Associate the kana with the romaji
  • Associate the kana with the meaning (not actively worked on)
  • Associate the romaji with the kanji
  • Associate the romaji with the kana
  • Associate the romaji with the meaning
  • Associate the meaning with the kanji
  • Associate the meaning with the kana (not actively worked on)
  • Associate the meaning with the romaji

For example, associating the kanji with the meaning involves things like tying what the kanji looks like to the idea it represents, like the kanji for cat (猫) and a picture or story of a cat. Associating the kana with the romaji would be a simple task of learning which hiragana or katakana corresponds to which romaji letters. By now, I know the kana well enough to be able to skip the kana vs. romaji combinations and treat them as if they were one, which cuts down on the separate matching that kana or romaji would make with kanji individually.

This form of learning gives me a solid foundation to understanding Japanese no matter its form or how it’s written to me, whereas – and there’s no harm in doing this if this is your preference – some people may choose to do this condensed version instead:

  • Associate the kanji with the meaning
  • Associate the meaning with the kanji

“But romaji is bad!”

Some people advise new learners to skip romaji. I absolutely do not recommend this. Being able to write Japanese in a form easily pronouncable and clear to non-Asians is a hugely useful skill.

I think the take-home idea of what people are trying to communicate when they say “don’t learn romaji” is this: don’t rely on only romaji to learn Japanese by, as kana and kanji are ridiculously important and 100% cannot be avoided if you truly wish for spoken as well as written fluency in the language. I do advise saving learning how to -write- kanji for really advanced learning, if even then, as even many Japanese can’t remember from scratch how to write many kanji, as shown in this video.

If you’re going to be reading a lot of Japanese material, the important focus is of course to learn how to recognize characters, not write them from scratch! Besides, unless you’re writing a job application in Japanese with no computer or outside help whatsoever, if you don’t know how to write a kanji, you can always just represent it with hiragana. While the Japanese can read their language in romaji, kana is of course preferred.

Don’t be afraid of the writing system. Besides, with so many resources available as well as so much interesting media, Japanese is a great language to learn, and learning the kanji gives you a fantastically solid head start if you want to learn Chinese later!

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