If I could go back to the time when I first began learning Japanese and change one thing, it would be to learn the hiragana alphabet as fast as possible, and avoid romaji (the romanized version of japanese script) like the plague.
This is something I’ve seen expressed on other Japanese-learning web sites and books, but it’s something I feel strongly about so I’d like to dedicate a post to it.
The main argument for using romaji is that it’s easy for a beginner to pick up. This is true, as a student can start learning basic Japanese vocabulary and grammar without the overhead of learning 40+ characters. And I think its alright to use a romaji as a temporary stepping stone. My concern is with the amount of time it is used before switching to proper Japanese characters: hiragana and eventually kanji/katakana. In my case I had read through 2-3 textbooks which utilized romaji before I made the jump to hiragana. A quick perusal through many of the popular Japanese study books in my local bookstore confirmed that the practice of using romaji is still quite common.
I’ll give a few of the reasons its critical to learn hiragana as soon as possible:
1) I’ve found one of the difficult things about learning to read Japanese is the speed at which I process characters. It can take years of practice to train oneself to read hiragana as quickly as characters from your native language. The longer you stick to using romaji, the more time it will take to become fluent at reading hiragana. In my case, I actually put a huge emphasis on learning kanji without enough practice on hiragana, such that I could read kanji+hiragana sentences quickly but hiragana-only sentences slowly. I’ll discuss why this is so in another post.
2) There are several different styles of romaji leading to different ways of writing the same word. For example, せんせい（先生）can be written as “Sensei” or “Sensee”, and とうきょう(東京）as “Tookyoo” or “Toukyou”. There are even some really confusing things such as where “si” can represent the “shi” (し）sound. Learning all these variants is just clutter in your head that you’ll want to erase once you learn hiragana.
3) Learning hiragana opens the door to understanding, and eventually utilizing, real Japanese. By real, I mean Japanese used by real people. For example, check out the featured image of this post which is a picture I took in Japan. The font may be a little tricky for those new to Japanese, but if you know hiragana you can probably pick out at least two of the characters. Hint: its a tasty type of fish.
4) You probably know that Japanese is a mix of hiragana, katakana, and kanji, so learning hirgana won’t get you too far in terms of being able to read real Japanese. However, in many cases the pronunciation of kanji is explained in a tiny hiragana script above each word, a practice called furigana. This is done in many educational texts, as well as in works for native speakers where it is assumed the target audience may not know certain kanji. In a few cases furigana is even used to help understand katakana, such as in books aimed for very young children.
5) By typing in a word in hiragana and hitting spacebar and most computers configured for Japanese input, you can see a list of words in kanji that correspond to it. This is a very useful tool to help with learning of kanji quickly. Just make sure you are careful when using kanji you haven’t seen before used by a native – just as you would be when trying a new expression for the first time. For example, when trying to use the verb せめる (to blame), you might first hit upon the kanji 攻める, which indicates more of a physical, violent attack. What you should be using in this case is 責める.
6) Learning hiragana really is quite easy. Though there are over 40 unique characters to learn, many of them are simple shapes with only a few strokes, considerably simpler than most kanji. You can find all the basics on Wikipedia, or any variety of good other sites. I recommend making your own hand written flash cards, which will allow you to practice both reading and writing. I think you can master hiragana in under a month, spending only a hour or two a day.
I urge anyone studying Japanese who hasn’t yet mastered hiragana to make a resolution to do so. You’ll give your Japanese learning a jumpstart which will quickly pay dividends. Also, once you learn hiragana, katakana (the alphabet used for foreign words and onomatopoeia, among other things) will be a piece of cake to learn since there are many similarities to hiragana. However for the same reason its best to get a firm grounding in hiragana before venturing into katakana, otherwise you might mix up the two.
In closing, I’d like to introduce this site which helps you translate words on any Japanese page with a simple mouse-over. It works on all three alphabets (hiragana, katakana, and kanji), though in my brief use it had trouble understanding some kanji compound words. You can try going to any Japanese page and trying to test yourself on decoding any of the hiragana letters you find, using this tool to quickly check if you are correct. As I will try to minimize my usage of romaji in this blog, those not familar with hiragana yet can use this same tool on my blog to decode the words they don’t know yet.