[7] Learn to Speak Before Studying Characters

Studying Characters is a Heavy Burden

Most Japanese language schools begin by teaching phonetics and characters. The “phonetics” are not too hard, but the Japanese writing system that mixes hiragana, katakana and kanji is complex and learning it is a heavy burden for students. Japanese children learn hiragana in elementary school. But before that, they already understand spoken Japanese and can speak the language.

Japanese Characters are Arranged Following an “a i u e o” Order

In other words, it’s easier to learn characters when you are already able to speak the language. You first create a table of 46 hiragana, which are phonetic letters and learn the characters in sets of five. The first five letters are the vowels “a i u e o.” You then learn (the other) characters that are combinations of (one of the) nine consonants and (one of) these five vowels. The order of Japanese words in dictionaries is based on this table.

Inputting with the Alphabet is Good Enough

Japanese people are used to this “a i u e o” sequence, but it’s hard to learn for foreign students of Japanese. They need to learn the order of hiragana first to be able to look up words in dictionaries. They’ll be able to learn Japanese faster if, instead of devoting their time to learning the order of hiragana, they acquire minimum communication skills like Japanese children do. There’s no need to learn characters first.

Romanized Japanese in Railway Stations and on Road Signs

Japanese transcribed into the alphabet is called Romaji. Signs at railway stations and on roads have Romaji on them. On personal computers, you either use hiragana or the alphabet (Romaji) to type in Japanese. A great majority of Japanese people use the alphanumeric keyboard when inputting information, which has fewer keys to memorize, then convert the text into hiragana, katakana and kanji.

Several types of Romaji

This method of alphabetic input is called Romaji input. Romaji was created by the Portuguese missionaries, who came to Japan in the 16th century, to spread Christianity. Dutch, British and Americans who came later for trade purposes also wrote Japanese in Romaji. Each version of Romaji was slightly different as they all used the writing system of their mother tongue to represent Japanese sounds.

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