Why write ON readings in romaji?

romajiNatalie Hamilton is a writer, translator and lecturer in Translation Technology. She turned her focus to Japanese study while living and working in Japan’s rural Oita Prefecture on the JET Programme. She was awarded a Master of Japanese Translation in 2014, which included a linguistics dissertation entitled Cracking the ON Yomi Code. Her new kanji textbook The Kanji Code is an Amazon #1 Best Seller.

I’ve been asked a few times why I used romaji to write kanji ON readings in The Kanji Code, rather than hiragana or katakana (referred to collectively as kana).

As a teacher and self-learner, I find it’s usually better to focus on one skill at a time. If not, you run the risk of overwhelming the learner with too much information. And that can lead to cognitive overload, which is just a fancy way of saying your brain shuts down.

Learning kanji is a multi-step process. You need to learn the strokes and shapes, then associate them first with a meaning, and second with one or more sounds. I think it can be a good idea to separate the learning of the meaning and the sounds.

When you’re at the intermediate level, kanji themselves look exotic and inscrutable. So while we’re trying to learn the readings, I find it useful to learn them with romaji.

If your native language was Japanese, it would make perfect sense to learn them using kana. Which is why kanji dictionaries and the official list of the Joyo (daily use) kanji use katakana to show the ON readings, and hiragana to show the kun readings.

For example,

木    モク   き

I have tried to echo this approach by using capital letters for ON readings, and lower case letters for kun readings.

For example,

木     MOKU   ki

But if English or another alphabet-based language is your first language, it may be more natural to use romaji. The letters KEI are a far more direct way of conveying the sound ‘kay’ than ケイ. And if you are a visual learner, you might find it easier to visualise English letters than katakana, since they are so familiar.

Of course some people will prefer kana, and I wouldn’t rule out adding it to future editions of the book. But I think learners have enough work to do in deciphering the meaning of kanji and memorizing the sounds, without adding the additional effort of mentally converting each kana symbol into a English letter/sound.

I first studied Japanese at the age of 12 in Year 7, so kana are second nature for me. Even so, I find it more effective and memorable to learn the ON readings in the format KA, SHI and TEI than カ、シ and テイ. It’s not going to impair my ability to read kana in authentic Japanese texts, but it makes the task of learning kanji readings a bit easier.


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