Strategies for avoiding kanji

Supposing you only want lower-intermediate conversational skills. What can you do?

This post is a complete antithesis of my last one.

Recently, someone wrote to me, “[In my opinion] trying to learn Japanese without learning the Kanji is futile.” Well, actually, if a person only wants to learn Japanese for travel or for the goal of attaining lower-intermediate conversation skills, they can avoid all of the Japanese scripts—kanji, hiragana, and katakana. They can just use romaji (the Latin alphabet—similar to English, Spanish, French, and German).

Supposing you only want lower-intermediate conversational skills. What can you do? Surprisingly, there are a lot of study materials you can use. I expect that there are websites and apps that can help you. Since I learn languages almost entirely from books and audio courses though (many of which cost money), these are mostly what I’m going to talk about below.

First, I would start every language with fun courses. I say this because it’s hard to be truly committed to a project in the beginning. (See my article, “A honeymoon for language success”, for more information.) In this regard, I recommend starting with Dr. Blair’s Japanese in No Time, an audio course available from audiobook clubs such as eStories and Audible.

I also find JapanesePod101 entertaining, at least in some “seasons.” Different levels and seasons have different writers and hosts. If you try a season and don’t like it, try another. (My favorite is Beginner Season 1.) Those podcasts are free for the first week, and include PDF documents if you want to read along with the dialogs. If you like them, my personal preference is to get a Basic membership for $21 every 3 months (automatically renewed until you tell them to stop). Keep going with podcasts for as long as you can because they’ll help you with your listening skills, without which you can’t carry on a conversation.

If you can afford the Premium membership for JapanesePod101, you can listen to a podcast episode and then listen several times to the dialog-only track in order to get away from the English and listen only to Japanese. You can even download the dialog-only tracks to an MP3 player and play them in shuffle mode to improve your listening even more. To save money, I prefer to study it for a few months with the Basic membership, then switch to Premium membership for a couple of months to listen to the dialog-only tracks.

When you’re ready for serious studies, try the (completely audio) Michel Thomas series. It breaks the grammar down into small pieces and gets you speaking and creating sentences. (I wrote a review about it last month.) An audio course I enjoyed less but still learned from is Pimsleur. You can download the first lesson for free from the official Pimsleur website. If you choose to continue, either search your public library or you can buy lessons cheaply if you join one of the audiobook clubs I mentioned earlier. There are books for learning which only use romaji, but I would study audio courses first so that you learn good pronunciation skills. Some learners have purportedly ruined their Japanese pronunciation by starting with books, and then native speakers couldn’t understand what they said.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, the Fluent Forever website sells an inexpensive course (Pronunciation Trainer) which is written both in Japanese scripts and in a phonetic script (International Phonetic Alphabet) somewhat similar to the Latin alphabet. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t comment on its quality or usefulness.

A course book which uses romaji from beginning to end is Teach Yourself Complete Japanese. There are some reading passages, but you can skip over them. Other options include Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day, Get Talking Japanese, Japanese for Dummies, and probably many more. I enjoyed Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day–which is in a workbook style–and I used Complete Japanese for listening practice, but I haven’t tried the other courses in this paragraph (so I don’t know if they’re any good).

Most of the beginning grammar reference books are written in both Japanese scripts and romaji, so you can get by with just the romaji. In fact, my favorite is written entirely in romaji (even the example sentences). It’s called Japanese Verbs and Essentials of Grammar. What worked for me was creating my own sentences aloud over a period of weeks until the grammar became easy, and then I could remember it to use it in conversation. The book summarizes all of the basic grammar of Japanese in about 100 pages, including hundreds of verb endings to help you communicate many nuances of meaning. This book helped me to achieve lower-intermediate conversation skills earlier this year.

You also need vocabulary. Topical vocabulary books are perfect for conversation practice. Two I use are Barron’s Japanese Vocabulary by Nobuo Akiyama and Japanese Vocabulary for English Speakers: 9000 Words by Andrey Taranov, both of which include romaji for every word. Bookstores also have paper dictionaries entirely in romaji, but they tend to have few words. However, you can always use Google Translate and look at the romaji down below. There’s even a button that allows you to hear the word or sentence in Japanese.

Finally, you need to practice conversation. Hire a tutor if you can (for example, from italki) or find an exchange partner. Or use an app such as Amikumu to find another Japanese learner near you that you can practice conversation together with over a cup of coffee. Or find a Meetup group near you that practices Japanese conversation together. Italki tutors are the most expensive but most efficient resources I’ve found so far without living in Japan. However, in my case, I couldn’t find tutors early in the morning when I wanted them because early morning for me is nighttime in Japan.

If you follow these steps (or use other resources which others recommend or which you find yourself), you have the potential to go all the way to the lower-intermediate level without learning any kanji, hiragana, or katakana. Personally, I started Japanese in a high school class, so I was forced to learn the Japanese scripts. Also, I want to read novels in Japanese, so this was never an option. Nonetheless, I’ve found romaji-only and completely audio resources helpful along the way.

One thought on “Strategies for avoiding kanji”

  1. Great post! I started teaching myself Japanese in high school but lost motivation because of kanji. My primary resource was a game for the Nintendo DS called My Japanese Coach. I really like it, especially being a beginner. It introduces grammar such as sentence structure and conjugation for icidan and godan verbs. Hiragana and katakana lessons are built into it, which is fine, and is reinforced through games (same with any vocab lesson or grammar lesson), and they try to get you off of romaji as soon as possible. Unfortunately you cannot skip past lessons and kanji is also slowly introduced. It wasn’t bad in the beginning but it is impossible to avoid if you want to continue the game, which is why I never completed it. I’ve also heard that the game teaches incorrect stroke order but I’m sure that can be corrected outside of the game through various apps and YouTube videos. I’d highly recommend the game, even though it gets you off of romaji quickly.

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