Romaji

Sometimes, I harbour ridiculous notions that the Ministry of Education in Japan is actually trying to make their children rubbish at English. Why else, I wonder, would they teach romaji in junior high school English classes? What is the point? Romaji, let’s be clear, is in no way English. It is the use of Roman letters to represent Japanese words and as such it is of very little help to children who hope to read and write in English. It has no place in the English classroom unless the teachers hope to convey the message that romaji spellings of English words are good enough. But they’re not. Without a knowledge of Japanese, no foreigner is going to recognise syoppu as shop or makudonarudo as McDonalds. Romaji, then, is not for the foreigner’s benefit. But the Japanese can read and write hiragana and katakana so on the surface it would hardly seem to be for their benefit, either. Why then, do they bother with it at all?

Well, one answer to that, apparently, is that it helps kids to use computers. They type words in romaji before they are converted to kana and kanji and therefore knowing it is very important. That’s fine and true. Although you can type on Japanese keyboards using kana, romaji seems to be the method of choice and that is all well and good and understandable. For that reason alone I believe that it is important to teach romaji in school. Just not in English class. Where’s the link to English? You only use romaji spellings to type Japanese words so why not teach it in Japanese class? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I wish somebody could tell me but  neither teachers nor parents seem to be able to provide a reason. All I know is that teaching romaji in English class doesn’t help children become more proficient in writing English. Yet they will spend time on that and ignore phonics completely.

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6 Responses to Romaji

  1. We teach romaji a bit at my primary schools while teaching the alphabet, mostly through worksheets that highlight the differences between modern & older romaji methods. The main reason is so they can write their names correctly in English, but we also use the opportunity to point out differences between real English & romaji, and make sure they understand that they can’t just spell things in romaji when writing English. It’s a very, very small portion of the curriculum though.

    • Yes, they do also learn romaji at primary school and that’s fine, but again still not sure it serves a purpose in English class. You are right to point out you can’t just use romaji when writing English, but that in itself should beg the question, ‘Why learn it in English class then?’ Writing names in romaji is important, but it’s not really English – they don’t change the spelling when they go to France or Germany or Spain, or do they? It is just writing their name in Roman letters, so romaji, not English.

  2. Fair point in that it isn’t English. And I agree that spending whole classes & focusing a lot of energy on romaji is not a good way to use English time. That said, I think because we HAVE done romaji practise, I’ve seen better results from my students. But we’re not spending full classes on romaji. It’s like a 5 minute worksheet at the beginning of class with the occasional reminder that it’s not “tu” but “tsu”, etc… We always do some kind of printing practise & we do romaji practise sometimes because it’s a way to have them practise the alphabet without doing the same worksheets over & over. It gives us a bit more choice of the worksheets we do. But the primary concern is is getting them to learn the alphabet. Most of the kids at my school, up until recently, could not write their names, let alone the alphabet, going into junior high…

    • I’m curious as to what you mean by having seen better results. Do you mean better results in writing real English words? Copying and penmanship, maybe, but being able to spell and write accurately is rarely helped by romaji practice in my experience. I appreciate you are talking about a tiny proportion of time in your class but still, if it’s an English class, alphabet and English worksheets would surely be more effective. If the primary concern is learning the alphabet, then romaji won’t cut it as not all letters are used. Q and X? I know you cover them with regular English worksheets and I’m just picking holes in the argument for romaji in an English class, but I think it should be taught in a different lesson to reduce the possibility of confusion.

      I think that usually in primary school they learn Kunreishiki/Nihonshiki romaji and in JH they learn Hepburn shiki, but it sounds like you are steering them away from Kunreishiki to Hepburn in elementary school by suggesting the ‘tsu’ instead of ‘tu’. Is that right? Either way, neither is particularly conducive to English learning. But as I said, romaji is important – just think its best taught separately from English!

      Having said all that, I can see a place for writing their names in Roman alphabet in English class, and personally prefer the Hepburn way (think that’s what they have to use for passports, too).

      • A lot of this was started by one of my teachers, and her goal is to make sure the kids are as prepared as they can be for JH. That’s why she steers them toward Hepburn early. The lower grades’ romaji lessons conflict with much of what they learn at JH, so she wanted to try & counteract that. The main reason we do it is so they can learn to correctly write their names & others’ names early. I can’t tell you how much I’ve had to fight teachers on this. Most of the teachers at my primary schools seem to be just fine with letting the kids write their names in kanji.

        When I say results, you are right in that I mean they are able to write the alphabet & their names, not necessarily spell. Ideally, yes. Teach it separately from English. But since there doesn’t seem to be anyone doing that, it’s either take a bit of time from our classes or let them go on to JH & scramble to learn it then.

  3. No, teaching Romaji as part of English curriculum does NOT make sense. I learned Romaji in my 5th grade *Japanese* class, back in the early 70’s. This meant that by the time my English classes started (with the famous “This is a pen.”) two years later in the 7th grade, I was familiar with the alphabet.

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