I want to learn Japanese and most books or guides begin with how to draw an logogram and to repeat the process of "writing" and single character dozens of times. And learning hundreds of those signs to be able to learn this language.

However, I am not really interested in the written Language, but mostly only in talking with people in Japanese.

Is it necessary to learn the logograms in which a language is written in order to be able to speak with people?

Is it easier to learn such a language if I am able to write it too?


3 Answers 3


(Since this question is just as relevant to Chinese as to Japanese, I will cite a few sources about learning Chinese.)

Learning Japanese kanji or Chinese hanzi takes a lot of time. As far as I know, most books and schools start teaching characters from the beginning. However, there are also people who recommend against this.

In his video on learning foreign alphabets, Olly Richards mentions some (anonymous) learners of Japanese, Chinese and Cantonese who advise not to learn kanji or hanzi at the beginning because it is a lot of work and takes time away from learning to speak. (Also, it is neither useful nor motivating to learn characters for words that you don't know how to use correctly in a communicative context.)

On Language Log, Victor Mair, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in Februar 2014 (emphasis added):

If I were the czar or god of Chinese and Japanese language pedagogy, I would not teach students a single Chinese character until they were relatively fluent — about two years. I've always said that we should learn languages the way babies do; they learn to speak long before they learn to write.

In fact, this approach was used at a few American universities (Penn State University and Ohio State University). Victor Mair also cites a study by Jerome L. Packard (1990):

Jerry found that the time lag of delayed character introduction improved students' ability to discriminate Chinese sounds, and improved their fluency.

Two other interesting posts on Language Log are The future of Chinese language learning is now (5 April 2014) Learning to read and write Chinese (11 July 2016).

However, when you reach a certain level, it may be difficult to find learning materials that don't use kanji or hanzi (depending on what you are learning). This is a problem that Olly Richards ran into: he has an intermediate level of Cantonese, but he feels that he is somewhat stuck because the cannot read or write Chinese characters. So you would need to find tutor or tandem partners (offline or online) who are willing to help you advance without learning characters, i.e. keeping the focus on conversation.

  • Thanks for the nice answer! I thought the same thing - at least for my personal learning habit. Even if it was not in the original Questions. Does this also apply to learning "normal" languages? Such as Spanish or French?
    – Krul
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 22:00
  • @Krul The effort to learn writing systems based on logograms is vastly higher than for other writing systems, so the findings would be less relevant for alphabets, abjads and abugidas. But I have no experience with abjads or abugidas.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 9:25
  • "improved students' ability to discriminate Chinese sounds": probably more of a concern for Chinese than Japanese. Commented Apr 16, 2019 at 22:07

There is no need to learn to learn "Kanji" (logograms) to learn how to speak Japanese. You can easily learn to communicate in Japanese by pronouncing the "Romanji" (Latin alphabet) spellings of Japanese words that you can learn from any number of Romanji English<->Japanese dictionaries, plus by having a basic knowledge of simplified Japanese grammar.

But when really learning to speak Japanese without resorting to Kanji spellings you really must first learn by heart both the appearance and sounds of the 50+ characters Hiragana character set. By making that effort you will begin your study of Japanese just as every Japanese schoolchild does in their very first year of school. And must learn it completely before they will be allowed to leave first grade.

For study use, the 50+ Hiragana characters are arranged in a 5X10 table. The first row of the Hiragana table are the characters for the five Japanese vowel sounds -- (English A, I, U, E, O) -- in that order. The next and each subsequent row of the table is headed by the unvoiced consonants (English K,S,T,N,H,M,Y,H,W, and N,) in that order.

In the body of the table each cell in a consonant's row shows the Hiragana character for the combined sound of the row's consonant and the column's vowel; that is, in reading across consonant "K"'s row of the table and down sequentially from each character in the vowel row the Hiragana character for that consonant+vowel combination will be "ka", "ki", "ku", "ke", "ko". That character/sound pattern continues for every consonant that heads the table's consonant rows.

This basic 5X10 Hiragana table of the unvoiced consonants can be supplemented by adding the sounds of the voiced consonants "K" (gah), "S" (zah), "T" (da ), "H1" (ba) and "H2" (pa), respectively in the appropriate rows.

The sounds of the Hiragana consonant-vowel table are the basic sounds of spoken Japanese. It is the spoken Japanese language which in most cases can be simply viewed as being an easily spoken series of consonant-vowel utterances ending with a verb. A wall chart is the best way to view and learn the contents of a Hiragana table.

If you find that pin-up/poster style Hiragana wall charts are difficult to find, you can see and order one from Amazon.com. Under the category "Home and Kitchen", search term "Hiragana chart"you will find a Hiragana chart that's printed on inexpensive pillow cases!

Be assured that if you master the Hiragana table you will be able to pronounce simple Japanese words and put them into sentences equally as well as any Japanese first-grade student can.

And do that without, in addition, having to learn "Kanji" characters.

  • 1
    The Japanese schoolchildren also learn the Katakana version of the Hiragana table. The Katakana version has the identical sounds for each Hiragana glyph, but the Katakana glyphs are simpler and easier to write than Hiragana. Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 14:58

I apologize to everyone.

With respect to Japanese, my earlier answer was absolutely and completely wrong! My first answer was correct, but only for those who discover they want to go beyond what their limited repertoire of traveler-level words, phrases, and sentences will allow them to go. I'm abashed that the very first Japanese language book I ever bought is Q&A book titled Japanese Conversation for Travelers -- and the Japanese answers are printed in romaji!, not with Japanese characters and glyphs!

Japanese Conversation for Travelers is a conventional "tourist language" book, written by Munetaka Umehara, printed by the Kaisosha Press in Tokyo (1978). It is a book written to enable practical conversation in Japanese-- and it doesn't contain a single Japanese glyph anywhere in the body of the text.

In the author's prologue to her book she writes "A book of the practical conversation has its fate. It is, as you expect, practical, but not endurable [my italics]. No matter how many of the practical phrases you might master, you soon will run out of the repertory. This small book can assist you only while you remain a TRAVELLER.

So my first answer to user "Krul" must be that my answer is valid only for beginning students of Japanese -- and for tourists.

And with that being said, Umehara starts her book off with the pronunciation of the five Japanese vowels, a, i, u, e, o. These pronunciations are necessary to correctly speak her book's Japanese words that are spelled using "romaji" -- Latin-alphabet characters substituted for the sounds of the Japanese language's consonant-vowel pairings and their glyphs.

Using "romaji" is what makes it possible for Japanese listeners to understand that you mean "Good morning!" when you look at them and exclaim the romaji phrase "ohayo gozaimasu!", or that you mean ["Thank you very much!"], when you smile and say "Arigato-gozaimasu!" when you've received something or a service from them.

Since you already know English, your task in learning how to engage in spoken-only (conversational) Japanese is to begin learning how to say the romaji sounds of the Japanese translations of your English words and phrases.

There have been many 'Romanized' English <--> Japanese dictionaries and phrase books published just to help you do that.

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