Japanese is a beautiful and vibrant language with many unique features and words that make it a joy to learn and speak. There are dozens of different accents and ways of speaking that can make your speech uniquely yours. The question is, can you speak Japanese without Kanji? The short answer is: yes.
Japanese uses two native phonetic syllabaries, called kana, for writing most of their language. However, they also use an extensive library of Chinese symbols (kanji) to communicate some concepts, grammar, and names.
There are more than ten thousand of these symbols in total, and your average Japanese person can recognize around five thousand of them. This is quite impressive, and it can make learning Japanese seem like an impossible task. Japanese people write these symbols out thousands of times by the time they reach adulthood, what possible hope could we have of mastering them?
Kanji In Japanese; Advantages and Disadvantages
The kanji play a lot of different roles within the Japanese language, but mainly they allow readers to know exactly what the writer meant. Since Japanese is what linguists call a “sound poor” language, many of the words in Japanese sounds very similar. Using kanji allows Japanese writers and readers to differentiate between different words.
Kanji also help to discern one word from another in a sentence. Since Japanese uses no spaces, and very little punctuation, this is a huge help for readers, especially when they’re still learning. You will notice that Japanese written entirely in kana (in children’s books for example) will often have spaces added to help the reader differentiate words.
Of course, there are plenty of words that use very strange kanji. Since the system of using Chinese characters in writing dates back over a thousand years, sometimes the symbols we use today can seem strange to somebody learning. This is one of the largest difficulties that new students will have when learning kanji vocabulary.
All this is very important to the Japanese language as a whole, but the kanji also mostly affect how the language is written. For speaking Japanese, the requirements and difficulties will be vastly different. So the question remains; should I study kanji before trying to speak Japanese?
Is Kanji Necessary For Japanese?
When we speak in Japanese, we obviously don’t use the kanji themselves. Speaking Japanese is largely like speaking any other language, although there may be certain concepts that rely on pronunciation and reading comprehension, the vast majority of the spoken language requires little to no literacy.
This is true of English, as well. Since English words are often derived from dozens of languages from across the globe over thousands of years, English is known to be difficult to write. Many native English speakers with a high amount of fluency never become fully literate in their own language due to this difficulty.
That being said, these individuals can speak the language just fine. Japanese is essentially the same. While studying the written language (and the kanji in particular) will give you an indispensable insight into the Japanese language and culture, it certainly isn’t necessary to understand the spoken language itself.
In fact, even when you decide to begin studying kanji, you will probably find that your passive understanding and speech ability will outpace your kanji learning by a wide margin. This is the nature of language learning, especially if you take the time to immerse yourself in your every day life. You will start being able to understand what people are saying (and even respond!) long before you will be able to write it.
What Kinds of Things Should I Consider?
Learning Japanese without learning the kanji has a few different implications that you will want to take into account if you’re going to move forward with your Japanese Studies.
First of all, you won’t be able to use most books or manga to study vocabulary or grammar. These resources use kanji, even at elementary school levels. That being said, you won’t experience any particular difficulty using anime, music, or television shows to practice your Japanese since the overwhelming majority of these resources use very little kanji.
That being said, news programs and most mainstream entertainment coverage on Japanese TV (as well as commercials and informational programs) do extensively use kanji. While these programs still feature mostly organic speech content, you will miss out on certain aspects of the language and culture if you can’t understand kanji at all.
The reason for this stems from the way that kanji affect the Japanese language, how it is spoken, and how certain things like slang develop differently from languages that don’t use logographs (such as English). There are many aspects of Japanese culture and spoken language that do not rely on knowledge of kanji, and even vast niches of media that can be enjoyed without kanji. However, there are always things you will not understand, and parts of the language and culture you will miss out on.
It goes without saying that if you intend to continue studying Japanese to fluency in order to live in Japan or work directly with Japanese people, you will eventually need to learn kanji. The silver lining here is that living in Japan and working with Japanese people is one of the best tried-and-true methods for learning the kanji.
What Should I Focus On?
If you’re going to start learning Japanese without learning kanji, your approach to studying will be a bit different from a traditional lesson plan. As we mentioned earlier, you won’t be able to use some of the study materials that many lesson plans are based on. That being said, you will have one major advantage over somebody who chooses to learn kanji first: you will be able to understand spoken Japanese sooner.
If you want to focus on spoken language comprehension, you can devote large amounts of time and effort to listening and speech exercises. If you have access to a Japanese acquaintance, you can get live organic conversational practice. These are things that some people miss out on as they sit around writing out “Ichi, Ni, San, Shi” over and over again.
Another added bonus of focusing on spoken Japanese is that you can passively listen to things like radio stations, podcasts, YouTube videos, movies, television, pop music, rap, honestly anything you can think of. This can be done on the bus, in traffic, while working, any time that is convenient, really. This gives you access to a level of passive learning that usually comes much later for people that focus on reading and writing first.
Of course, this is a double-edged sword. Just as people who focus on reading and writing will eventually need to confront spoken Japanese, people who learn the language through immersion without kanji will eventually need to learn to read.
This can be a lot less daunting that it sounds, and may even be a hidden advantage for people that learn the spoken language first. Basically, if you already know all the words, learning the different symbols for those words can be very easy, depending on your learning style. Learning both the meanings and the symbols and the pronunciations all a once right off the bat can actually make it more difficult to focus on how it all ties together.
This is a bit oversimplified, and any serious Japanese student should obviously keep kanji in mind for their later studies, but it can also provide advantages for certain students. People that learn easily in large groups, or under pressure, or from primarily audiovisual media will find it very easy to pick up the spoken language before learning kanji.
The last thing to make mention of here is that Japanese grammar is very regular. While it can be intimidating because of the lack of similarities with western languages, the grammar is very easy to follow once you get the hang of it, which makes Japanese a very easy language to learn through speaking and listening.
So What’s the Verdict?
The short answer is: yes, you can speak fluent Japanese and understand Japanese people without ever studying a single kanji. In fact, if you focus your studies on hearing comprehension, it’s likely that you will achieve fluency of speech much faster than somebody who chooses to focus on kanji.
That being said, understanding and being able to recognize and use kanji is an essential part of the Japanese learning process and must be undertaken sooner or later if you ever want to understand the language the way natives do. Even if you become very fluent in spoken Japanese, you will make certain small mistakes and lack certain pieces of knowledge if you don’t know any kanji at all.
So, in the end, while it is definitely possible (and even preferable in some cases) to learn Japanese without kanji, there are some advantages to learning kanji that are simply too important to pass up. Besides, the kanji are easier than they look, believe in yourself!