Chinese readings—Is it efficient to learn them?

Discussion in '日本語 (Japanese)' started by simonwheeeee, Jul 12, 2013.

  1. simonwheeeee New Member

    Hello. I should say first of all that I can't speak Japanese. I made a very timid attempt years ago.

    One of the reasons that I find Japanese really daunting is that every character has, I believe, at least one Japanese and one Chinese reading. Chinese readings, as I understand, are used when a character is employed to compose a multi-character word, such as bicycle, which as I recall is three characters. Now, I just had a possibly silly epiphany. It's probably not very original but here it is.

    Is it efficient to learn Chinese readings as you pick up new characters? I mean, isn't it easier to learn how to say "bicycle"? If English were written with numbers and "bicycle" were "16-22-99", wouldn't it be more efficient to recognize "16-22-99" as the word "bicycle" and proceed to pronounce it the way you know it's pronounced rather than learning the secondary pronunciation of "16", of "22" and of "99"? After all, single Japanese characters are no more helpful than combinations of characters: you have to know how they're pronounced.

    When a Japanese speaker recognizes the word "bicycle" on paper, does he really proceed to pronounce each component with the correct Chinese reading? Doesn't he simply say "bicycle"?

    Considering how demanding it is to learn all the alternative readings and all the special cases where each applies, how is it efficient to learn Chinese readings? As I've said, I can't speak Japanese, so I don't take any stance on this. But isn't it somewhat like trying to learn how letters are pronounced in such a phonetically messy language as English? If you want to read and write English correctly, you won't have to treat whole words as kanji/hanzi but... almost. It's tempting to learn a "system", a Swiss Army knife for all occasions, but is it worth it? As for Japanese, I don't have an answer and I'm asking you.

    I suppose my question is not original. I hope at least it's interesting and not unbearably naïve.

  2. jp_fr_linguaphile Senior Member

    English USA
    Hi there! I have been a student of the Japanese language for 25 years. I find your question very interesting, and far from naïve. When I first started learning the language, I would focus on mastering the vocabulary as a unit, rather than analyzing its components. In the case of the word "bicycle" it definitely would be better to first learn it as jitensha (自転車) instead of breaking it down into its component parts and learning the alternate pronunciations (in this case which all would be native Japanese readings, a.k.a. kun-yomi). That said, I think there is much value in learning the individual meanings of the kanji when learning a new word. For instance, 自means oneself or automatic, 転 means to roll, and 車 means a vehicle. Much in the same way learning Greek and Latin roots helps us to guess at the meanings of new words we encounter, learning the meanings of individual kanji will afford you the same advantage. As you increase your vocabulary, you will start to pick up on some patterns and eventually learn to intuitively know, in many cases, whether the Japanese or Chinese reading is applicable in the pronunciation of a word. Japanese language textbooks worth their weight will guide you carefully through what seems like a daunting writing system in a manner that makes the language seem much less so. I hope my answer helps. Good luck in your studies.
  3. simonwheeeee New Member

    Thanks for the thorough explanation!


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