I am not talking about pens and paper here. Whether you need to learn to write kanji by hand is something we have already discussed, and a brief summary of the answer is “not necessarily”.
But you do need to write Japanese.
That is to say, you need to express things in written form. There are four fundamental skills in any language: listening, speaking, reading and writing, and you do need them all even if you don’t intend to do a lot of all of them.
Input-only Japanese will only take you so far. Your mind needs to use Japanese regularly as a means of communication – yes, real two-way communication – if it is ever going to treat Japanese as real Language and not just something it plays at.
Spoken communication is very important. But written communication is too. In speech you will begin by expressing yourself very simply and will make mistakes.
With reading you have a chance to take in complex sentences that you could not follow at spoken speed (and without seeing the kanji)
With writing you get a chance to compose some of those more complex sentences. Your Japanese is still limited, but your written Japanese can be a lot less limited than your spoken Japanese. It can, and should lead your spoken Japanese into deeper and more complex levels.
When writing you have a chance to work out the correct way to express what you want. In speech you have to manage the best you can in real time. Communicating somewhere like the Kawaii Japanese Forums gives you the opportunity to learn how to express yourself.
It is good to use the method outlined in How to Write Correct Natural Japanese. Look for precedents for what you want to say. Instead of constructing an English sentence and dropping in Japanese words, you can find out how a natural Japanese sentence expresses the same idea.
You will never get this from speaking. You will get it over time from listening and reading, but it takes a long, long time because you are not really aware of the problems. Once you have struggled with expressing a certain kind of structure, you will be much more receptive when you read or hear it again.
Children learn natural expressions by hearing and using them. They have a huge advantage though because they don’t already have a different template for structuring that thought. To them the structure they learn in their native language becomes the natural and only way to express it.
You will find it much harder to pick up passively because your mind will continually try to revert to its older and more familiar template. In certain not-very-useful ways, the mind is surprisingly language-neutral. Unless it was very impressed with a turn of phrase it will tend to remember what was said but not exactly how it was structured. And it will tend to re-build it for recollection in the manner it is most familiar and comfortable with. Which leads to “eihongo” (English-structured Japanese – the counterpart of wapanese).
You can hear and read a great deal of Japanese without this changing much, simply because even a great deal of Japanese does not add up to all your years of English exposure, or the fact that you first learned to structure language in English.
Writing intelligently, using precedents to make sure you are constructing a sentence in a Japanese manner, rather than using Japanese bricks to build an English house, helps you to internalize the correct manner of structuring Japanese and recognize it clearly the next time you see it.
In this way, even if you had no particular desire to write Japanese in the long term, writing Japanese is an invaluable aid to hearing and reading Japanese and really taking in its structures rather than gliding over them as the mind prefers to do.
Writing little stories (I started off that way), or a diary is a fine. But I cannot stress too much that your mind won’t take Japanese seriously as a language unless you are using it, not just practising it. When you are communicating something you want to say with other people the mind is suddenly forced to see Japanese as Language, rather than a game or an exercise. The mind works very differently around Language – its means of communication – than it does around other self-consistent structures like games or branches of mathematics.
Part of the reason people find “languages” so difficult is that they never become Language. They never move from being games or exercises to being the primary means of communication. The mind cannot and will not prioritize other systems in the same automatic and intuitive way that it prioritizes Language.
So, 1: you should write Japanese and 2: you should write it communicatively.
One way to get started on this is to go to the Kawaii Japanese Forums. At the time of writing I am in Japan and popping some of my posts on the Forums. If you wanted you could reply, talk about your time in Japan, or whether you want to go to Japan, or comment on another thread, start a thread of your own about your favorite anime or… well whatever you might do in English.
Only in, you know, Japanese.
Sorry to sound oversimplistic, but this seems to be a point that most English speakers just don’t get. They spend time studying Japanese and even watching anime or reading Japanese, but then they want to talk about it. There are endless sites and forums discussing Japanese from every angle.
Well, of course in English. English is Language, isn’t it? Japanese is just – Japanese.
Japanese is fine for practising, studying and playing with, but when you actually want to communicate you naturally go back to Language.
These people also wonder why they never really internalize Japanese. After all, they work on it such a lot…
Problems with writing Japanese and their answers
1. I can’t express everything I want to in Japanese.
Answer: That’s right. You are a growing child in Japanese. Like any child you can express what your current level allows you to express. Children can’t “cheat” into some other language. If you want to grow in Japanese you shouldn’t either, at least for your Japanese life.
2. I might make mistakes and look stupid.
Answer: Not might. You will make mistakes. You won’t look stupid because you are learning and trying your best. Anyone who calls you stupid is stupid. I don’t know if there is some harsh culture of mistake criticism in Western Human circles these days. Anyway the solution I would suggest is to use a kawaii Japanese persona for your Japanese writing. No one needs to know it is you. That persona will be the Japanese child you are raising. Enjoy the freedom to grow a new you!
3. I don’t now how to express things properly.
Answer: Use our precedent method. It isn’t foolproof and you will still make mistakes, but it will get you a lot nearer to writing correctly and teach you an enormous amount of Japanese that you can’t learn easily any other way. Using the precedent method allows you to punch considerably above your weight in Japanese and advances you as you do it.
4. I don’t want to write messy text full of simple slip-ups.
Answer: This is a danger. As learners, we can’t proofread Japanese as efficiently as we can English. However there is a Secret Weapon.
Use Rikaichan or (better) Rikaisama. In this case I would suggest using it in English mode. Rikai, among its other great merits, is a formidable proofreading machine. Run it over your text and it will tell you
• Whether the word you used meant what you thought it meant.
• Whether you misspelled it.
• Whether you conjugated it correctly.
• Whether you made a 変換ミス henkanmisu. That is, selecting the wrong kanji when converting kana. Japanese people do this fairly often too.
And various other useful information. A quick proofread with Rikai will help you clean up your writing considerably. It’s kind of like having a Japanese-competent co-editor.
All right. If you’re ready to join the tiny elite of learners who actually use Japanese, you know how to get started.
Name your Japanese child and start raising her!