Learning Japanese Entry #2 Learning Kana

A japanese gate standing in a river

Learning Hiragana and Katakana

So in the last post I gave a brief introduction about myself and my first real “start” at learning Japanese. If you missed that then you can read it here. In this post I’m going to keep it short and sweet and tell you the way I used to learn Kana (Hiragana and Katakana) as well as other ways that other people have found useful (there are loads more though).

So in case you didn’t already know, the Japanese written language is broken up into three sections, a definition of which can be found below;

  • 1. Hiragana: The basic syllabary or alphabet if you will. It contains every sound in the Japanese language. Used for spelling basic words, words you don’t know the Kanji for, common words that you wouldn’t use Kanji for, grammar points and particles.
  • 2. Katakana: Almost the same as Hiragana. The exact same sounds except there is a different character for each sound. This is mainly used to write words of foreign origin. e.g. “Bike” becomes バイク (baiku).
  • 3. Kanji: Characters that have been imported from old Chinese and is what most Japanese is written in (in combination with kana). Unfortunately if you want to be able to read and get by in Japan, or even just read in general, you will need to learn Kanji. There’s about 2000 Kanji that make up the 95% daily used. 2000 is a good amount to know, of course learn as many as you can! There are also really easy ways to learn Kanji so don’t freak out, I will talk more about those methods in future posts.

So these three make up the Japanese written language. Without anyone of these you won’t be literate. You have to learn them all, it’s a simple as that. Romaji won’t do, I could go into why but putting it simply: It’s not real Japanese. Anyway, now for my entry! Remember, I wrote this a while ago, I’ll discuss what I did wrong and right further down.

“15th of June 2015: Learnt Katakana and Hiragana and some basic Kanji and began speaking to Native speakers on HelloTalk. I can only manage basic introductory phrases at this point e.g. こんにちは、私はマットです。よろしくお願いします! and other phrases such as お元気ですか、大丈夫、わかります。etc. Speaking to native speakers who all seem to speak English really well has boosted my motivation even further and I have learnt a lot about Japan from talking to them. This has further increased my interest in the language and the country.”

So, doesn’t seem to bad right? Seems quite ambitious actually! All I can think about looking back on this is how stupid I was. I heard a lot of advice online about “jump into speaking the language from WEEK ONE!” and likewise “Talk to natives to get FLUENT IN 6 MONTHS!!” Yeah, because that’s going to work (sarcasm). Talking to native speakers is helpful and can be a huge benefit to your language learning but it won’t be until you’re a good 6 months down the line, when you can actually sort of begin to form sentences, and even then it could be quite harmful if you are not careful. Talking always comes last so don’t panic about it, just listen lots first. Talking will not get you fluent but immersion will. Immersion really does work but you need a lot more than 6 months worth.

I mentioned a few tools last time to learn Kana which I found useful. These where:

Each one has its benefits and disadvantages. Personally I mainly used Dr Moku. I did a little bit each day whenever I had a free moment and picked up the two syllabaries in about a week with a few mistakes here and there. Now I can read, write, say and hear all the characters (kana) in context (listening can be hard though). Without that original base I wouldn’t be able to do any of that. So do it first! Some people recommend Kanji first but I would go with Kana first. There are two reasons for this:

  • 1. Allows you to start reading basic Japanese phrases getting you ready for proper sentences
  • 2. It gives you a good sense of achievement and thus motivation for Kanji
  • 3. A few of the user based Kanji stories (from kanji koohii) that are used in the heisig method contain stories that reference Kana so it can be helpful when learning Kanji, if you are using the heisig method.

So yeah, give each one a try and let me know what you think! Personally I found memrise a bit tiring and I didn’t know about Anki at the time, but I’ve since been using Anki religiously for 1-2 hours a day so I really do recommend it. A friend of mine who is also learning Japanese said he’s been using memrise and has been really enjoying it, he said he found it useful although it could be a lot of work sometimes. Use whatever works for you! Good luck and see you in the next one!

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By Matthew Hawkins

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