Strategies for Learning Hiragana and Katakana

Strategies for Learning Hiragana and Katakana

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  1. Kana consist of the two Japanese syllabaries, not exactly “alphabets,” known as hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is the first syllabary all Japanese language students learn, and it is the first that Japanese children learn in school as well. All Japanese words may be written in hiragana and many combine hiragana with a Kanji (Chinese characters) to form Japanese verbs, primarily, and other words.

    Examples of hiragana:

    こんにちは。(konnichiha)  “hello”

    行く(iku)  “to go”  [combines a Kanji with the hiragana “ku”]

    お願いします。(onegaishimasu)  “please”

    私たち  (watashitachi)  “we”

    Katakana consists of the same sounds as hiragana but is written differently. Katakana is used for all loan-words; words borrowed from other languages that the Japanese have modified to suit their pronunciation and adopted into the Japanese language. The katakana syllabary tends to give many Japanese language students difficulty, especially after mastering hiragana. Both contain 46 characters, but since katakana is not used as much during the beginning of most Japanese language courses it is a bit more difficult to memorize.

    Examples of katakana:

    アルバイト  (arubaito)   “part-time job”  [German loan-word]

    バス  (basu)   “bus”

    トイレ  (toire)  “toilet; bathroom”

    タイムスリップ   (taimu surippu)  “time slip” [common in anime and some dramas

    Katakanaare also used to emphasize certain words, particularly in manga and for representing onomatopoeia, or words representing sounds or movements. Katakanais used to write animal words, as well.


    象 = ゾー (zou)  “elephant”

    ダダダダダ (dadadadada)   [used to indicated “running” in comics, for example]

    There is no trick to learning kana fast and easy, but you can make things easier on yourself by being consistent in your studies. To improve consistency, determine your reason(s) for wanting to know Japanese, but more specifically, why you want to know Japanese well.  Anyone can learn to speak Japanese, but by ignoring the writing (hiragana, katakana, Kanji) you are only becoming an “illiterate” speaker; able to talk but not read or write. The following tips should prove helpful in learning the kana:

    1. Be consistent: Establish a schedule for studying, whether in class or independently learning. For best results, set aside a short amount of time every day, rather than a long period of time only now and then. For example, 30 minutes of good studying daily will pay off far better than 3 hours of cramming once a week.
    2. Pace yourself: Both hiragana and katakana contain 46 characters each. That’s nearly twice as many as the English alphabet per syllabary! Each syllabary contains the same sounds, but different characters (e.g. かvs. カ) so do not try to memorize at once. Select 1-2 columns of a syllabary to memorize at once.
    3. Start with hiragana: There’s a reason structured classes and textbooks start with hiragana; it’s the first you will use as a Japanese speaker and the one you will use most for your first year of studying. Once you have hiragana mastered and can read hiragana words easily without looking up characters, do the same with katakana – memorize 1-2 columns a day until fully mastered.
    4. Every day, review the characters learned in the previous days: This will help reinforce your memorization of the characters and keep your brain and eyes working in sync whenever you see them or need to write them. Even after you have mastered all 92 characters of the combined kana syllabaries, you should continue reviewing daily for several weeks to ensure they are burned into your long-term memory.
    5. Don’t cheat: By this I mean, don’t move on to the next 1-2 columns if you haven’t fully memorized the previous ones. For some people, certain characters are more difficult to memorize. If this is the case, give yourself more time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you’ll have a lifetime to benefit from your consistent efforts now.
    6. Don’t just memorize the sounds, write and say them every time: As you memorize each character of hiragana and katakana, write each character down and as you draw it say the sound out loud. This helps your brain, eyes, hands, and mouth synchronize when it’s time to read, write, say, or recall each character and will help you memorize them each more efficiently. They say it takes a thousand times before something becomes a “habit” and though writing each character a thousand times is a bit much, at least a dozen times on the first day you attempt to memorize the column will help immensely. Remember, the short-term inconvenience of putting forth extra effort NOW will pay off later and for the rest of your life when you have attained fluency.

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