Image Credit: Wikimedia Foundation
Before You Jump In…
Japanese is widely considered one of the hardest languages, with the US state department placing it in the hardest category for English speakers to learn. But it’s not impossible for regular people to learn, it just takes time. By the end of the next five lessons, you’ll be able to read the basic alphabets and understand the core grammar.
It helps to have a little bit of background on the Japanese language before beginning vocabulary and grammar. Japanese was heavily influenced by the Chinese language, and initially shared the same writing system. Eventually, linguistic drift set in and Japanese writing began to differ from Chinese, but a lot of characters are the same, and some vocabulary cognates remain. The first Japanese writing system to result from Chinese was Kanji. Kanji (漢字) literally just means “Chinese Character”, and refers to characters that have a set meaning or meanings, usually multiple pronunciations, and are usually ideographs. For example, 人 means person in essentially any context or compound. By itself, it’s pronounced “hito” (ひと). In the word 人生 (life), it’s pronounced “jin”. It also looks kind of like a person! Other Kanji that represent ideas are sometimes made up of multiple components, such as 休, which means rest. Its components are person and tree. A person who rests might sleep under a tree!
Unfortunately, the problem of unspecified pronunciations is a bit of a pain, and a lot of words don’t have kanji associated with them. Thankfully, there are two more writing systems that solve this problem: Hiragana and Katakana. Both of them are one syllable per one character (with the exception of a few small modifier characters). Hiragana is usually used with speech necessary to complete grammar (like verb conjugations) and some native Japanese words (although most have associated Kanji). Katakana is primarily used with loan words – words based off of western languages’ vocabulary, usually English’s.
It should take about a month to a month and a half to learn hiragana and katakana. It’s smart to try spending a lot of time learning the characters early on so that when you learn vocabulary words, you can read them in hiragana or katakana and further strengthen your reading ability. With that said, here’s a chart from Wikimedia that’s particularly useful since it contains stroke orders.
Every consonant and every vowel is pronounced the same. The consonants are relatively self-explanatory – “wa” sounds like “want”, “ra” sounds like “raw”, “ya” sounds like “yaw”, “ma” sounds like “mark”, “ha” sounds like “hall”, “na” sounds like “not”, “ta” sounds like “taught”, “sa” sounds like “salt”, “ka” sounds like “cart”, and “a” sounds like “ahh”. Vowels are consistent, too – “a” is always “ah”, “i” always sounds like the vowel in “me”, “u” sounds like the vowel in “you”, “e” sounds like “aim”, and “o” sounds like “oh”. The only deviations are “chi”, “tsu”, and “shi”. Be mindful when you get to those.
Nobody really uses “wi” or “we” anymore, either. They aren’t necessary to learn right now, but you might see them very occasionally, especially in older Japanese texts.
When learning these characters it helps to do spaced repetition – try to learn five characters one sitting and then practice them in intervals thereafter. While you’re still new, try not to let yourself go more than one week without practicing a specific character.
Before you move on to the next lesson, learn the first ten characters. Fill up a piece of paper by writing them a lot, write them on a sticky note that you can put somewhere you visit often. Whatever you do, look at them a lot. MLC Japanese has a great worksheet for practicing these characters. The order in which you write the strokes of the kana is important to write them correctly and quickly, so learn them right the first time!
This might be a little bit intimidating at first, and don’t be afraid if you doesn’t feel ready for something as new as learning an entirely new alphabet. By the time you get to Kanji, your brain will be far more well adjusted. All it takes is practice, even if it doesn’t feel like you’re making quick progress. So put on some music (probably without lyrics) and enjoy practicing hiragana!
Once you feel comfortable, try reading the words below for some new vocabulary:
あい – Love
こえ – Voice
あう – To Meet
かく – To Draw
あき – Autumn
いけ – Pond
おおきい – Large
Japanese has three writing systems – Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana
Kanji can be pronounced multiple ways, but have a consistent meaning or set of meanings. They are usually ideographical. Kanji are used for some Japanese words and almost all Chinese cognate words.
Hiragana and Katakana are both phonetic – that is, specific characters are always pronounced the same way.
Hiragana is used for grammatical structure and some native Japanese words.
Katakana is used primarily for loan words – borrowed words from western languages.
Next lesson, you’ll continue to learn hiragana and vocabulary, and we’ll begin to introduce some more greeting phrases and how to use them.