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Step-4: Hiragana & Katakana: Introducing Japanese Characters

Posted by J. Pierre on August 22, 2011

Hiragana(ひらがな) — it was refined aesthetically during the Heian period (794 – 1185), when women wrote to each other using their own unique style. At the time it was known as “ladies’ hand” or onna-de(女手).


The more angular katakana(カタカナ), is mainly used for writing foreign names and nouns such as カナダ(Canada), コンピュータ (computer) or the ever-popular: スミスさん(Mr.Smith).


Together the hiragana(ひらがな) and the katakana(かたかな) are known as the kana. Both styles of kana are syllabaries that contain all the sounds in the Japanese language! So if you learn the sounds of one of the kana, then you’ve learnt all the possible sounds in the language!

Where to begin!?? I recommend starting with the hiragana(ひらがな), then learning the katakana(カタカナ).

3 Methods For Learning The Kana

1. DreamKana

DreamKana isn’t perfect, but it’s free and a quick and easy flashcard program that will get you started! You can download DreamKana here.

2. Anki

Anki’s a classic and can be used to memorize mass amounts of information in little time at all! In fact it’s had me wondering if I wasn’t a robot at times . . . .
One of the cool things about Anki is that you can also create your own deck of flashcards! The whole system makes remembering the kana ridiculously easy!
You can download Anki here.

3. Mnemonics

Many people learn Japanese by associating short stories to written characters. This mental aid is what’s known as “mnemonics”.

 

Hiragana mnemonics

Try the following stories:

— 「」 looks like a tennis player who’s yelling “Ka!” as he hits the ball! The first line (or “stroke”) is vertical and represents the tennis players’ body. The second stroke which crosses the first one and bends downwards is the players’ arm after smashing the ball with his racket! Finally, the right-most stroke in air is the blur of his arm as it swooshes downwards — just like a cartoon!
Teaser: I’d imagine that if there were any more strokes in the air, he’d REALLY be trying hard, and making a much more frustrated sound! Something like “GAHHHH!!!!

— 「」 looks like a large clumsy baby birds’ beak that can’t chirp properly yet, so he says “ku!” (pronounced as “koo“) instead of “tweet!”
Teaser: If there were anything else next to this character I’d imagine the baby bird spitting out its’ sounds in a spray, trying REALLY HARD to attract mothers’ attention with a much more frustrated sound, maybe trying to say “Good grief, get over here! I’m starving!!!

— 「」 looks like a quick water slide that makes the sound “shi-yoop!” when you go down it; the important sound being shi — which sounds like the English word “she”!

Bringing It All Together

As an example of how to use these methods, I started by using DreamKana to give my brain the exposure it needed to get used to seeing the look of the hiragana(ひらがな). Then I did the same with the katakana(カタカナ).

When that was complete, both syllabaries looked as unique and distinct to me as the alphabet. Then I used Anki and memnonics to memorize the kana.

“But How Long Does it Take!???”

I’ve seen products that claim they’ll teach you the kana in two weeks . . . .
Believe it or not, you can learn the hiragana(ひらがな) in one day, and the katakana(カタカナ) the second day if you’re sufficiently motivated, just by using the free software linked to this page!

As far as the katakana(カタカナ) is concerned, you don’t need to know it 100% right away; about 60% to 70% is fine because you’ll be seeing these characters all over the internet and in your immersion environment! For now simply remember to have a  katakana(カタカナ) chart at the ready, so that you can easily look them ‘em up as you go along!

Whether you learn the kana in two weeks or two days is up to you. The important thing is to keep practicing what you’ve learnt, and it won’t take long before reading basic Japanese becomes second nature! ツ




Comment if you enjoyed this article! :)

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    I started with Culture Japan’s “moekana” deck of hiragana flash cards. Later, I drew the katakana on the edge of each card; I’d shuffle the deck and either pull the top (showing the hiragana) bottom (showing the romanji) or side (showing the katakana) and write out all three on a sheet of paper. I started with one “line” of kana, adding in the next line as I went, and moving the ones I felt I had memorized to a separate “deck” that I’d review less frequently.

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