6 Tips to Teach Yourself the Japanese Alphabet

By OptiLingo • 11 minutes read

Learning Japanese is unlike learning any other language. As you navigate how to speak this language conversationally, you’ll also need to to tackle reading katakana, hiragana, and kanji. Though the Japanese characters in these alphabets can seem particularly complicated, all that is needed to succeed are the right resources and methods to get you on track to learn Japanese hiragana fast.

 

Understanding the Japanese Alphabet

Once you begin learning the Japanese alphabet, the first thing you’ll realize is that there are three alphabets or scripts that the Japanese use: kanji, katakana, and hiragana.

Kanji are the Chinese characters that have been adopted into modern Japanese writing. Certain Japanese words like verbs, adjectives, and nouns are written with kanji. With kanji characters, you can better discern when each new word begins. Essentially, these kanji symbol act in place of the meanings they represent.

With katakana and hiragana, these alphabets contain around 50 characters each. Though this may seem overwhelming, the English language technically contains 104 various letter appearances between cursive, print, lowercase, and capital letters. If you can handle English, you should have no problem with the Japanese alphabet.

Katakana and hiragana characters are made with phonetic sounds, which is quite similar to English. Once you know the meaning of each character, you’ll be able to read katakana and hiragana easily. Though katakana and hiragana use similar sounds, they both have different characters.

 

Let’s dive into each alphabet a bit further:

 

Hiragana

Hiragana is a character-based writing system, but probably the closest thing you’ll find to a Japanese alphabet. Although there have been a few attempts to develop a Latinized script (rōmaji), there is no widely used, standardized system, as there is with Pinyin for Chinese. The modern Hiragana character system concists of 46 base characters, including the following:

5 vowels (comprised of one character)

40 consonant-vowel unions (comprised of more than one characters)

1 consonant (comprised of one vowel)

A summary of Japanese Hiragana characters is provided below.

Kanji

So at this point you might be saying, “Wait, I thought you said there is no true Japanese alphabet. Hiragana looks a lot like an alphabet to me.” Well, you’re right, but written Japanese consists of more than just Hiragana. There are also Kanji characters, which are borrowed from Chinese. Some argue that there are tens of thousands of Kanji characters, while others point out that many of these are just variations of another. At any rate, there are a little over 2,000 Kanji characters taught in Japanese schools. (Ok, there are 2,136, if you want to get technical about it.) I’m not going to get into all 2,000+ characters here, but the table below provides a summary of the 80 characters that are taught in the first grade. This is probably a good starting point for anyone who wants to learn Japanese.

Katakana

Finally, as I said earlier in this post, when it comes to the Japanese alphabet, there is Katakana. Unlike the other character sets, I’m not going to give you a chart of Katakana. Why? Because Katakana is a lot like Hiragana. In fact, if you’re a beginning learner, you might look at both charts and think they are the same. This is because they are about 95% similar. I might get into this in a later post, but for the time being, all you need to know is that Katakana is very similar to Hiragana, except that it uses slightly different rules since it’s reserved for the conveyance of foreign words.

The Best Way to Learn Japanese Alphabet

There’s no denying that learning katakana, hiragana, and kanji will take time. While you may be looking for a quick and simple way to breeze through the language by doing something fun like watching anime or listening to your favorite Japanese songs, you really need to dig into studying these alphabets.

However, there are a few tips and tricks for the best way to learn Japanese alphabet:

 

1. Type in Japanese

You can learn katakana and hiragana by typing often in Japanese. Whether you’re tweeting, writing to your language learning partner, or taking notes, doing so in Japanese will allow you to practice while doing something simple.

To start typing in Japanese, choose the Japanese for your computer’s keyboard. With this language change on your keyboard, you’ll be able to type as you normally would with the English alphabet. However, after you select whichever English letter you choose, the output will be its Japanese character correspondent.

As you get used to writing like this, you can change the characters to whatever Japanese alphabet you like. There should be a drop down menu allowing you to choose between katakana, hiragana, and kanji.

This way, you’ll be able to practice until you can recognize characters easily. If you can, find a language learning partner that you can communicate with by email or message on a regular basis.

 

2. Write in Japanese

Though typing in Japanese will greatly improve your understanding of the language, you’ll really be able to grow if you start to write in Japanese. Use a journal, study notebook, or flashcards to kick start your new habit of writing in Japanese. While you may find writing these characters to be much more challenging, the more you do it, the better you will be.

 

3. Read in Japanese

After learning to type and write in Japanese, you’ll want to graduate to reading in Japanese. When you first start reading Japanese text, you’ll find the process to be rather slow and tedious. However, as you begin to recognize more characters, you’ll be able to pick up the pace with your reading.

You can use the Internet to find several different libraries with short Japanese stories that contain spaces, translations, and hiragana over any kanji characters that might be unfamiliar.

Another resource that most Japanese learners swear by is the Japanese Graded Readers book. This consists of several books separated into different levels. These books use audio and hiragana to keep readers engaged and focused as they read through the stories. You can access these stories by purchasing the hard copy version or getting the iPad version.

 

4. Use Furigana

Furigana are hiragana characters that have been placed over kanji. Use a furigana plugin to allow you to search through Japanese websites while the plugin displays furigana and English over any kanji characters you are unfamiliar with.

If you find that you cannot install the plugin, use a furigana generator. You can also use furigana generators to insert furigana on top of kanji for an entire website.

 

5. Study by Yourself

Taking the time to sink your teeth into a study session is essential to learning katakana, hiragana, and kanji. Make your own flashcards or use a flashcard simulator like Real Kana to practice these alphabets on your phone. Additionally, you can also use resources like Genki Self Study to quiz yourself on the various alphabets, play games, or use flashcards.

If you’re looking for a paid alternative, you can use Dr. Moku. This site promises that you will learn Japanese fast. Using applications for all your mobile devices, Dr. Moku is ideal for individuals that are visual learners.

 

6. Learn by Immersion

Thinking about taking a trip to Japan? If you’re able to make the trip, don’t be afraid to learn by immersion. Once you’re situated overseas, you’ll be able to learn Japanese by being in Japan. Take in the culture, speak with the locals, and do all you can to use Japanese whenever possible.

While there is no quick and easy way to learn the Japanese alphabet, there are certain methods that are more effective than others. Be sure to keep this guide in mind as you begin your Japanese language learning journey.

 

The characters

Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet used largely for words of Japanese origin and verb or adjective endings, as well as words for which the writer does not know the kanji. While it helps to study one group of characters at a time, you don’t have to have all hiragana mastered before you move on to studying katakana. The knowledge and memorization will come to you as you progress in learning Japanese.

Japanese pronunciation is centered around five sounds that correspond with English vowels a, i, u, e, o. The pronunciations for each of the vowel sounds are as follows: a is similar to “ah;” I sounds like a long “e” as in “ear;” e sounds like “eh;” o sounds like “oh;” and u sounds like “oo” as in “moo.” These sounds feature in every hiragana and katakana character, except one which is pronounced “n,” as if you were just beginning to say “no” and stopped speaking before you reached the vowel sound.

If you can get your hands on a hiragana and katakana chart, this will help you in visualizing and understanding the symbols and how to write them. Each kana and kanji is written with a specific stroke order, and many charts and other resources will show how to write the characters correctly.

Hiragana and katakana characters have no meaning on their own. Each individual character is merely a sound used to bolster a word or to show the pronunciation of a certain kanji that may be unknown to the reader. They are intended to be phonetic aids for the reader while a single kanji may signify an entire word and have its own meaning.

There are nine different “groups” of characters, which use each of the previously described vowel sounds. They are as follows:

  • ka, ki, ku, ke, ko
  • sa, shi, su, se, so
  • ta, chi, tsu, te, to
  • na, ni, nu, ne, no
  • ha, hi, fu, he, ho
  • ma, mi, mu, me, mo
  • ya, yu, yo
  • ra, ri, ru, re, ro
  • wa, wo, n/m

These characters exist in written form as both hiragana and katakana, but are visually different. Some of the differences are slight, such as with か(ka in hiragana) and カ (ka in katakana). Additionally, when pronouncing, the “r” sound in Japanese, it is unlike the English “r” and more like a combination of d, l, and r sounds and you roll your tongue slightly.

Contractions

Beyond the 46 basic hiragana and katakana, contractions may be used to produce combined sounds. These contractions function similarly to contracted words in English. However, instead of an apostrophe to signify a new form of the word, two kana are placed side by side, the second one smaller than the first to signify a combined sound. These combinations are almost always created using the “i” grouping of the kana (ki, shi, chi, ni, hi, mi, ri) combined with the kana for “ya,” “yu,” and “yo.”

There are also ways to alter the sounds of these kana, by adding diacritical marks to the upper right corner of certain kana. These marks look like ” and ° and are used to either soften or harden the kana’s sound. For example, ひ(hi) becomes び(bi) and ぴ(pi). Not all kana can be used with these marks, and as you progress in your study of Japanese, you will learn and remember which ones can and can’t have the diacritical marks.

Two kana that can be used with diacritical marks but rarely are used in such a way are づ(zu) and ぢ(ji). Instead, ず(zu) and じ(ji) are used almost all the time. In the first examples, “zu” and “ji” are derived from “tsu” and “chi” whereas in the second, the diacritical marks are used with “su” and “shi.” The first examples are only used when the character follows つ(tsu) and ち(chi), respectively. In all other cases, the latter examples are used.

A couple of kana can change their sound when used in different contexts. The topic marker は(usually pronounced “ha”) changes to sound like “wa,” but only when it is used as a topic marker. If used as part of a word, its pronunciation remains to be “ha.” Similarly, the particle へ(normally pronounced “he”) changes its pronunciation to “eh” when it is used after a place or direction. Again, this is the only instance in which the sound changes.

There are no characters for “yi,” “ye,” “wi,” “we,” or “wu.” At one time, there were kana for “wi” and “we,” but they have long since become obsolete as the pronunciation of other characters evolved.

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