Guide to Hiragana and Katakana
Congratulations! You are starting on the spectacular journey of learning Japanese. This journey may be a little tough at times, but it is worth it in the end. But to make it a little easier here is a guide on learning hiragana and katakana.
This article is a part of a series of articles on Self-studying Japanese.
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Japanese Writing System
Japanese differs from English greatly like any other foreign language. But Japanese differs from English more than any germanic or romance language. This is because Japanese belongs to a different language group (Japonic) and uses different writing systems. Japanese has three writing systems and does not use letters. Instead, it uses symbols to represent syllables.
The three writing systems of Japanese are Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. You should learn hiragana first, followed by katakana and kanji. Hiragana looks more cursive than katakana or kanji. It is used to write native Japanese words, conjugation endings, and grammar particles. Hiragana consists of 46 characters with each character representing a syllable. And is the writing system that Japanese language learners most easily learn.
Katakana appears more blocky. It has sharper strokes than hiragana. There are 46 katakana characters, the same as hiragana. Each katakana represents a syllable that corresponds with the same syllable represented by hiragana. In other words, あ (a) = ア (a). So what is the point of having katakana? Why do you need to learn it? Just like languages from other countries, Japanese takes foreign words and uses them in their language. Katakana is used to write these foreign words. バス ( basu/ bus) and パーテイ (pātī/ party) are both foreign words used in Japanese. You will even have to write your name in katakana, so it is something that you should learn.
Kanji is the third and final writing system. Kanji is used to shorten the amount of space it takes to write a sentence. It expresses a word or idea with a character, unlike hiragana, which is completely syllabic. Kanji were created in China and brought to Japan in the 5th century. Kanji is actually intended to be pictures that represent objects, almost like hieroglyphs, however, since kanji were created so long ago, the object or idea represented by the kanji often can’t be determined just by looking at it without any prior knowledge about Japanese. Furthermore, there are thousands of kanji that are commonly used, which can be a bit overwhelming for beginners. But don’t worry about it. Just focus on learning hiragana and katakana for now and learn kanji afterward. Be sure to check out our article for the Ultimate Guide to Japanese Kanji, when you do start learning kanji.
Let’s start with learning hiragana. As stated before, hiragana is the writing system that Japanese language learners learn first and learn the fastest. This is probably because it is the writing system that you will be using the most as a beginner. It is also the writing system that Japanese textbooks, like Genki, typically start teaching first. So Japanese language learners become very acquainted with it in a short amount of time. As you advance, you will slowly start using kanji and katakana more often.
Take a look at the chart above. It contains 46 characters and is organized by vowels, “a, i, u, e, o.” Each row, after the first row, has a new consonant starting with “k” and ending with “n.” Underneath each hiragana character is the romanized Japanese pronunciation of the character, commonly referred to as romaji. If you notice “y” is not considered a vowel and is instead a consonant. Furthermore, there aren’t any hiragana characters to represent the sounds “ye” and “yi,” and are therefore not used in Japanese. “W” is another consonant that does not have a character for each vowel. In fact, “W” only has one hiragana, わ (wa), を (wo or o), is a grammar particle that is pronounced “o,” not “wo.” However, since を is included on the “W” line, it is often romanized as “wo.” To better understand the pronunciation of hiragana characters watch the video below to hear the hiragana song.
These 46 characters may seem like a lot to memorize, but hiragana characters can actually be memorized in a week or less. Two of the best ways to do this are by using rote memorization and mnemonics. To use rote memorization to learn hiragana, try making flashcards. Put the hiragana character on one side and the syllable that it represents on the other. Study each character, paying special attention to what character represents what sound. Or if you want to step it up from basic flashcards or if you are too lazy to make your own, try studying hiragana with Anki or White Rabbit Flashcards. Anki and White Rabbit Flashcards use both rote memorization and mnemonics to help you learn hiragana and katakana, by utilizing flashcards and pictures to represent characters that you can drill yourself with over and over again.
If you are more of a visual learner, mnemonics might be the best way for you to learn hiragana. Mnemonics refers to learning by association. It’s a fun way to learn and can lead to creative character associations. You can use apps like Anki and flashcards like White Rabbit Flashcards to help you. However, don’t limit your options, there are plenty of other tools that use mnemonics. For example, Dr. Moku is a good app that you can find in the Apple Store and the Google Play Store. If you can’t seem to remember the pictures that they give you to associate with hiragana characters, then try coming up with your own. Get out a sheet of paper, write a character and draw a picture of something you associate with the Japanese character. Here’s how I memorized one character using mnemonics. I’ve always thought that ろ (ro) looks like a cursive z (z). Z is the first letter of the word zero, which has the syllable ro in it. It might be weird, but it is personal and something that I can use to remember characters. When you use mnemonics you should make the associates as personal as you can, so that you can remember things better.
Hiragana Study Practice
Let’s take a look at the first two rows of hiragana to get you on the path to learning Japanese. The first row is composed of the vowels followed by the consonant “k” in the second row. To study these hiragana we are going to use mnemonics instead of root memorization.
あ reminds me of an apple. The top half of the character is the stem of the apple. The bottom half of the character is really wide and round, just like an apple.
This picture really reminded me of the character い. It's two ferns linked together on a ring (ee). They kind of circle each other, just like the two strokes for the hiragana character い.
The hiragana character う reminds me of the chimney on a train. The first stroke of the character is kind of like the smoke rising out of the engine and the base of the character is the outline of the side of the engine. When a train blows its horn, it sounds like, "CHOO-CHOO!" That is quite similar to the sound that う makes.
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So え looks nothing like a zebra. But, the first syllable of zebra is ze-. Emphasis on the "e." Plus え kind of looks like a "z."
This one may be a bit too old for some. But the wheels of a video tape, remind me of the character お. See how the character fits almost perfectly in the picture and defines the wheels of the video tape.
か as in cat! (Kat?)
き as in kittens.
け as in ketchup.
Looks like someone's been snacking on the cookies again. They left a perfect bite mark on the cookie. It even looks like the character く. Interesting. We may have cookie monsters.
The koi fish swim gracefully in the pond in the same pattern as the character こ.
You’ve learned all of the hiragana on the chart! Congratulations! But wait don’t you feel like something is missing? Aren’t we missing some sounds? Do sounds like “ja” and “ge” not exist in Japanese? You’re not crazy. We are missing a few things actually. Japanese does have sounds like “ja” and “ge,” but they are written a bit differently from the characters that you just learned. And don’t worry you don’t have to learn any new characters. All you have to do is draw two diagonal lines in the upper right-hand area next to the character.
There are 25 hiragana dakuten. Characters in the k, s, t, and h line all have a dakuten counterpart. By adding two diagonal lines to these characters, a new sound can be produced. Therefore, “k” changes to “g-”, “s” changes to “z-,” “t” changes to “d-,” and “h” changes to “b-.” The chart above reflects this change. However, you may notice that there are two sets of characters that make the same sound. じ, ぢ, ず, and づ have repeated sounds. じ and ぢ both make the ji sound, however, ぢ is rarely used. ず and づ make the zu sound, but づ is rarely used. There is one more thing that you need to know about dakuten: the “p” sound. By adding a small circle instead of two diagonal lines in the upper right-hand corner of characters found in the h line, characters now represent the p sounds.
Unh-unh. We’re not quite finished yet. You still need to learn about compound hiragana. Compound hiragana is the linkage of two hiragana, one is written in normal size, while the other is small. Compound hiragana usually involves the linkage of normal-sized characters ending in “i” from rows 2-5 along with the “R” row with the “Y” hiragana, which are written smaller. Try pronouncing these characters as you read them on the chart.
Dakuten can be used in compound hiragana too. However, they must end in “i.” The chart above contains compound dakuten as well. Just like last time, try pronouncing these characters. Pronunciation can be a bit tricky for some characters, but the more you do it the easier it will become. For pronouncing more difficult characters, watch this video.
There is another character that is written small sometimes, つ (tsu). つ appears small in words to indicate a double consonant. When you see this character you should take a short break in between characters. Don’t take a long dramatic pause like a character in a movie, but a short one-second break should be enough. Here are a few examples of words that use small tsu. Try your best to pronounce them.
Now that you’ve seen a few examples of words that include small tsu, watch this video to understand how to pronounce words that include the character.
We are at the end of our hiragana learning journey. There are just a few more things that you need to know about hiragana. Hiragana characters can be used to make words or they can be used as particles. There are only a select few that have both functions. に, を, へ, で, の, が and は, along with a few others, can be used as particles. に is a particle used to indicate a time, place, or action. を is a particle used to indicate the object of the sentence. へ is a particle that can be used to indicate direction. で is a particle that can be used to indicate a location. の is a particle that can indicate someone’s possession. が is a particle used to indicate an adjective or the subject of a sentence. は is a particle that indicates the topic of the sentence. However, while learning these particles is very important in learning Japanese, for the purposes of this article, we are only going to focus on は and へ. For more information about Japanese particles check out this guide to Japanese particles.
は when used as a particle takes on a different pronunciation. Instead of making a “ha” sound, it has a “wa” sound. Be careful not to confuse は and わ, when listening to something in Japanese or typing Japanese. As stated before は marks the topic of a sentence, and therefore usually appears towards the beginning of a sentence. Furthermore, when you type using an English keyboard, type “ha” not “wa.” “Wa” as a subject will not be changed to は if you type “wa.” Your recipient will understand what you are saying if you use the correct grammar and you spell words correctly.
へ, is another particle that can be a little confusing for beginner Japanese language learners. へ, when used as a particle, does not make the “he” sound, instead, it sounds like え. However, just like particle は, don’t get it confused with other hiragana and if you want to type in Japanese, don’t type “e,” type “he.” Study Japanese particles and grammar to better understand how to form sentences, use particles correctly, and understand Japanese better.
Now that you are familiar with hiragana characters and their function in Japanese, try translating this passage into romaji and read the passage aloud. Don’t worry about trying to understand the vocabulary or grammar patterns yet, you can do that later on. This little exercise is supposed to get you more familiar with hiragana and the sounds they represent. So go ahead and give it a try.
ゆきさん は こうこうせいです。じゅうごさいです。おどって、およぐ のが すきです。しゅうまつ に ともだち と えいが を みます。せんしゅうまつ、ともだち と えいがかん に えいが を み に いきました。えいが がおもしろいでした。えいが の あと で、おかし を たべました。おかし はゆきさん の いちばん すきな たべものです。
Were you successful? Did you notice the particles in the passage? Were you able to pronounce them correctly? Were you able to pronounce the hiragana correctly? Don’t worry if you weren’t. This is your introduction to Japanese. You can read and translate this passage as many times as you want to get more accumulated to Japanese. To see if you translated the passage into romaji correctly, then look below to see the romanized version of this passage. And if you want to know what you were saying, the English translation is provided below the romaji.
Yukisan wa kōkōseidesu. Jūgosaidesu. Odotte, oyogu noga sukidesu. Shūmatsu ni tomodachi to eiga o mimasu. Senshumatsu, tomodachi to eigakan ni eiga o mi ni ikimashita. Eiga ga omoshiroideshita. Eiga no ato de, okashi o tabemashita. Okashi ha yukisan no ichiban sukina tabemonodesu.
Yuki is a high school student. She is fifteen years old. She likes to dance and swim. On the weekends she watches movies with friends. Last weekend, she went to the movie theater with her friends to see a movie. The movie was funny. After the movie, they ate sweets. Sweets are Yuki’s favorite kind of food.
Now that you’ve learned hiragana, it is time to learn katakana. Just like hiragana, katakana has 46 characters along with dakuten, compound katakana, and some special characters. These 46 characters represent the same sounds that the 46 hiragana characters represent, but these characters are a lot sharper and more blocky. Furthermore, some katakana characters look similar to their hiragana counterparts, which makes them a bit easier to learn. With the limited differences between the two, learning katakana should be easy.
To study katana try using Japanese study apps. Aside from Anki, White Rabbit Flashcards, and Dr. Moku, there are a few more other apps and online games that you can use to study katakana. Dr. Lingua is one of them. Dr. Lingua is a simple online matching game. You can match hiragana to katakana, katakana to katakana, hiragana to hiragana, or vise versa. It even lets you time yourself and tells you when you have gotten something wrong. Real Kana is another short and simple study app. With this app you pick which hiragana and/or katakana characters you want to study and study them by typing in the correct romaji for each character. This app is free, but it is only available on the Apple Store. However, for Android users, you can still access the real kana website to study.
As previously stated katakana is relatively easy to learn, however, there are six characters that usually are a pain to learn. Six, because we have a bit of a twin problem on our hands. It’s like katakana has three sets of twins within it. Near identical twins. Have you ever had the experience of trying to tell identical twins apart? I have. Several times. I have had friends that are twins and family members that are twins. I have even had family members who aren’t twins but just look alike for some reason. And I can tell you that it is a bit difficult at first to tell them apart. But you have to find distinct characteristics that are unique to each person to tell twins apart. These six katakana are the same way. They have small differences that you have to know and study to remember the different pronunciations and appearances for each. So what are these katakana? シ, ツ, ソ, ン, マ, and ム.
1. Tsu (ツ) and Shi (シ)
The smiley faces. It’s almost like they are mocking your confusion with those smiling faces of theirs. But don’t worry, you won’t be confused for long. The way that I learned how to tell the difference between these two characters is by writing my name. My first name looks like this in Japanese: エイジア. So as you can imagine, going to Japanese classes three days a week and having to turn in assignments nearly every day, forced me to write my name every day. Therefore, differentiating between the two wasn’t very hard for me after a while. However, you may not have either of these two katakana in your name. So you need a way to tell the difference.
Take a look at the characters. Do you notice anything different about them? You might be thinking that one is upright or straight, while the other one is slanted. Correct! Tsu is written straight, while is written slanted. Let’s focus on shi then, the slanted character. Since we are already thinking about the word slanted, let’s associate the first letter of the word with the first letter of the katakana, shi. So now when we think about the katakana character for shi, we think about a slanted character. Making tsu a default character.
2. N (ン) and So (ソ)
The half smiley faces, I guess. The great thing about these half smileys is that you can use a similar association as the one described above to differentiate the two. So (ソ) looks to be straight, while n ン has a slanted look. If we associate so (ソ) with straight, we can remember that it is the half smiley that is written upright and straight. But if that is too close to the association used previously, you want another way to differentiate the two, you could differentiate them by learning their different stroke orders. The one key difference between the stroke orders of the two characters is the direction of the second stroke. The second stroke of the katakana character “n” goes up, while the second stroke order of the katakana “so” goes down. To better understand the stroke order of katakana “so” and “n,” check out katakana stroke order patterns. Just click on the character to see the stroke order.
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3. Ma (マ) and Mu (ム)
The last set of katakana twins. They look like beaks to me. One is pointed right, while the other is pointed left. It is almost like the b and d of English. The exact same pattern just pointed in different directions. The way that I tell the difference is by rotating mu (ム) 60 degrees counterclockwise. In this orientation the character kind of looks like a v. A "v" looks very similar to a "u," therefore I can associate the letter u with the katakana character mu. This method may seem a little weird, but it works for me. If it is too weird for you check out katakana stroke orders, as the two characters have different stroke orders.
Katakana Study Practice
If you still can’t differentiate between these six katakana, or you are struggling with learning katakana, try following along with this study practice using mnemonics.
ア kind of looks like an arrow. The top portion of the character is sharp and pointed, like an arrowhead. The bottom portion of the character would be the shaft of the arrow. Therefore, ア = Arrow.
イ kind of looks like a wind turbine. See how well イ fits into the picture.
ウ reminds me of the shape of a square glass. The first stroke would be the straw or as the picture shows, the water being poured into the glass. The rest of the character makes up the shape of the glass. When you drink, you gulp.
エ looks like an I-beam.
オ reminds me of someone ice skating. Look how similar the character is to the posture of the ice skater. If they fall, they might yell, "Oooowww!"
カ as in car.
キ kind of looks like a parking lot. The character almost aligns perfectly with the lines of the parking lot.
ク looks very similar to the body of a ballerina when dancing. Ballerinas dance beautifully as they perform moves like coupé and arabesque.
ケ as in kelp.
コ looks like a backward "C." So try to think of words like coconut and code to remember コ.
Just like hiragana, katakana has dakuten counterparts as well. And the same hiragana that have a dakuten counterpart are the same katakana that have a dakuten counterpart. So that means that the k, s, t, and h line receive two strokes in the right-hand corner to change the sound of the katakana or a small circle in the right-hand corner to create -p sounds for the h line. Katakana also has the same two sets of repeated syllables with the same exclusions. Therefore, ヅ and ヂ are hardly ever used. Take a look at the dakuten katakana below.
I do believe that I said hiragana and katakana are very similar, so it should come as no surprise that there are compound katakana. And if you have been following the pattern, you will know that the same hiragana that can form compound hiragana have katakana counterparts that can do the same thing as well. Therefore, the k, s, t, n, h, m, and r lines form compound katakana; joining together katakana that end in -i with a small ya, yo, or yu. Look at the chart above to see compound katakana in action.
So katakana has a small tsu as you may have already guessed. It has the same function as it does in hiragana, which is another reason why you need to know the difference between tsu and shi. Take a look at the words below to get more of a feel for small tsu used in katakana.
Finally something different! Katakana has a symbol to let readers know to lengthen the previous syllable. This symbol is not used in hiragana, although hiragana does have a way of lengthening syllables, which we discussed in the Learn Hiragana section. Katakana uses a dash to show that a vowel has been lengthened, instead of repeating vowels. Examples of this can be seen in words like ケーキ and スキー.
Yuki's Summer Plans
I’ve got another passage for you to read. It’s about Yuki again. Yuki’s got some exciting summer plans that she wants to share, so see if you can translate the passage into romaji. Unlike the other passage, this one has katakana, so you can see how they are used in sentences. So get to it.
なつ やすみです。ゆきさん は ワクワクしています。らいしゅう にかぞく と オーストラリア に いきます。ゆきさん は サーフィン を して、はくぶつかん に いく つもりです。フランス と イギリス も いく つもりです。レストラン で フランス りょうり を とても たべたいです。そして、イギリス で デパート に かいもの したいです。ゆきさん の なつ やすみ は とても おもしろ そうです。
It wasn’t too difficult for you was it? Hopefully not. But now you know how katakana and hiragana interact to form sentences and why it is important to learn both. If you want to know what you’ve been translating, take a look at the English translation below.
Natsu yasumidesu. Yukisan wa wakuwakushiteimasu. Raishu ni kazoku to Ōsutoraria ni ikimasu. Yukisa ha sāfen o shite, hakubutsukan ni iku tsumoridesu. Furansu ryori o totemo tabetaidesu. Soshite, Igirisu de depāto ni kaimono shitaidesu. Yukisan no natsu yasumi ha totemo omoshiro soudesu.
It is summer break. Yuki is excited. She is going to Australia with her family. She plans on surfing and going to a museum. She is also planning on going to France and England. She really wants to eat French cuisine at a restaurant. And she wants to go shopping at the department stores in England. Yuki’s summer break sounds really interesting.
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Since Japanese has double consonants it must have long vowels as well. However, instead of using small tsu to indicate that something is repeated, long vowels involve vowels being repeated after each other. For example, the word おかあさん contains a long vowel. Here is the word in romaji: okaasan. The a’s repeat. You can see this pattern with vowels like “i” and “u.” However, “e” and “o” long vowels look a little different. “E” uses “i” to make the long vowel “ee.” えいが (eiga) is an example of this. “O” uses “u” to make the long vowel “uu.” がっこう (gakkou) is an example of this. Watch this video for help with pronouncing long vowels.
Extra Help: Study Hiragana and Katakana
Kana Stroke Order
Now that you are familiar with the way that hiragana and katakana look, you need to write the characters. I can already hear the cringing and groaning. I know that writing can be a turn-off for some. And many people are only interested in learning how to speak Japanese. But you should really consider learning how to read and write in Japanese, especially if you are considering traveling to Japan for work or vacation. You won’t be able to read anything in Japan, which will make navigating the country difficult as well as ordering food at a restaurant. I am also aware of the fact that many people prefer typing than writing. But for any beginner language learner, I recommend learning how to write the language, as it makes it easier to remember vocabulary and grammar patterns, and is just a good thing to do when learning a language.
Writing especially comes in handy when you are learning a language like Japanese. Japanese characters all have a unique stroke order, and with the numerous amount of characters that Japanese is composed of, learning the stroke order of a character can be your way of remembering the character. I have encountered the problem of forgetting how a character looks, but I can still write the character because I have muscle memory of how the character looks. My hand automatically writes the character without needing to remember how it looks.
So are there any tricks to learning stroke orders? Yes. All Japanese characters, including kanji, have a similar stroke order. However, the following are only general rules and there are many exceptions. You typically write a character from top to bottom from left to right. Horizontal strokes are typically written first, followed by vertical strokes that intersect the horizontal strokes. For dakuten the diagonal lines and small circles are written after you write the character. You may have noticed this when writing hiragana characters like あ and み. However, you may notice that katakana characters like ア do not follow this rule. Like I said this is only a general rule with exceptions. However, learning these general rules can help you remember how to write a character, so they are good to know. Use Japanese workbooks like the Genki Workbook and worksheets to practice stroke order.
Read to Learn
Another great way to remember hiragana and katakana characters is to read Japanese. I know that you are just starting to learn Japanese, but learning to read short passages like the two above are great ways to get yourself familiar with hiragana and katakana. Both are used frequently in Japanese, so finding reading material that has both katakana and hiragana characters should be easy.
Start by reading children’s books aimed at Japanese language learners. Reading children’s books is one way that I have improved my understanding of Japanese grammar and vocabulary. But it can also be used to become familiar with hiragana and katakana and the way that they are used in sentences. Try reading on sites like Traditional Japanese Children’s Stories and Hukumusume. These two sites provide children’s stories with English translations. Or if you are not into children’s books, try reading a web magazine. Watanoc is a Japanese web magazine that has articles for N5, N4, and N3 level students with English translations. The magazine no longer receives regular updates, but it still has plenty of content.
Type to Learn Hiragana and Katakana
If you are really not a fan of writing then try typing in Japanese. No, you don’t need to buy a Japanese keyboard or even download one. If you want to be able to type in Japanese on your phone, simply go into settings and change the language on the keyboard. For android users click the settings icon, then scroll down to General Management and click on it. Then click on Language Input. Under Keyboards, click on the On-screen keyboard. Then click Samsung Keyboard, then hit Languages and types. Press Manage input languages. You should now see a list of languages that you can download. Click Japanese and then you are all set.
If you are using your iphone, go into settings and select General. Then select keyboard. Afterward hit keyboards. Now select Japanese and then click on Romaji to add a Japanese keyboard. Now you can switch between typing in English and typing in Japanese.
If you are using your laptop go into settings and change the language on your keyboard. The exact instructions for adding the keyboard on your laptop may vary from system to system, so read this article on how to install a japanese keyboard. However, if you have already added a language to your keyboard, then you may be wondering how to more easily switch between hiragana, katakana, and English. Typing in Japanese can be inconvenient and time-consuming at times, because of the constant switching from hiragana to katakana. But have no fear, I’m here to make typing in Japanese a little easier.
To type in Japanese turn on your Japanese keyboard. Type each character using romaji. Seems simple enough. あ is now a and ga is が. The only exceptions are は and ん. は is typed as ha, regardless if it is being used as a particle or not. ん is typed using two n’s: nn. This is because of the n hiragana line, which has five different vowels after n. So just type a double n to indicate ん. But what about typing small characters like small tsu. For compound hiragana, type in the romaji, for the character and the computer will take care of the rest. Therefore, kya is きゃ and ryo is りょ. Typing small tsu is a bit different. Small tsu in hiragana only appears in a word and is sandwiched between two hiragana characters. However, when typing you drop the first vowel of the hiragana character next to small tsu, do not type tsu, and instead type the full romaji of the character after tsu. So the romaji for cafe is kissaten. We have a double consonant. The computer reads this as a small tsu between the two s. Therefore, kissaten is きっさてん .
So that covers hiragana, but what about katakana? Well, since katakana is used together with hiragana, you may fill the need to switch from hiragana to katakana using the IME options. But you do not need to do this. Simply type in the romaji for the katakana word and hit the spacebar. The computer will automatically put the word in katakana for you if it is spelled correctly. For example, beer is spelled biru in romaji. If I type that into the computer and hit the spacebar afterward I get ビル. Easy. If you want to know more about typing in Japanese, check out this article How to Type in Japanese and Fun Characters Too.
Translate the Lyrics
Here’s one of the ways that I learned hiragana and katakana. I translated Japanese songs into romaji. I really like music. It doesn’t matter if I know the language or not. As long as the beat and the vocals sound good, I’ll listen to it. However, I can’t say that I’m not curious about what is being said. So I look up song lyrics. When you look up the song lyrics of a Japanese song, generally you will find the Japanese, romaji, or English lyrics. You should be looking for the romaji lyrics. Don’t look up the Japanese lyrics, because they will probably include kanji that you don’t know. Once you find the romaji lyrics, start translating the romaji into hiragana. Be careful of particles and make sure each romaji is matched with the correct hiragana character. If you don’t listen to Japanese music, but would like to, here are some song suggestions.
- Arashi - Turning Up
- King Gnu - Hikoutei
- Official Hige Dandism - Shukumei
- Official Hige Dandism - Pretender
- Kenshi Yonezu - Lemon
- Eito - Kosui
Nintendo: Hiragana Pixel Party
Yes. You can learn Japanese while you play on your Nintendo Switch. Hiragana Pixel Party is a game produced by Springloaded. It is a one-player game designed to teach Japanese language learners hiragana and katakana symbols and pronunciation. The game includes 208 cute characters, 19 different worlds and themes, 5 different gameplay types, and 192 missions. The game is rated E and you can get a digital copy of the game for $8.99.
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Learn Vocabulary Words
This is probably the best way that I learned hiragana and katakana. I started learning Japanese vocabulary words. It is pretty hard to learn characters by themselves because there isn’t really any context surrounding them. You may be able to recall that い is "i" if you see い. But if I asked you what "i" in hiragana and katakana, you might find that you don’t remember. One of the reasons this happens is because of a lack of context.
You can probably remember the word いぬ (inu/ dog) better than you can remember い. That shouldn’t be surprising, as you can use the word and use it in a sentence. Technically you can do this with い, but when you say it, you aren’t remembering how it looks, you are remembering how to pronounce it. When you use it in a sentence, you use い in a word, because it doesn’t have a meaning by itself. So it is better to learn Japanese vocabulary, hiragana, and katakana together. Rather than separately. Learning this way will also help you remember the kana quicker.
This is Just the Beginning
Learning hiragana and katakana is just the beginning of your journey to learning Japanese. From here you will embark on a journey full of various grammar points, vocabulary words, kanji, slang, and culture. Though it may be difficult at times, you can always reach out for help. But just to make your beginning a bit easier, here is a quick rundown on the major parts of Japanese that you need to focus on along with a few tools to help you along the way. For a more comprehensive guide to learning Japanese check out or Guide to Easy Japanese.
If you haven’t bought a Japanese textbook already, you should definitely buy one. While there are sites like Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese and Punipuni Japan that have articles on various grammar points, using a Japanese textbook is just the best way to go. Japanese textbooks not only include grammar points, but they also include vocabulary lists, a glossary, kanji translations, select passages that are appropriate for your proficiency level, audio files, and numerous exercises for you to use to practice Japanese. All of these things are essential for students learning Japanese. While websites like Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese, have articles about grammar points with detailed explanations and examples, they are better used as an additional resource for students. Simply because Japanese textbooks are written in the order that you should learn different grammar points, kanji, and vocabulary and are for self-learners and beginners. Therefore, your Japanese textbook should be your main resource.
The textbook that I used to learn Japanese was the Genki textbooks. The Genki textbooks include all of the material listed above in an easy-to-read format, so it is great for beginners to use. It also includes great explanations for grammar points and plenty of exercises that you can work through to practice a grammar point. If you run out of exercises, but still feel like you need to practice more, you can use the Genki workbooks. Other than Genki, Elementary Japanese is another great textbook for you to use. It has tons of vocabulary words, audio files and it is cheaper than the Genki books. After you have purchased a textbook, you should read through the first chapter of the textbook, not only to learn the content of the chapter but to also get a feel for the organizational structure of the book.
Now that you have a textbook and have read through the first chapter, start studying the vocabulary of the first chapter. You will most likely find that the vocabulary of the first chapter is composed of greetings, pronouns, time words, numbers, a few nouns, and a few adverbs. It is general and full of basic vocabulary words. This may seem too general or a review for some. If you watch anime or Japanese dramas or even listen to Japanese podcasts, you may find that you already know a lot of these words, especially the greetings and pronouns. You still should go over these words and try writing them, because while you may know what they mean and know how to pronounce them, you probably do not know how to write them. Studying the vocabulary words of the first chapter can be a good writing exercise and a way to practice the grammar points in the chapter.
However, if you want to add to the vocabulary list, try looking up Japanese nouns first. Remember you do not know how to use adjectives or verbs yet. The first chapters of your textbook should not be difficult and ease you into the language gradually. Don’t make it more difficult for yourself, by adding complicated vocabulary words that you do not know how to use yet. So keep any additions to your first two vocabulary lists simple.
To study vocabulary words you may find making flashcards to be helpful. Or you may find that an app like Anki is more helpful. Anki is a free app that you can find on the Google Play Store and the Apple Store. It helps you study Japanese by filtering out vocabulary words that you already know (so that you can review them at a later date) and replacing them with words that you do not know. If you don’t like flashcards then maybe reading Japanese books and watching anime is more your speed. Just be sure to pay attention to vocabulary words and grammar patterns that you do not know. Write them down and look them up. Then try using them in sentences. You can either write these sentences or say them.
For more help with studying Japanese vocabulary words read our Top 15 Japanese Vocabulary Tips article.
I can not stress this enough but buy or download a Japanese dictionary. The glossary found at the back of your Japanese textbook is not enough. This glossary only contains the translation for words found in the textbook. You will encounter words that are not in your textbook, therefore you will need a Japanese dictionary. Google translate, is also not a good alternative for a Japanese dictionary. Japanese just like any other language has synonyms. Google translate has a difficult time choosing which word you need because it does not take into account context. The context of a sentence can change which word you use. Take a look at the two sentences below to better understand the importance of context.
- Mary and Jackie are wearing the same dress.
- Mary and Jackie are wearing a similar dress.
Outside of the articles, the main difference between these two sentences is the word same and similar. While these words are synonyms, they are used differently. The different uses of these words can change the overall meaning of a sentence. The first sentence seems to indicate that Mary and Jackie are wearing identical dresses, while the second sentence indicates that Mary and Jackie’s dresses are nearly identical, but still have some differences between them. Maybe Mary has the same style of dress as Jackie, but it is a different color or has long sleeves instead of short sleeves. The point is that it can be tricky to know which word is the appropriate word for a sentence. The best you can do is use a Japanese dictionary or ask a Japanese friend.
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Japanese and English have different word orders. This never failed to confuse me when I first started learning Japanese. I always put words in the wrong part of the sentence. And it was a coin toss if I put adverbs in the right place. The reason for this is that Japanese word order looks like this: subject - object - verb (SOV). English word order looks like this: subject - verb - object (SVO). As you can guess I always put the subject in the proper place, but the rest of it was wrong 70 percent of the time. The main reasons that I was always so confused as to where to put a word were because: (1) SOV is too simple. Where do the other words go? (2) I didn’t know the part of speech for every word in English.
There are nouns, adjectives, articles, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, and other parts of speech in English. But SOV is a bit too simple to explain where all of these parts go. Genki does have a grammar point about word order, but even that is too simple to use at times, especially as you progress in your understanding of Japanese. But word order is basically the foundation of Japanese, so it is essential that you understand it and can form sentences correctly. To better understand Japanese word order read the article Japanese Word Order.
Grammar is probably one of the most important parts of a language. Without it, we just have a bunch of unorganized words that couldn’t be used to relay a message. That is probably the reason that languages have many grammar rules with various exceptions. All of these grammar rules can be a little confusing when you first start learning Japanese, but they become easier to understand the longer you study. While there are several grammar points that you will learn, four of the most important grammar points that you need to know as a beginner are: word order, particles, verbs, and adjectives.
Particles are used in Japanese to indicate what things are and their function in the sentence. And as you might already know, we don’t have particles in English. Learning the different particles and what they are used for is generally easy, however, it can be tricky to apply some of them. If you read the article about Japanese Word Order then you already know about は and が, and how it can be confusing to know when to use them. は is a topic marker and が is a subject marker. In English, we use subject and topic interchangeably when we refer to sentences, so it can be hard to tell the difference.
Verbs are very important in Japanese. This is because they can change the tense of a sentence, indicate negative or positive, or even be used to make invitations. It all has to do with the ending of a verb. There are several verb endings in Japanese, unlike English which only has a few, that being -ing, -s, and -ed. However, these only indicate present and past tense. We use other words to say something in the negative or to invite a friend to do an activity. There are four forms that you should be concerned about as a beginner: present affirmative, present negative, past affirmative, and past negative. These four forms will help you form and understand basic sentences in Japanese.
To learn more about Japanese verbs, check out our Guide to Japanese Verbs.
Adjectives are just as important as verbs. And as you may have guessed are used differently than they are used in English. Adjectives are used to describe nouns, but they can indicate past tense or present tense. Unlike English, which uses verbs to do this. Japanese adjectives can also be used in the negative or affirmative, just like Japanese verbs. However, they have their own special rules and exceptions.
For more information about Japanese adjectives check out our Guide to Japanese Adjectives.
Listening to Japanese
It is not enough to just be able to read and write in Japanese, you also have to be able to listen and understand it. You do want to be able to have Japanese conversations or possibly get a job in Japan, after all. To develop your listening skills you need to listen to Japanese. Obvious, right? But listening to Japanese does not mean that you only watch anime or Japanese dramas all day. While that might be enjoyable, you also need to hear real conversations. Yes, anime and dramas do have real conversations, but they sometimes include activities or manners of speaking that do not occur in real life. You should complement watching anime and dramas with listening to podcasts and the audio files in your textbook. There are some really good podcasts that include English translations, which are really helpful. Japanese LinQ is a good podcast to listen to. However, it is for intermediate students, so I recommend listening to it after you have made more progress in learning Japanese and to start listening to the audio files in your textbook.
We’ve talked about Japanese vocabulary, textbooks, dictionaries, grammar, and listening to Japanese, so now it is time to touch on speaking Japanese. Speaking Japanese fluently is the ultimate goal. So you will need to practice speaking Japanese a lot. The best way to practice speaking Japanese is to have Japanese conversations. You can have Japanese conversations at any level, but obviously, the more advanced you are in Japanese the more in-depth and unique conversations you can have. You can try having conversations with a Japanese friend, but if you do not have a Japanese friend, you can find a Japanese conversation partner on apps like HelloTalk. If you want to have in-person conversations then try looking for Japanese conversation groups in your local community.
For more information about how to improve and develop your Japanese speaking skills read our article Top 15 Japanese Conversation Tips.
You now know what you need to really pay attention to and focus on when studying Japanese, but that does you know good if you don’t study. Many people who try to learn Japanese by themselves find it hard to actually study. They make countless plans but never can seem to find the time to execute their plans. If they do execute their plans they eventually get burned out, and unmotivated to study. Studying is much like trying to lose weight in this regard. We start out with a good plan, but then we make up various excuses for reasons why we can not exercise. Ranging from, “I’m tired and it’s late. I’ll do it later,” to “I’m not in the mood right now. Maybe later.” These are the two most difficult parts of learning any language or trying to learn how to do anything really: proper planning and motivation.
When you make a plan to study, your study plan should fit your schedule. You should not try to study an hour a day if you do not have time to study an hour a day. Some of us have very busy schedules and get only a little bit of a reprieve on the weekends. So instead of studying an hour a day, study for an hour on Saturday and Sunday, and play study games during the weekday. This schedule seems more reasonable. And helps motivate you to learn, by implementing the use of fun games to help you start learning.
Furthermore, set achievable goals. Do not try to learn Japanese in a year or any language really. It takes years to learn a language. Plural. Your goals should be realistic. A more realistic goal would be to have an N4 level of proficiency in Japanese in a year. An N4 level of proficiency entails that you can understand most of what is being said in basic conversations that are spoken slowly and that you can read and understand basic vocabulary and kanji. Proficiency levels go from N5 to N1, with N5 being the beginning stage of understanding Japanese and N1 being a native understanding of Japanese. A proficiency level of N1 does not happen overnight and takes years and years of practice to get there. Therefore, you shouldn't find it frustrating that you are not learning Japanese at an extraordinary speed. These things take time. For more information about proficiency levels check out the N1-N5: Summary of Linguistic Competence Required for Each Level.
Setting unachievable unrealistic goals is one of the best ways to demotivate yourself. Coupled with bad planning and you’ve got a major problem on your hands. Think about the time that you have to study. If you have the time to study every day, then you definitely should. But maybe you just don’t feel like it. Don’t be ashamed to admit it. We’ve all been there. One of the top ten reasons that people get takeout, is because they don’t feel like cooking. So maybe you don’t feel like studying. But why is that? Is your daily study schedule long? Is the material you are studying difficult? Or is it just plain boring? Answer seriously. Because chances are that you need to change your study routine.
If your daily study schedule is just too long, then maybe you need to shorten it. If you are trying to study for 2 hours a day, you are doing too much. You are most likely trying to study a bunch of material at one time, which is probably the worst thing to do. While there is a lot that you need to know, you won’t learn that by spending 2 hours each day trying to study all of it. At some point, you are going to get bored and uninterested, and studying will become a hassle.
If the material you are studying is too hard, then maybe you should try breaking down the material into manageable chunks. As you continue to study Japanese you will encounter grammar patterns and kanji that are hard to remember or understand. During my experience, I have definitely encountered some hard-to-understand concepts. For me, learning Japanese grammar was the hardest part. I struggled with understanding and remembering word order and grammar particles. However, I wrote sentences every day. Sometimes I wrote little stories and read the short passages in my Genki 1 book. I constantly checked the book to make sure I had the correct word order and that I was using particles correctly. And the more I did it, the better I got. Until the point when I didn’t have to check the Genki book to check if I was using grammar particles correctly or if my word order was correct. After I was able to fully understand these concepts, learning Japanese became easier. Sure I still encountered some grammar patterns that were a bit tricky to understand and use when I first saw them, but I was still able to learn them by taking more time to practice them.
But maybe the material isn’t the problem. You could just be bored. If your study routine is boring, then jazz it up a bit. Make studying fun, if you are feeling unmotivated. There are plenty of games that you can play to study Japanese. If you are tired of playing games, then maybe you need to start doing other activities to help you learn Japanese. Draw calligraphy to study hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Challenge yourself to write all of the hiragana characters and their romaji in three minutes. Hell workout and learn Japanese at the same time. Count in Japanese while doing exercises, say the names of the exercises in Japanese, write about your workout plan in Japanese. Whatever you choose to do, stay motivated.
If you have tried both of these solutions and you still aren’t seeing results, then maybe you need to take Japanese classes. You might just be used to learning in a formal setting, rather than in your bedroom. That’s okay. Everyone doesn’t learn the same way. So enroll in a Japanese language school. Japan Switch, is one such language school. It has two locations in Japan, but if you don’t live in Japan, Japan Switch does offer online classes. They also offer private and group lessons taught about Japanese natives for a low affordable price. So it’s definitely something to consider.
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You have everything you need to start learning Japanese. I hope I’ve answered any questions that you may have had about learning Japanese and gave you helpful solutions to problems that you have encountered or may encounter on your Japanese learning journey. If you want to know more about Japanese, then check out our blog homepage. We have plenty of articles to help you out with learning Japanese. Good luck with your studies.
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