Mastering the katakana and hiragana alphabets

When you start learning Japanese your first step is mastering the katakana and hiragana alphabets. Many people ask me about a good and efficient way to memorize these characters.

Mastering the katakana and hiragana alphabets

I wouldn’t say they are particularly difficult to learn as there are not many of them and when your eyes got used to their shape it’s easy to tell the difference between two characters.

What I find recently is that with the advance of technology the amount of suggested learning methods is increasing. These methods rely on our modern gadgets, such as our iPhones or Android phones. This is where everything gets fishy for me.

You might call me a stubborn hard-headed guy but I would dissuade everyone from using these “super-efficient” mobile or tablet applications. I’ve have browsing Facebook groups where people trying to learn Japanese ask for advice on effective methods. Many of the members recommend smartphone apps or online resources. I also have many friends in Japan who has been living on the island for many years and even though they can speak some Japanese, they can’t read well.

I find it very interesting, because for me reading, writing and speaking are three indispensable things when one wants to learn a language. I humbly admit that I speak some Mandarin Chinese and when I’m in China many people ask me if I can write. I simply don’t understand the question, because for me it would have been impossible to learn these languages without mastering their writing system.

So let me get to the point. When you use mobile applications to learn a language you never write. You are essential playing with your phone and not focusing on the actual learning process. The only application I used and use even today is Imiwa, which is the best Japanese electronic dictionary. Unfortunately it only supports iOS systems, but you can download the dictionary file from the Imiwa project page and you can browse it whenever you want.

The article is about learning katakana and hiragana, but the things mentioned above applies to katakana and hiragana as well. So what you shouldn’t do is to download some useless mobile application and buy something equally useless after you accidentally taped on an advertisement in the app (an generating revenue for the developer) instead of learning katakana and hiragana.

The method I used is not new at all. I bought some white blank A4 paper created small flashcards cutting the paper into small oblong pieces. After that I wrote one hiragana on one side and the reading on the other side. As soon as you have created your own flashcards you can carry them in your bag and take them out whenever you have a few minutes to revise.

What are the advantages of this method?

  • 1. You write the characters by yourself so you remember them
  • 2. You write the characters by yourself so you know how to write them
  • 3. When you use the cards to learn you won’t potentially be distracted by the adverts in the phone app
  • 4. You can use both sides of the card, which means you can test whether you can read the actual hiragana or katakana and you can also test yourself if you remember the shape of the hiragana or katakana using the English side
  • 5. Building up a habit that will help you in the future

All of the points above are extremely important, but I would emphasize the third point. Distraction is what we want to avoid here. I mean how could you focus on learning a language when you can switch the application with a swipe? This does happen. I don’t think I could get to the level where I’m at now if I was constantly context-switching between learning Japanese and talking to my friends on Messenger.

When you start learning the katakana and the hiragana alphabets a few hours will suffice. The rest comes after. I’m talking about thousands of kanjis and expressions. So that’s why point number 5 is important. I could repeat the whole article by just substituting hiragana and katakana with kanji.

Many people, even native speakers say that writing kanji is not important anymore. This is partially true, but when you want to memorize them you really need to write them down and revise them as much as possible. Indeed, you don’t have to write every day when you are in Japan, but you might get into situations when it comes handy if you can write a few characters. I would even recommend you taking a Shodo class, where they teach you how to properly write in Japanese. You can think of this whole writing thing as connecting the letters when you write in English. I don’t think we can honestly say that someone who cannot connect the letters is an excellent speaker of the English language.

So finally one interesting question. What happens when you have spent hundreds of hours learning how to write in Japanese but once you can’t recall a kanji? They will tell you how to write it down. As you might know kanjis consists of radicals and if you know how to write them down you will be able to reproduce a kanjis if they tell you the radicals that make up the kanji.

In order to make use of this skill you must write and practice how to write. This is the main reason I would recommend creating flashcards. I know we live in the 21st century and it might be awkward to take a deck of cards out of your bag on the train but nobody really cares. Once I was approached by an old Chinese lady in Shenzhen, China and she was very much impressed by my Chinese flashcards. That was the point when I decided that I shouldn’t pay to much heed to people who blindly believe in modern methods such us phone based learning. Try this method and let me know at hikari.code [at] if you have more questions!

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