Japanese is one of the most popular languages to learn, due to Japanese media like anime, movies, and music being widely popular all around the world. While many people can pick up simple conversational Japanese from watching movies and anime, learning how to read Japanese presents a whole new set of challenges.
Japanese writing systems
What seems daunting to new learners is the fact that Japanese has not one, but three writing systems! Hiragana and katakana are both syllabic systems that are native to Japanese. Together, they are known as ‘kana’. The only difference is that hiragana is mainly used for native Japanese words, while katakana is used for loanwords – for example, when you need to spell out ‘hamburger’ in Japanese. The last writing system (and the oldest) is kanji. Kanji looks just like Chinese characters because they were adopted from the Chinese writing system. However, the pronunciations and meanings of the characters may differ from the Chinese ones.
As you would expect, kana is easier to learn because the sounds are easily matched to the symbols. In contrast, kanji requires memorisation of how each character can be read (some words can be read more than one way!), making it more challenging to learn. To compound the difficulty, Japanese text can be written in all three forms, sometimes in combination in a single sentence. So, it isn’t enough to just learn one form – a serious learner of Japanese needs to master all three.
Tips for mastering the Japanese writing systems
As hiragana and katakana are easier to learn, most learners will find it easier to begin with these two writing systems. Both systems contain 46 basic characters in modern use, but don’t let this daunt you! You can pick up the systems quickly by employing some smart learning techniques. As for kanji, you can pick it up later as you become more exposed to Japanese texts.
Here are some learning tips for mastering the writing systems:
Use associations: Find associations between the symbols and their sounds or meanings to help you remember them better.
Remember using words: Learning the symbols in the context of a word is easier than memorising them in isolation. This is akin to remembering ‘A is for apple, B is for boy’ in English.
Use flashcards: Flashcards are a great way to test and practice your memory. You can create a game out of it and use them to revise your learning every day.
Practise writing: Learning how to write the symbols will help you remember them more effectively. A traditional method used in Japanese schools is to write each letter out repetitively until you remember them. An important point to note is that Japanese characters have a stroke order – so don’t jumble this up!
Practise reading: After you have reached some familiarity with all your Japanese writing systems, you can increase your fluency by reading more Japanese texts. This makes an excellent excuse to pick up a new manga series, or you can watch your anime or Japanese movies with Japanese subtitles.
Learning how to read Japanese may seem difficult at first, but the results are worth it! It unlocks the doors to understanding Japanese text, which will come in useful when travelling, or when enjoying your favourite Japanese manga.
If you are serious about learning Japanese, learning the alphabet is only just the beginning. A Japanese class will be immensely helpful to your learning of Japanese, from the reading and writing to the listening and speaking. In Singapore, Japanese courses are widely available to help you kickstart your Japanese learning journey. Get started today!