Learning Japanese – first steps and apps for learning hiragana

23 Oct

Learning a language in the digital age is just getting easier and easier.

I’m determined to learn a bit of Japanese before I arrive. Currently I’m taking a beginners Japanese course through the Toronto District School Board’s continuing education programs, which are varied and very affordable. The class has been fantastic as I’m forced to study the language for at least two hours a week. It’s also essential to hear the words and sounds from a native speaker – Sensei Yamaguchi – the cutest little older lady. While learning Thai, I looked up new words in books and had an impossible time pronouncing them, especially since it’s a tonal language. So hearing a word pronounced over and over makes such a difference.

We’ve learned some basic phrases and words so far as well as learning hiragana.

The Japanese writing system is made up of three scripts:

  • kanji – adopted from Chinese characters before the Japanese had a written language. There are more than 2000 commonly used kanji characters and for some just one character represents a word.
  • hiragana – syllable sounds used together to make a word. There are 46 characters.
  • katakana – also syllable sounds but generally used for adopted foreign words, like Kanada, basu and kohii. Also 46 characters.
The basic hiragana chart, from http://www.tokyowithkids.com.

The basic hiragana chart, from http://www.tokyowithkids.com.

To an English speaker who has only ever read the Roman alphabet, these characters can be very intimidating at first. But since we have learned just ten a week, it’s almost manageable. Finding some sort of mnemonic device to remember the sound is essential. These devices came from class handouts, iPhone apps and my own imagination.

For example, “ki” looks a bit like a key, “shi” looks like a woman’s hair, and “tsu” looks like a tsunami wave. But a good handful (dozen) of them look the same to me, so it’s just a matter of looking at them and memorizing them routinely.

One thing that has helped tremendously has been an iPhone/iPad app called Hiragana and Katakana – Complete Basics of Japanese. It’s a free app that teaches these characters through lessons, quizzes and flashcards. You can change the settings to show or hide the Roman alphabet as well as tap the characters to hear the sounds and words.

While it’s still a lot to memorize (though better than kanji!) it’s very rewarding to be able to read a word. I was beyond excited to learn that I could read and write “sushi”. At least I will be able to find Japan’s most iconic dish!

"Su" + "shi" = SUSHI!

“Su” + “shi” = SUSHI!


One Response to “Learning Japanese – first steps and apps for learning hiragana”

  1. Steven Myers November 29, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    i see what you mean about similarity.
    u and ra and chi and even ru and ro all resemble the number 5.
    brain expansion.

Leave a Reply