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The Basics of Japanese Writing: For Beginners, By A Beginner

blogahss1By Sinead Cryan

So, you’re thinking about learning Japanese, either by yourself, or in UL as part of your course. Or maybe you’re just a bit curious about it, because it looks like a bunch of nonsensical squiggles when you see it around. Either way, you’ve probably heard that Japanese is one of the most notoriously difficult languages to learn, because of it’s non-alphabetical writing system. I know how you feel. It can be a bit daunting taking up a new language, especially one that doesn’t use ABC’s. And I thought it was too, and everyone I know probably thinks I’m a bit crazy for doing Business with Japanese. But in all honesty, after doing it for 10 weeks now, I can assure you, it’s not actually as hard as I imagined.

First of all, you need to know what the squiggles you’re looking at actually are. Japanese is actually written using three different systems. Yes, three. Don’t panic, please. The first one you need to learn is Hiragana. It’s the most basic of the systems and is used to guide pronunciation for beginners once you start Kanji. The second, Katakana, is similar to Hiragana, except that it’s used to write foreign “imported” words from other languages, such as Television (テレビ), taken from English, and pain, (パン), the French for bread.
Kanji, the third and final system, is a lopographic system adopted from China. This is the hardest part of learning to write Japanese, because unlike the Kana systems, which only have 46 letters each, there are thousands of Kanji. But again, don’t panic! You don’t need to learn that many to be able to read and write Japanese. (In fact, you could almost get away with never learning any, although I wouldn’t recommend it, especially for numbers.) In this post, however, I won’t be discussing Kanji, as this is only the basics to writing.

So, how on Earth are you, a beginner, supposed to tackle the mountain that is learning Japanese writing? Well, the best way to go about it is obviously to start with the two “Kana” systems, Hiragana and Katakana. I managed to learn these both in about three hours, and I mean really learn them.

I’ll let you in on my secret: associate every sound with an image that relates to it or to the letter itself.
Okay, so not in any way original, but it’s the most effective method out there for learning Japanese. It applies to Kanji too, but we’re just focusing on the first two for now. If you ask around, you’ll find that this is one of the most widely used methods too, because not only does it work, but it’s kind of fun as well.

While making up a picture for every single kana yourself would be a lot of fun, a quicker method is to use some online resources. My favorite one, which I found to be the most helpful, was from Tofugu. Tofugu is full of interesting resources, both for learning the language and about the culture, but a lot of the resources, such as their own textbook, have to be paid for. However, their guides to Hiragana and Katakana are free, so that’s what I used, because not only were they useful, they made some very clever associations, and some of them actually made me laugh. And who doesn’t want to have fun while learning?
The one for learning Hiragana is here. The way I learned them all in just over an hour was by reading the article a few times, and then playing this drag-and-drop game I found on Usagi-Chan’s Genki Resources. It’s a timed drag and drop game, and it gets very addictive if you keep trying to beat your own time. I knew I’d learned them well enough when I took 1 minute and 30 seconds to match all the characters to the sounds, and that was just because I couldn’t move the mouse any faster.
Once you’ve mastered Hiragana, you can move on to Katakana. The Tofugu article can be found here, and the drag-and-drop is here!

So, go forth and learn yourself some Kana! Words can’t describe how accomplished you’ll feel, being able to read comprehensions in Japanese after such a short amount of time! So, if you’re struggling to learn Japanese, or just want to try it out, give those resources a go and see what you think! I promise you won’t find Japanese as daunting once you’re done!


Untitled design (5)My name is Sinead Cryan, and I’m a first year student here in the University of Limerick. I study Business and Japanese, as well as an extra German module, so I’m actually a student of the Kemmy Business School, but it’s the languages I’m here to talk about.

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