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Best way to learn hiragana and katakana

Updated on July 26, 2012

Learn Hiragana & Katakana

Are you just getting in to Japanese, and wondering how long it's going to take to master the phonetic alphabets hiragana and katakana? Then just sit back and relax as there is good news on the way. Learning hiragana and katakana isn't as hard as it may seem, and can be learned in two weeks or less. So don't panic! I seem to remember that it took me about a week and a half taking it quite easy, and I know of people who have done it in a few days by intensive study, so it's up to you how much pressure you want to add to yourself. Whether you are tight on time, or you just want to take it at a leisurely pace, you'll get there. It is advisable to start with hiragana and then progress to katakana, as hiragana forms a bigger part of the Japanese language than katakana. Also get the stroke order right from the beginning, so you don't need to spend time correcting it later on. Anyway there is no need to worry, here's a few tips and tricks, as well as a bit of background knowledge, so you know what you are getting yourself into. Have fun!

What is hiragana?

Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet which consists of 46 symbols, and basically represents every sound of the Japanese language. It is being used alongside KANJI (Chinese characters) to form VERB TENSES, CONJUNCTIONS and ADJECTIVE ENDINGS, so it plays a vital role. It is also being used to write the so called furigana (small prints above or below the kanji to show how it should be pronounced) as well as particles and words that have no kanji. Kanji by themselves do not indicate any tense, so when hiragana is attached it forms a verb, and depending on what the verb ending is, it shows the reader what tense is being used. In basic terms hiragana is what gives grammatical structures to sentences.

The Japanese language is an interesting language as native- and non native words are clearly distinguished by the symbols they are written in. Hiragana is always being used for native words where katakana is for words of foreign origin.

What is katakana?

Katakana is just like hiragana a phonetic alphabet consisting of 46 symbols, and works in the same way in regards to pronunciation. The main difference is what the alphabet is used for. Its main areas of use are: writing FOREIGN NAMES, FOREIGN LOAN WORDS and for EMPHASIS.

Places of frequent katakana use would be on restaurant menus and cafe signs where foreign words such as pizza and orange juice, just to give a basic example, would be written in katakana. Electronic stores are also places with lots of foreign words such cameras and computers, and general advertising also boasts quite a lot of katakana. The symbols are often referred to as "block" style symbols as they appear quite harsh compared to the more smooth strokes of the hiragana alphabet.

Where to start? What to learn first?

The "usual" study method is to start out learning hiragana, and the progress on to katakana, when you are confident in reading and writing all the symbols by heart. I started out that way and can only strongly recommend that you do the same, but everyone is different, so do as you please... leaning is meant to be fun after all :-)

Anyway as hiragana forms such a vital part of the Japanese language and is used in every Japanese sentence, it's ultimately the hiragana symbols that you'll have a greater exposure to. They seem to be a little easier to remember, and as one constantly is being reminded of their shape when reading, they seem to stick a bit better than katakana.

Katakana appear a lot less frequently, so it takes a little more effort to be up to date with them, as they are not being used as frequently. It's particularly hand writing which can be a problem, as there is usually not much of a chance to use them a lot. So keep it up! The main thing is not to confuse your learning process with Kanji. Only once you are confident in both phonetic alphabets, you can slowly introduce kanji.

Hey what about the stroke order?

In regards to stroke order you'd probably think "why does it matter?", but well it does and certainly in the Japanese schooling system. I didn't initially focus on the correct stroke order, and had to spend a lot of time correcting it later on, so don't make the same mistake.

If you find your self among Japanese friends or colleges the first thing they'll point out is your funny stroke order, so spend your time getting it right from the start, and you'll save yourself a lot of hassle. Another thing is also getting yourself used to strictly following a system, as you'll need it when moving on to kanji. When learning and writing kanji the stroke order plays a huge role, so get your self accustomed, and let your pen repeat the strokes.

Best way to learn - use pen & paper

The best way to learn is often the most simple. One way is to get your self organised with a couple of books, this is what I did, and take it as it comes. Study in what ever pace that suits you, and simply write the symbols over and over again on a piece of paper until they stick. Don't do it all in one go, so you get sick and tired of it. It's important to stay motivated so try not to overdo it. There are many great study books out there for learning hiragana and katakana. Most of them contain similar features such as easy to read tables, various exercises, memory techniques, thorough explanations of use and stroke order, combined with an overview of the history and background of the phonetic alphabets. Have a look through and see whatever method suits you best, but once and for all keep it simple and have some fun with it!

Learn hiragana in the kitchen

Lots of Fun Japanese products on ZAZZLE

Spice up your household with fun mugs for easy learning!

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    • junecampbell profile image

      June Campbell 5 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

      I have never heard these two terms before. It's good to be introduced to new things. Thanks for the info.

    • bernie74 lm profile image

      bernie74 lm 5 years ago

      I am sharing this with my daughter she is learning Japanese, but due to our move she ended up coming in halfway and finds some a little tricky, So thank so much for sharing this

      Blessed by a Squid Angel!

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 5 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      the basic is just like pitman shorthand. very interesting info on Japanese language.

    • microfarmproject profile image

      microfarmproject 5 years ago

      I grew up in Asia and learned to speak well enough in several languages to get around, but never learned to write in those languages. My kids are into all things Japanese. This might be a fund summer project for us! Thank you.

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      peterhe2012 5 years ago

      Great Tips. Thank you for sharing.

    • SciTechEditorDave profile image

      David Gardner 5 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

      Our two homeschooled kiddos learned their hiragana, katakana, and yes, a few kanji from me -- their dad -- who learned Japanese from 3 years of study in high school and another 3 years in college (and 5 trips to Japan and working in the tourism industry in which most of the tourists were Japanese). Nice lens (I wish I had found this when I was teaching Japanese)! ... Congrats on a Squidoo masterpiece!

    • JJNW profile image

      JJNW 6 years ago from USA

      Yay! My homeschooled son wants to learn Japanese and I only know German. Great resources. Glad I found you. Thanks!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I like that you give a word to the wise here and encourage not making the same mistake you made in stroke order...its just easier to do things right the first time.

    • ForestBear LM profile image

      ForestBear LM 6 years ago

      Thank you everyone for all your nice comments, I appreciate it.

    • ForestBear LM profile image

      ForestBear LM 6 years ago

      @dellgirl: Thank you, hope you'll have a great weekend too dellgirl

    • profile image

      dellgirl 6 years ago

      I came by to wish you a terrific weekend. This is a wonderful lens you have here.

    • profile image

      TravelingRae 6 years ago

      Thanks for pushing the importance of stroke order. My penmanship sucks. *sighs*

    • netsole profile image

      netsole 6 years ago

      thanx for sharing such useful information

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 6 years ago

      Wow- so many characters just for the word 'mom' - I would have a hard time learning this language. Old dog, new tricks thing. Lovely lens on the topic.

    • The-Bard profile image

      The-Bard 6 years ago

      Great lens and an excellent taster. Worth bookmarking. Thanks for this encouraging introduction to the language.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 6 years ago

      Great information here - good job!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 6 years ago from Colorado

      I've always wanted to learn hiragana. Thanks for the information!