How to learn hiragana and katakana?

5 minute read

Hiragana and katakana are two Japanese syllabaries. And what that means is that (almost) every symbol of hiragana or katakana represents not one, but two sounds of the spoken language. To better understand the difference between hiragana and katakana, we recommend you to read the article Why Japanese has three alphabets?. Here we will concentrate on different tips on how to learn kana more effectively

Hiragana

Let's begin with hiragana. Hiragana is fundamental for learning Japanese. In case you ever forget how to pronounce any word, you will most likely find its pronunciation written in hiragana.

Let's look at some examples:

  • あさ - asa (morning)
  • つき - tsuki (moon)
  • いま - ima (now)
  • ねこ - neko (cat)
  • ありがとう - arigatou (thank you)
  • さようなら - sayounara (goodbye)

Also we recommend you to watch this video to better understand how to pronounce hiragana.

Hiragana consists of 46 characters plus 25 digraphs which gives us 71 characters total. Here is a good table of all hiragana characters. You can even print it out.

Dakuten (or Nigori)

A dakuten sign looks like two dashes in the upper right corner. It is written above some kanas and changes the consonant sound in the syllable. Think of voiced and voiceless consonants in English and you will see what we're talking about

  • た (ta) -> だ (da)
  • か (ka) -> が (ga)
  • さ (sa) -> ざ (za)
  • は (ha) -> ば (ba)

Handakuten (or Hannigori)

Handakuten is almost the same as dakuten. However it is used only in syllables with 'h' and 'f' sounds, and it turns these sounds into 'p'. Handakuten looks like a little cirlce in the upper right corner.

  • は (ha) -> ぱ (pa)
  • ひ (hi) -> ぴ (pi)
  • ふ (fu) -> ぷ (pu)
  • へ (he) -> ぺ (pe)
  • ほ (ho) -> ぽ (po)

Small characters

There are four characters in hiragana that can be written in small print: つ (tsu), や (ya), ゆ (yu), よ (yo). If they are typed with regular print, they are read exactly as we have written right know, but if they are used in small print, their meaning and usage changes. Compare how small/regular typing looks when these letters are beside each other: つっ やゃ ゆゅ よょ

ゃ, ゅ, ょ: when these characters are written in small print, they are "combined" with the previous character to create a new pronunciation.

  • きや (kiya) -> きゃ (kya)
  • にゆ (niyu) -> にゅ (nyu)
  • りよ (riyo) -> りょ (ryo)

っ (small tsu) is used a little bit differently however. It alters the pronunciation of the following syllable, not the previous, making it sound like a 'double' consonant

  • したい (shitai) -> しったい (shittai)
  • がこ (gako) -> がっこ (gakko)
  • いた (ita) -> いった (itta)

We understand that it is a lot to take in on the first day. Kanjiway will help you learn all this and get you familiar with reading words in hiragana. Don't worry if reading hiragana takes too much time. Practice is the key. Over time it will be as easy for you as reading a text in English.

Katakana

Katakana is used to write borrowed words. For example, there is no kanji for the word "tennis", so it is written in katakana as テニス (tenisu). Here is a table of all katakana characters.

Here are a few more examples:

  • レストラン (resutoran)
  • アメリカ (amerika)
  • スパゲッティ (supagetti)
  • カメラ (kamera)
  • コンピューター (konpyuutaa)

You can probably guess what these words mean just by looking at the pronunciation. Katakana is very much like hiragana. There are 71 characters, dakuten, handakuten and small 'tsu', 'ya', 'yu' and 'yo'. But there are also some things that you won't find in hiragana.

Sounds that Japanese doesn't have

Japanese language is pretty restricted in it's sounds. It's hard to grasp for non-Japanese people, but Japanese don't use common sounds from other languages, meaning they also pronounce it pretty weird. Most famous example is Japanese difficulty with differentiating 'r' and 'l' sounds and in the result pronouncing some weird combination of both. Same happens with different sounds but Japanese solve it by combining different sounds which are easier for them.

Absence of 'v' sound is replaced by something like 'b' sound. For example ヴァ consists out of letters 'vu' and 'small ya' so we get 'va'. But because Japanese are bad at pronouncing 'v', usually it sounds as something between 'wa', 'ba' and 'ua'. Absence of 'fa' sound is fixed by combining フ (fu) and ァ (small ya), so we get "fa".

Long vowels

Katakana has a special character to make a vowel long - "ー". Just like a small tsu, this character doesn't have its own pronunciation. But when combined with the previous character, it 'doubles' the vowel. タ (ta) turns into ター (taa), マ (ma) into マー (maa) and so on.

What is the best way to learn it?

Despite difficult rules and exceptions, learning hiragana and katakana is a rather quick and painless procedure when you use the right approach. You can spend couple of days on every syllabary and three more days to consolidate your knowledge. And after a week you will be able to read at an pretty good level. You will still read quite slowly, but at least you won't have to use the table to remember the pronunciation of every character. The key to success is to read words in hiragana and katakana and review them regularly. Kanjiway helps you learn the syllabaries and practice reading in hiragana and katakana. We also calculate how often you should practice by using spaced repetition system to determine which characters or words you should pay special attention to in order to learn hiragana and katakana as fast and efficiently as possible. If you would spend 30 minutes on Kanjiway daily, you could learn hiragana and katakana in a week or probably even faster.


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