Learning Japanese: Learning to Crawl, with Hiragana & Katakana

Photo: Aapo Haapanen

Learning Japanese: Learning to Crawl, with Hiragana & Katakana

Dan Collins

It’s really incredible that you are reading this sentence right now. Because the symbols on the page are in a certain shape, you are able to read and understand what has been dictated onto the screen. The way written (or even spoken) language circulated so widely is unfathomable. In the world, there are over 1.5 billion English speakers. 1.5 billion people agreed that these shapes make these sounds, which make these words, these sentences, and these paragraphs. But what if one day you woke up and all the shapes, words, sentences, and paragraphs had completely changed? That instead of these symbols we called letters, there were symbols called characters that looked like this: これらは日本語の文字です.

Those are Japanese characters. For the first ten months I lived in Japan, I didn’t know how to read any of them. I was illiterate. When I walked the streets, I would look up at the signs on buildings and have no idea what they said. Is it a bar, a restaurant, an office building? I had no idea. I looked for pictures or the occasional word of (usually misspelled) English. On two occasions, I walked straight into people’s apartments thinking they were places to eat or drink. Luckily, Japanese people are very polite so I was never beaten up or arrested. They would take one look at me at think “Oh, just a stupid gai-jin,” and I would scurry away sheepishly. Dozens of times I ordered things at restaurants by pointing randomly at the menu (which I would recommend if you’re feeling adventurous).

Engrish - funny English sign

Japanglish. Photo by Photocapy, via Flickr
On a couple of occasions, I set out to learn to read Japanese, but I found the task insurmountable. Japanese doesn’t have an alphabet. Or more accurately, Japanese doesn’t have one alphabet. They have two: hiragana and katakana (which is mostly used for foreign words), plus Kanji, which are Chinese characters. In Hiragana and Katakana, there are 49 characters each, plus combinations, dakuten, and handakuten (don’t worry about what they are). Basically, there are over 100 total characters that make up those alphabets. In Kanji, there are several thousand characters. The average Japanese person knows between three and four thousand Kanji. Yes. THOUSAND. So I hope you’ll empathize when I say it seemed to be an impossible task.

Japanese hand-written kanji and katakana characters

Photo by Hachiro Onoue [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For ten months, I tried to learn to speak Japanese without being able to read it. I studied Japanese romaji, where the sounds in Japanese are transcribed into roman letters, I spoke to people, and I treated written Japanese like it didn’t exist. I stopped looking at signs because to me, they may as well have been a five year old’s finger paintings. But eventually, it seemed more difficult to find a way around learning to read than it would be to just learn to read. Any online course for Japanese begins with knowing hiragana and katakana as a prerequisite, so I was unable to use the best available resources. I decided I would fully commit to learning these two alphabets (though not the thousands of kanji, which still seems impossible).

iKana katakana list

Katakana. Photo by mroach, via Flickr
I put in hour after hour, making very little progress. I learned a few, but more remained anonymous. I went to sleep many nights wanting to throw my computer out the window in frustration. I began to think I was incapable of learning it. I took several language classes in college and never learned anything. Maybe I was just too stupid to learn another language.

Then I discovered Tofugu.com. I don’t want to make this seem like a paid advertisement or anything like that (and it isn’t), but Tofugu is amazing. I learned the same hiragana and katakana I had spent months struggling over in just four days with about an hour of study time each day. It’s all based on mnemonic devises of English words. They range from extremely helpful and easy (like to: と, which looks like a toe), to absurd (like ke: け, which is meant to look like a keg, according to the mnemonic device. Do you see it? Me neither. Either way, it worked for me.

Hiragana Hi

Photo by Kazuyoshi Kato, via Flickr
It’s hard to explain how excited I was. I was like someone who recently had a huge obstruction removed from their nose and finally understood what it was like to smell, frolicking through a garden inhaling newly discovered fragrances. I spent the next few days walking the streets, sounding out words wherever I saw them, stopping every ten yards to read the next sign, thrilled to be at the reading level of a Japanese four-year-old. I wanted to stop everyone I saw on the street and say, “Did you know all these signs actually say things? They’re not just ornamental. They have words on them!” Of course, they wouldn’t have understood me using English and I don’t know how to say that in Japanese, but still, I was ecstatic.

Of course, it’s not like I now knew Japanese. I still didn’t know kanji, which made up a hefty proportion of things I tried to read. And just because I could sound out the words on the signs doesn’t mean I know what those sounds mean. Plus, there are no spaces in Japanese; eveythingiswrittenlikethis-soyoucanonlyreallyunderstanditifyouknowwhereeverywordbeginsandends. In practical terms, I know almost equally little Japanese as I did before. I still can’t have full conversations in Japanese and I still can’t read Japanese books. I even occasionally still have to point randomly at menu items and hope for the best, but at least I have made some progress, no matter how small. It took me ten months, but in my journey to learning Japanese, I have finally learned to crawl.

Japanese food menu