So you just promised yourself you are going to learn Japanese as a challenge and then you find out that you not only have to learn two phonetic alphabets but eventually a system of no less then a few thousand of originally Chinese characters. なにこれ!! (What the…?)
But don’t feel overwhelmed, is my advice. Learning Japanese is not a 100-meter sprint and actually it isn’t even a marathon. Learning Japanese is like the first 4/5 months it takes to train for a marathon. Depending on how much time is spent learning it, it could take up to a few years to completely master Japanese.
The first step is always learning hiragana. This phonetic alphabet represents every sound in the Japanese language and is the basis for making sentences. Every word can be written in hiragana and as a beginner you will learn how to pronounce words first in hiragana and later in kanji-characters. You can think of it as the basic alphabet that is used in English, although it’s not entirely comparable.
In this lesson you will get some background knowledge on the different Japanese alphabets and some tips on learning them.
After being overwhelmed by the challenge that is Japanese, you can set your mind at easy. Although eventually you have to learn katakana and kanji to fully understand Japanese, without these you can get to a level of basic understand with only hiragana.
Hiragana is the basic phonetic alphabet of Japanese and every sound that’s employed in Japanese can be represented with a hiragana-character and every word can be written out in hiragana.
But although it’s the building block of Japanese now, hiragana is actually derived from the originally Chinese kanji-characters first introduced in Japan. Hiragana was developed around the 5th century as an easier way of writing out Japanese words.
As the story goes, the kanji system was popular among the elite and men. Hiragana was used especially by women at the courts who did not receive the same education. In time other people started to employ hiragana for its ease of use.
Nowadays, hiragana characters are used along with kanji. The hiragana characters are used for example with conjugations of verbs or adjectives, words that have no kanji character and often people will just write the hiragana characters of a word when they do not know the kanji. Even when you start learning kanji characters you will need small hiragana on the top or bottom of the kanji, called furigana, as a reminder how to pronounce the word.
So hiragana is everywhere in Japanese and I cannot stress enough how important it is to first start learning all the 46 hiragana-characters and make yourself comfortable using them. A lot of beginners stop because it’s hard learning something that you can’t use immediately, but believe me, the effort is worth it.
In theory, you can learn hiragana in a day. But using hiragana fluently usually takes a week to a few weeks, depending on how much you study. People who say it should be easy are exaggerating. Although there are only a few hiragana characters, learning them can be hard because you have no direct use for them, and they all seem so strange in the beginning.
Katakana seems as the somewhat more cool styled version of hiragana and in daily life it’s also used more to be stylish. The characters can be clearly distinguished from the hiragana and kanji characters because the katakana characters are much more straight and have fewer lines.
They were developed by monks around the 9th century and scholars speculate it was originally developed in Korea. Katakana was invented with more or less the same reason as hiragana, to write words more easily.
Nowadays, katakana is used for loanwords from foreign languages (often English), names of companies and sometimes the names of plants and animals. It’s also used to create emphasis and in subtitles you would see the sounds people make (for example ‘haha’ is transcribed as ハハ) transcribed in katakana Increasingly, people are using loan words to express foreign ideas and concepts instead of using the Japanese version. In writing, these words would be expressed with katakana.
Because a lot of words that use katakana originate from English it’s somewhat easier to translate them. The downside is that katakana characters are used only incidentally and so you don’t practice them a lot.
So this is the big one. Kanji is the system of so called logografical characters that were imported from China. Kanji literally means ‘Han characters’ which refer to the Han-dynasty that ruled a large chunk of China when these characters were imported. Kanji themselves express a meaning and are used in conjunction with hiragana and katakana
Fun fact: because the Japanese Kanji characters still look a bit similar to the Chinese characters, a person that understands Chinese could probably get the gist of a message in Japanese kanji. Still, a lot has also changed over the years and for example pronunciation is vastly different.
But that’s enough about the history, what do you have to know about kanji characters? To be fluent in Japanese requires you to know a great deal of kanji, but fluency often takes a few years so you have a lot of time. There are over 2.000 official kanji characters and it takes a lot of time to learn them all, although when you do you will become completely literate in Japanese and will be able to read most general documents and newspapers.
My tip: take your time to become familiar with the most common kanji. Don’t feel overwhelmed, you can have a perfectly normal conversation in Japanese without learning thousands of kanji. But, if you want to fully understand the language, do invest the time to learn a lot, but don’t go on a crusade to learn all kanji at once. In time, you will start to see patterns in how the kanji look and their meaning and learning the more difficult ones will become easier.
Last and definitely least: Romaji. People who are fluent in Japanese look down on this Romanized alphabet that makes it a bit easier for beginners to read Japanese. Romaji are Latin characters that mimic the sound of a Japanese word.
For example the Japanese word for ‘apple’ is りんご (ringo). These Latin letters in parentheses is romaji and they help complete starters to know how to pronounce the word. You can do this for all Japanese words and so complete sentences can be romanized.
The problem a lot of teachers have with romaji is that it’s the easy way out when you start learning Japanese, because if there is romaji you don’t have to know hiragana to know how to pronounce a word. My advice: don’t go looking for romaji if there is also perfectly good hiragana. You will have to learn hiragana at some point in your journey, you might as well invest these hours directly in the beginning.
Word of advice
Ok, so I hope I haven’t scared you. To prevent you from stopping on your adventure to learn Japanese expectations are key. No, you will not learn to read Japanese newspapers in two months, but yes you can probably have a nice and simple conversation within a few weeks.
So, as the Japanese say がんばって!! (Do you best!)