Part Three: Learning Hiragana Ain’t Hard!

In lesson one we covered basic concepts of Japanese hiragana writing and in lesson two we covered some more advanced features.  Today, we’ll focus more on how to learn hiragana.

If you’re studying Japanese, hiragana is a “learn once, learn early, use often” feature of the language.  The sooner you make the leap, the better.  I often meet beginning Japanese students who lament having to learn the 40+ characters (and the modifications), but once you’ve broken past that barrier, a lot of things open up in Japanese. Yes you need kanji (Chinese characters too), but with hiragana, you can’t even begin to read.

I have dabbled in a number of languages over the years including Sanskrit, Korean, ancient Greek, and of course Japanese, and each one requires learning a new script, but there are certain patterns in study that help to adapt to a new script relatively quickly:

  • Read – reading words is the best way to get familiar with a new script.  If you find example words, or example sentences, read them, pick them apart in your mind and figure out how to pronounce it.  It’s a fun mental exercise, but also it just gets easier and easier over time.
  • Write – writing isn’t as useful as reading a new script, but it’s a good skill to adopt early to develop good habits, especially good handwriting.

I often see new students try to learn reading and writing at the same time, but it becomes a drag, and people get discouraged.  I believe they are two important, but not necessarily related skills, and of the two, reading is the one you should prioritize first with writing as a close second.

Further, people will spend money on smartphone apps to practice their handwriting, but they don’t really seem to accurate capture the motor skills necessary to write.  Instead, it would be better to download and print Japanese essay paper (genkōyōshi 原稿用紙) and just use that instead.¹  Just do an image search for 原稿用紙 and you’ll see plenty of options.

One of my favorite sources for me to practice reading Japanese hiragana was the Graded Reader series by White Rabbit Press.  These are now available as smart-phone apps, but I used them back when they were just printed books, and starting with the lowest level, I soon found I could follow the hiragana well enough.

From there, I delved into Japanese manga, and watching TV.  Neither was easy, but it didn’t take long to pick out and get used to the hiragana because they’re just so consistent.

As for writing, there are many such workbooks available, but I liked Kodansha’s Hiragana Workbook: A Step-By-Step Approach to Basic Japanese Writing. However, other such books are probably just as good.

Once you’ve gotten use to hiragana, learning katakana is worth investing the time, but don’t be afraid to branch out into kanji either.  I’ll cover that in a future post.

Good luck!  がんばって!

¹ Quick reminder: Japanese is often written from top to bottom, and right to left.  This will make more sense if you use proper Japanese-style practice paper.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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