The Writing System

Have you realized that the English writing system has 4 different “alphabets?” Not only are there the standard vs. cursive systems, but the difference between upper and lower case letters is quite significant as well. Think about it. The letter G looks absolutely nothing like the letter g, but they are both the same. Also, many people have a difficult time reading cursive handwriting even though it’s taught in school. I wonder if foreign textbooks explain this.

Well, now it shouldn’t be so surprising to hear that Japanese has three “alphabets.” The Japanese writing system consists of hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are special. As a beginner, you can think of them like upper vs. lower case letters in English, even though this isn’t proper. They are part of a group called kana.

Just like letters in the English alphabet, each kana represents a specific sound. When we see the letter T, we can almost feel the tips of our tongues press against the roofs of our mouths because that’s what a letter does; it tells you which sound to make with your mouth. Kana aren’t exactly “letters,” though. They are actually syllables. For example, a common greeting is written “yo” in English. The phrase “yo yo yo” has three syllables, but it takes six letters to write it. Well, kana are unique in that they combine consonants and vowels into one character, so “yo” in English can be written with just one kana よ and “yo yo yo” would be written よよよ

This means that each kana actually represents one syllable and, as a writing system, it is not actually an alphabet; it’s called a syllabary.

The distinction between kana and kanji should now be quite clear: kana represent sound and kanji represent meaning. This is much different than English and, quite frankly, it can be troublesome. It’s kind of like kanji completely destroys the use of kana. Very quickly, you will reach a point where you can read all of the kana, but a simple sentence like 彼女が好きですか will mean absolutely nothing because you can only read half of the characters. Here’s that same sentence, with the stuff you won’t be able to read in bold red: 彼女きですか

Kana are very useful for what is called “conjugation” as well as the fact that many words are written using only hiragana, but very soon you will run into kanji as a silent obstacle. For now, no further discussion on kanji will be necessary. We will just leave them as big, crazy looking messes of strokes and slashes that have no sound or meaning.

Now that we understand Japanese uses a syllabary instead of an alphabet to represent sounds, learning kana is very simple. Unlike most kanji, kana are rather basic characters; simple enough to be organized into a table like this:

kana table_2_1

A kana table functions much like a multiplication table in how you match a consonant with a vowel to produce a sound. Allow this PowerPoint slide to demonstrate:

this is a kana table

Most kana tables, like the one I’ve provided, will list 142 “different” characters. Even the least sagacious reader, however, should notice that many of them are only different because of a mark in the upper right hand corner. Take, for example, these three kana:  は ば ぱ

If we consider は to be the base form, then ば is only different because of two small dashes and ぱ is only different because of a small circle. Since these diacritical marks only represent a change in sound and do not otherwise change the look of the kana, there are not actually 142 different characters to learn. Instead, a beginner’s kana table should look like this:

kana table_3

In reality, there are only 92 different kana to learn – 46 hiragana and 46 katakana.

As you may have noticed, this table is still too advanced for a beginner because it includes all 92 kana at once. In order to effectively distinguish the two at a subconscious level, it is necessary to learn hiragana and katakana separately and study them together afterwards. Ultimately, my method of learning the kana uses the following two tables:

hiragana table

Now that we understand the medium through which we will familiarize ourselves with kana, we will move forward with how to do exactly that in the next post.

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Language Apps and Other Resources.

It’ll be awhile before I’m happy with the tutorial for learning kana. Thankfully, the current scope of this blog is more than just touting some miracle system for mastering syllabaries. That said, we will now examine something with which I’m sure many of you are familiar: language learning applications on smartphones.

On the quest for knowledge, in this modern age, it becomes painfully evident that useful resources are rare. On top of this, most textbooks and classes are designed so rigidly that the student is often left in the dark about the “bigger picture.” Pages, chapters, and even semesters pass yet the student hasn’t begun to conceptualize the art of linguistics itself. Being so tied up in grammar and vocab, many often lose sight of language’s true nature. That is a big problem; a problem that is only being amplified by many language resources today. Here, I’ll discuss some of my experiences, suggestions, and so on.

About four days ago, a co-worker of mine suggested the app “Memrise” during a discussion we had about studying Japanese. He is still very new to Japanese and has practically no skill in it, but he’s head over heels for the app. So, I decided to try it. For reference, I’ve only practiced light, independent study of Japanese for about two years. I’m not even close to fluent, but I can read all kana, have a good understanding of kanji, and know enough grammar to wield a textbook. I would consider myself an amateur, but I do have intermediate skill.

I will say that, once you get past the kana courses, Memrise is pretty addicting. However, it is not suitable for a beginner. I doubt anyone will ever successfully master kana with Memrise because they explain absolutely nothing about diphthongs (i.e. ちゃ), lengthened vowels (i.e. どう) or any feature of the writing system for that matter. They seem to target only the most sagacious users, I suppose, by throwing it all in at once; flashcard style. To no one’s surprise, my co-worker isn’t doing very well with kana and has been repeating lessons on the app endlessly.

Another app that is comparable to Memrise is Mondly. They have several language apps and the name in the Google Play Store is a bit strange: Learn Japanese. Speak Japanese by ATi Studios. Once again, don’t even bother if you can’t read kana because this one has absolutely no lessons on it. Unfortunately, the app does permit the sole use of romaji, but it makes up for that by allowing Japanese keyboard input. It’s the best of both worlds, I guess. Memrise and Mondly have very different user interfaces, but the learning strategies are quite similar. Both applications are free with options of a paid membership (Mondly is MUCH cheaper). I haven’t used either of them very extensively, but I would suggest either one.

Human Japanese by Brak Software is certainly a step above the rest. I will say, if you don’t like to read, this app is not for you. The beginner course consists of over 40 chapters many of which contain over 30 slides of raw text and grammar tables. It really is a digital textbook. For once, they do make a fine attempt to teach the user kana even going as far as to explain diphthongs and so on. Ultimately, this app is grammar intensive and introduces a lot of vocab. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever taken a foreign language class, you know how boring learning all the words for traveling (airport, luggage, check in, reservation, etc.) can be, but hey; you have to start somewhere. I completely finished the beginner course and got about halfway through the intermediate before I gave it a break to study kanji. I must say, it’s awesome, but it’s a lot to take in.

Memrise, Mondly, and Human Japanese are a class of language apps that I would call Adventure Learning Apps. That is to say, they take you on a “journey” through different parts of the culture or otherwise teach you the language in story-like approach. I must admit that they are very engaging, but only advanced users can really get the most out of them. In the end, nothing beats a good old dictionary and textbook. Nowadays, nothing beats Microsoft Office either.

I learned, and continue to learn, most of my Japanese using textbooks; physical and digital kanji dictionaries; and Microsoft Office (Google Docs/Sheets/Slides on my phone). It’s nothing really special that I do. Actually, it’s just taking and reiterating notes trying to come up with new questions that might not get answered for months or even years. The idea, however, is that I’m doing it; even if only for a few minutes.

It would probably help if I told you which textbooks and dictionaries I use, huh?

Well, here:

  • First of all, is a lifesaver. If it wasn’t for that lovely website… just trust me.
  • The Google Play Store has a Japanese dictionary app simply titled Japanese made by developer Spacehamster. I love this app.
  • Hanping Chinese Dictionary by embermitre in the Play Store. Lets face it, sometimes you look for a kanji for hours and it turns out it’s only in Chinese. This is a nice app for that.
  • The Google Translate app. Take a picture of a kanji and convert it to text? Yes, please!
  • owner Tae Kim has his complete course in app form in the Play Store called Learning Japanese by developer Ignatius Reza.
  • The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course by Andrew Scott Conning and Japanese Kanji and Kana by Wolfgang Hadamitzky & Mark Spahn are both physical kanji dictionaries. I highly recommend them not only for their usefulness, but for the additional content they provide. It’s not much, but they serve as great resources for learning things like stroke count and understanding the subtleties behind the writing system.
  • Japanese From Zero‘s George Trombley. Wow… I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard of this guy. I’ve never tried his books, but his YouTube channel is off the hook; free, well made video lectures from a fluent speaker.
  • is quite well done. She does a fantastic job at explaining things.

Other than that, once you can read kana, it’s pretty much an open road. I’ve used books and websites that I’ll never remember. Where did I learn the different positions of radicals within a kanji? Probably Wikipedia, but I know I looked elsewhere, too. The same goes for just about any concept in any field of study – you just have to start looking. I stand firm, however, in the fact that all of this begins only after learning how to read kana.


Get out of my class.

Perhaps you’ve begun to study Japanese without planning to learn the writing system. Maybe you never plan to do so under the pretense that you’ll learn the language through speech alone. If so, I cannot help you. Frankly, I’m not sure why one with no desire to study another language through text would ever bother reading a blog about it, but… oh well.

l begin with these thoughts out of both frustration and concern. I am not a professional nor have I even attended college, but I have had very real experience tutoring and developing the minds of others in language arts. Time and time again, students acknowledge the importance of –yet fail to devote themselves to– the timeless practice of rudiments. Whether it be times tables, conjugation charts or lists of helping verbs, any language has fundamental groups of things to be memorized. Today’s learner, conditioned by instant gratification, is simply unwilling to entertain this fact and is thereby unfit to learn. Honestly, I believe those of us left unswayed by this should abandon the pursuit of language altogether.

Ultimatums and underlying themes aside, l simply believe the writing system and phonetics of a language should be given the most attention from the beginner. I mean, if you can only read romaji and you understand this phrase:

hyotto suru to watashi to onaji gobyou wa ugokeru no ni ugokenai furi wo shiteiru no darou ka?

Just leave. Get out because you need to write your own blog or book on how to do that. For the rest of us, I will focus on techniques I used to master kana in four 10 hour days. Yes, I learned kana while at work –talking to customers in a call center– in just four days.