Learn Japanese, Step 1: Romaji & Hiragana

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NOTE: This article is part of a series.  If you are just browsing, feel free to skip ahead to Part 2 or Part 3.

A challenging aspect for beginning students of the Japanese language is working out where to start.  Unlike Western languages, which can share many commonalities, (use of the Roman alphabet, parallel grammar patterns, etc.) the components and structure of Japanese are more unique. It may take time to adapt to this.

I remember as a child first becoming interested in the language.  After some basic research, I unfortunately convinced myself that acquisition of Japanese would be impossible.  It would be several more years before I would entertain the thought again. Do not let this happen to you.  If you have a strong desire to learn a language, trust yourself. I cover this topic in my first article.

Reading is the secret to starting off successfully with a new language.  This is especially true in the case of Japanese. If you can read, then you know how words are meant to sound. Therefore, they are easily identifiable in spoken conversation, and can be understood, remembered, and produced with minimal effort.  Reading provides a basis and foundation for everything else that occurs with the language.

Reading in Japanese requires the knowledge of four writing systems.  Do not let this overwhelm you.  These writing systems are simpler than you would think and work together nicely, allowing for efficient comprehension and clarity in self-expression not available in other languages.  What’s more, if you are reading this, you have already mastered one of them.

What is Romaji?

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Romaji is based off of the Roman alphabet, common to languages like English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and others.  Roma means “Rome” and ji means “character”.  Thus, Roma + ji = “Rome character” or “Roman character”.  If you were to write it in Japanese it would look like this:「ローマ字」or「ローマじ」.

 There are only two times you need to use Romaji:

1. When you are writing Japanese words for people who don’t know Japanese

(For example, a Japanese man’s business card may include his name as Soichiro Honda for foreigners whom cannot read「本田 宗一郎」)

2. When you are learning Hiragana

If used at any time other that those specified above, it will be harmful to your progress in Japanese. The reason for this is that the Roman alphabet, at best, can offer only approximations of Japanese sounds. There are subtle differences that can reveal unnatural sound to the Japanese ear.  We can see this even between Romance languages, where for example, the ll in Spanish makes a y sound, while in Italian it retains the standard l sound.  Therefore, it cannot be taken at face value that sounds will always correspond, especially as Japanese comes from a totally separate language family.  Your goal should be to stop using Romaji as soon as possible.

What is Hiragana?

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Hiragana「ひらがな・平仮名」consists of the Chinese characters for even, temporary, and name.  This could be translated as “smooth temporary name”is a set of 46 syllabic symbols which represent every possible sound in the Japanese language.  They were made by breaking down certain (more complex) Chinese characters into an elementary form.  Hiragana surfaced in the Nara Period (710-794 C.E.) but it was during the Heian Period (794-1185 C.E.) that it became widely used.  Initially the script was used by women only. Over time it was officially accepted and now is used by everyone. Learning Hiragana is the first task for the student of Japanese. Unlike Romaji, these symbols are indigenous to Japan, so you will essentially be learning your ABCs all over again.  (Hiragana is first taught to young children in primary school.)

Common ひらがな Words

りん・apple

くるま・car

ほん・book

はい・yes

いいえ・no

Forty-six new symbols may seem like a lot at first, but honestly, learning them is really easy.  I learned Hiragana in 3 days, studying only 30 minutes each day.  Once you know Hiragana, you will be able to read a substantial amount of Japanese.  For me, it was a hugely motivating, amazing experience that turned on the green light for learning Japanese.

Learning ひらがな

There are two methods I would recommend. 

Option 1: Learn Hiragana, The Ultimate Guide

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This guide was created by Koichi of Tofugu.com.  It is a straight-forward presentation of all the Hiragana.  If you follow the directions exactly all the way through, you will know Hiragana at the end.

Option 2: Japanese From Zero, Book 1

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This is an excellent series by George Trombley of YesJapan.com.  The first book teaches all the Hiragana slowly over the span of 13 lessons, integrating the symbols from the previous lessons as you progress. Vocabulary, grammar, and exercises are included in each lesson, and there is even a new video series with the author.

NOTE: I advise using both of these consecutively.  (Learn Hiragana, The Ultimate Guide will serve as a solid introduction, and Japanese From Zero, Book 1 will provide helpful reinforcement of the Hiragana while you learn the basics of Japanese.)

Writing  ひらがな

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After being able to identify the Hiragana, you need to be able to write them. This will require practice and dedication on a daily basis.  You can use designated practice sheets or just a regular notebook. If you write them every day, they will begin appearing more natural, and within a few weeks reading and writing in Japanese will become second nature.

Listening for ひらがな

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Once you feel like you are getting the hang of it, start listening to Japanese audio. There are a lot of great podcasts out there.  Check iTunes for the best results. Isn’t it funny how you can spell out the words perfectly by only hearing them?  If you are having trouble, try listening to slow Japanese at first.

For Optimal Success with ひらがな :

  1. Write them every day
  2. Follow the correct stroke order
  3. Print out and post a Hiragana chart on the wall at your home or office
  4. Read children’s books (to see how words are formed)
  5. Listen to audio and transcribe what you hear
  6. Watch subtitled videos
  7. Practice typing
  8. Download an app

The Hiragana Song

By: MissHanake

(Download available in video description box.)

You are welcome to leave any questions or comments about the article or send them to me via Twitter @cbilbrey12. To receive updates on forthcoming articles, please follow me.

Thank you for reading.

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