You have now mastered Hiragana. Congratulations! You can identify them, write them, hear them, and verbalize them. Perhaps you have even become familiar with things like greetings and simple sentences. You are comfortable with the sounds and rhythm of spoken Japanese. Where do you go from here?
The next item on your list is Katakana.
What is Katakana?
Katakana「 カタカナ・片仮名 」consists of the Chinese characters for piece, temporary, and name. This could be translated as “fragmented temporary name”. Katakana is another set of 46 syllabic symbols which could be considered as a mirror image of Hiragana, although different in purpose. Katakana originated with Buddhist monks of the Heian Period (794-1185 C.E.). While working with manuscripts, they simplified Chinese characters by extracting a piece from many of them to form a type of shorthand to aid in efficiency. The bits that were taken away became Katakana. Originally, its use was exclusive to men, for historical documents, legal documents, and other official writings, but later it branched out to be utilized by all people.
Uses of カタカナ
While Hiragana is used for words of Japanese origin, a major implementation of Katakana is for use with words of foreign origin. Words have been imported from many languages around the world, for example:
French: pâtissier・パティシエ・pastry chef
Russian: Коксования・コンビナート・industrial complex
German: Arbeit・アルバイト・ part-time job
Additionally, Katakana is commonly used for animal names:
…and for many other things, including: in comic books「漫画・まんが」, in foreign names (Your name will always be spelled in Katakana.) , for emphasis, (similar to bold type, italics, or ALL CAPS) , technical terminology, and product names.
NOTE: Katakana is often used in advertising.
There are two methods I would recommend.
Option 1: Learn Katakana, The Ultimate Guide
NOTE: I am not in favor of the illustration for オ
Option 2: Japanese From Zero, Book 2
This is an excellent series by George Trombley of YesJapan.com. The second book teaches all the Katakana slowly over the span of 12 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. (Book 2 starts with Video 32.)
NOTE: I advise using both of these consecutively. (Learn Katakana, The Ultimate Guide will serve as a solid introduction, and Japanese From Zero, Book 2 will provide helpful reinforcement of the Katakana as you continue to develop your fluency in Japanese.)
There are similarities to Hiragana for some of the Katakana, but quite few of them look different. It is easy to fall behind with writing practice, because Katakana does not always appear as frequently as Hiragana, but it does appear, so make sure to practice just like you did with Hiragana. Stroke order can be taxing, especially for the four pictured above. If you see these written with a brush, the flow of strokes becomes more clear.
A (“Love”) Story for Remembering シ , ツ , ソ , and ン
シ : [The Romaji for シ is SHI, which in English can sound like SHE.] So, imagine a guy who sees a beautiful girl. He might turn his head quickly, and with a funny look say, “She シ is so beautiful.”
ツ : [The Romaji for ツ is TSU, which in English can sound like YOU…if you say it in a funny voice.] Then, when the girl notices him looking her way, she smiles and says, “You ツ …are you ツ …looking at me?”
ソ : [The Romaji for ソ is SO, which can sound like SOU or, in Hiragana: そう ] And so, ソ he winks one eye and responds, ソ・「 そうです。」 (“Yes, I am”.)
She replies, “Well, would you like to get a coffee sometime?”
ン : [The Romaji for ン is N. In Japanese, there is a way to confirm something by saying UN, or in Hiragana: うん ] He answers ン ,「 うん。(“Yes.”) Let’s go for coffee later on.」
And they lived happily ever after, I guess…
NOTE: This story is original to me. (I conceived it.)
Listening for カタカナ
The easy thing about listening for Katakana is that usually it’s a dead give away. Anything that does not sound like Japanese is probably Katakana. You will want to keep an ear out for words that sound like English, or at least sound “Englishy”. If you think you hear one, it is probably written in Katakana. Keep in mind that Japanese only has 46 native sounds, so other sounds that are not native to Japan can be challenging for a Japanese person to pronounce. This accounts for the variations in pronunciation between Katakana words and their source words.
For Optimal Success with カタカナ:
- Write them every day
- Follow the correct stroke order (especially with シ , ツ , ソ , and ン)
- Print out and post a Katakana chart on the wall at your home or office
- Read…instruction manuals? (That might be boring. Just be on the look-out for Katakana.)
- Listen to audio that might include Katakana transcribe the words you hear.
- Watch subtitled videos
- Practice typing
- Find out how to write your name. (Accuracy may vary. Confirm with native speaker.)
- Download an app
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Thank you for reading.