How to Learn Hiragana and Katakana Fast: the Complete Guide to Two Key Japanese Writing Systems
When you start your Japanese learning journey, the first thing that is often recommended by textbooks and teachers is to learn hiragana and katakana, collectively called the “kana.”
I know from personal experience that learning hiragana and katakana can be intimidating, but if you understand the basics and use the following methods and resources, it suddenly starts to seem a lot more simple.
In fact, with these recommended methods and resources, you can learn to write, type and read the Japanese kana with ease.
- What are Hiragana and Katakana?
- Hiragana: Mainly for Grammatical Purposes
- Katakana: Mainly for Foreign Words
- How to Learn Hiragana and Katakana
What are Hiragana and Katakana?
First things first: Japanese uses three main scripts (or alphabets): hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Kanji (漢字) are adopted Chinese characters used in modern Japanese writing. Most Japanese words (nouns, adjectives and verbs) are written in kanji. There are about 50,000 kanji in Japanese.
There are no spaces in Japanese, so a new kanji helps distinguish when a new word begins.
Kanji characters are symbols that represent words. Think of ♥ as a kanji character that represents “love.” Do you understand “I♥you”? How about, “You’reA★”?
These symbols function just like kanji. The more kanji you learn, the easier reading Japanese becomes.
However, today we’ll learn about reading Japanese without kanji. You’ve got to start somewhere, right?
In this post, we’ll be focusing on hiragana and katakana, and for a very good reason! Hiragana and katakana consist of a little fewer than 50 characters each. Don’t let this number overwhelm you, though. If you think about it, between capital and lowercase letters, cursive and print, English has 104 different letter appearances in its alphabet, so this should be pretty manageable.
All hiragana and katakana characters make phonetic sounds, just like the English alphabet. This means that こ makes the “ko” sound, ん makes the “n” sound, に makes the “ni” sound, ち is “chi”, and は in this situation is pronounced as “wa.” Together, こんにちは reads as “konnichiwa.” Easy, right? You can even use hiragana to read the sound of a kanji character.
Hiragana and katakana use the same sounds, but have a different set of characters.
Hiragana: Mainly for Grammatical Purposes
Hiragana (ひらがな) is used mainly for grammatical purposes. Remember the symbol ♥ ? If you wrote “♥ing” it’d be read as “loving.” In Japanese the suffix “-ing” would be written in hiragana. Participles, expressions, and words with extremely difficult or rare kanji are mostly written in hiragana. Hiragana characters are easy to identify because they’re usually a bit curvy and look simpler than kanji characters.
There are some cases where Japanese words use hiragana more often than kanji such as かわいい (kawaii) or さようなら (sayonara).
Katakana: Mainly for Foreign Words
While katakana (カタカナ) represents the same sounds as hiragana, it’s mainly used to represent foreign words. Foreign names are represented in katakana, as are many foreign foods. Japan’s fun and quirky onomatopoeia appears in both katakana and hiragana. Katakana characters take a boxier form than hiragana characters do, and appear simpler than kanji. Every katakana character has a hiragana counterpart that makes the same sound.
レディー・ガガ (Lady Gaga)
ボン・ジョヴィ (Bon Jovi)
ジョン・スミス (John Smith)
The small circle in between the previous names separates a first name from a last name (or separates two names) so Japanese readers can tell where a foreign name begins and ends.
ビールを飲んでみましょう！(Let’s drink beer!)
私はアメリカンフットボールが好きです！(I like American football*.)
マクドナルドで食べる。(Eat at McDonald’s.)
*American football can also be called アメフト.
Because these words aren’t native to Japan, they’re written in katakana. Many sound words (like sound effects in manga or animal noises) are also written in katakana.
How to Learn Hiragana and Katakana
If you’re like me, you’d much rather be on Facebook, watching anime, or doing anything but studying hiragana and katakana. Luckily there are a few easy ways to learn these scripts.
The next thing you might want to do is have a hiragana and katakana chart at hand for reference. You can find a number of great charts with a simple internet search. Then, ensure that you can read and write in Japanese on your computer:
For Windows Users: CosCom Tutorial
For Mac Users: CosCom Tutorial
Typing in Japanese
One way that I learned hiragana and katakana so easily was by typing in Japanese whenever I had the opportunity. Whether you’re taking notes, writing to a pen pal or tweeting about how much you love FluentU, type it in Japanese!
To type in Japanese, select Japanese input on your computer. Type as you usually would on your normal (English) keyboard. So if you write “a” on your keyboard the character あ (which makes the same phonetic sound) will appear. If you type “ko” the character こ will be created.
If you’re satisfied with what you’ve written, hit “enter” on your keyboard. If you’d like to change the text from hiragana to katakana, press the “space key” on your keyboard. A drop-down menu should appear with a list of possible katakana to choose from.
This will have you recognizing characters with hardly any effort. For more detailed instructions on how to type in Japanese, you can check out CosCom’s Japanese typing tutorial or Redcocoon’s Japanese typing tutorial.
Writing in Japanese
After frequently typing in Japanese, I was able to recognize more and more characters, but actually writing in Japanese with pen and paper is what really engraved each character into my memory. By keeping a small journal, a study notebook, or flashcards, you can regularly practice writing.
I keep a small calendar of daily activities and special events, all written in Japanese. When I first started writing in Japanese, my handwriting was atrocious and I disliked writing in kanji. Nowadays, it feels like second nature to record my daily events in Japanese script. Practice makes perfect, so even if it’s just a few words a day, try jotting them down somewhere.
Here are some practice sheets if you prefer some structured writing:
- Hiragana writing practice sheets (PDF)
- Katakana writing practice sheets (PDF)
- Kana writing practice sheets for kids
Reading in Japanese
Now the big challenge: Reading in Japanese! When I first began to read in Japanese, I disliked it. I read slowly, I had a hard time pronouncing words and I would often give up shortly after scanning some text. Luckily, there are some great resources available for beginner readers!
Chokochoko Library offers free downloads of short Japanese stories with furigana, which is hiragana that appears over unfamiliar kanji characters, spaces and translations. This is extremely helpful if you’re just introducing yourself to Japanese script.
The next text that is highly recommended is Japanese Graded Readers. The hard copy of Japanese Graded Readers consists of an assortment of books that are separated into levels. The beginner books have furigana, so readers who don’t know kanji quite yet can still read with hiragana. The books also come with audio so that you can listen to a native speaker as you read. Following along with the native speaker or mimicking them is great for improving the speed at which you read and speak.
To recap, furigana is hiragana that is displayed over kanji characters. This is especially useful for anyone who wants to learn hiragana or kanji. A furigana plug-in on your web browser will allow you to browse Japanese websites and hover over words that you don’t know. When you hover over an unfamiliar word, a hiragana and an English translation will appear. Furigana Inserter is one such plug-in for Firefox and Google Chrome.
If you use an internet browser that doesn’t support a furigana plug-in, then you can use a furigana generator. Furigana generators are websites that will take a web page and insert furigana over any kanji. Hiragana Megane is a great furigana generator.
With FluentU, you can watch videos with subtitles that use kanji with furigana, accompanied by English translations.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Studying online and on apps
If you have some time on your hands, then why not have a one-on-one session with yourself and kana? Whether you’re a person who needs visuals and sounds to remember characters, or if you can make do with simple flashcards, there are numerous resources available online that will help you study with ease.
Real Kana is a flashcard maker that you can use on your desktop (or on iOS mobile). you choose the hiragana or katakana characters that you’d like to study, and even allows its users to select the font in which the Japanese characters will appear. Similarly, Genki Self Study has simple Japanese learning resources directed at those who are trying to learn Japanese script. You can quiz yourself on hiragana and katakana by using flashcards, games or a listening quiz.
Finally, when you need to reference a dictionary, I recommend Japanese Dictionary (Mac) and Tangorin English ⇆ Japanese Dictionary.
Do you have a favorite study method? For me, writing and typing in Japanese are my favorites. Simple and easy, right?
I hope that these methods can help you read and write like a pro! Try some (or all) of these methods and see which one works for you. You’ll be surprised by how quickly and easily learning katakana and hiragana can be.
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
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FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
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