Japanese kana is one of the first things you need to learn in order to start using Japanese. And even though it might sound intimidating to have to learn 54 characters and their sounds for hiragana and then katakana, it is really quite simple. Some have even managed to master the whole set in a week, and it could probably be done in a day with a lot of hard work. You just need a few tools to help it all lock in for you.
The important thing is that you need to kill romaji ASAP. Kill it before it sets in like the plague because it will only bring you pain in misery in the future if you cling on to it. The first step to doing that is installing an IME, so that you can type in kana (and eventually kanji) when you need to instead of dealing with the mismatches that inevitably come up when you overuse romaji. It only takes a few minutes and there are a ton of good resources on how to install one, including this post I made a few months ago.
More often than not, you will be using hiragana for taking notes and things like that. It is the most common syllabary in Japanese. It is often used for furigana (the little kana above kanji that help you read them) and okurigana (the kana that often trails kanji in Japanese). It is also used for particles and a lot of little parts in Japanese. So, knowing it and knowing it well will give you a huge boost.
Katakana on the other hand, which is used for foreign words, scientific words, or to add emphasis, is not as commonly used. I most often use it when filling out forms and having to write down the okurigana for my name or my address. You will need to read it though at fast food restaurants or if you read a lot of things about computers and electronics. These seem to be the two main areas where katakana is used a lot. As matter of fact, I would hazard a guess that if you learned katakana, you could probably figure out a lot of the articles on Engadget.
Take a course
Learning kana and kanji require a lot of memorization. But don’t worry there are a lot of great courses and resources out there to help you master them. A lot of these resources are free even. For example, there are a number of pretty good courses on Memrise that will get you primed to read and understand kana. The key is to be able to read them. You will need to physically write them in order to be able to produce them of course.
That’s where drill books like Learning Japanese from Tuttle (JPN) can be a big boost. In the age of digital tools galore, it does still come in handy to physically write things. If you plan to live in Japan you’ll need to be able to write katakana and hiragana fairly easily. It is also useful for note-taking for the test.
Kana is a lot easier in this respect because you only need to master 54 characters for each syllabary (katakana and hiragana). And each character has one sound assigned to it and it never changes. Kanji on the other hand has some regular readings, but there are numerous kanji that have irregular readings. For instance, the first day of the month is pronounced ‘tsuitachi’ and written 一日 (formally). To my knowledge, the reading of つい for 一 is limited to only that word.
To help with all that memorizing, you can leverage mnemonics. Although I went through a year of Japanese at college, I only picked up a handful of kana. My biggest ally in helping me remember them all was a handy little book called Remembering the Kana (JPN). It pretty much does what it says. You can learn each set in about 3 hours if you sit down and really read through it.
Memrise is the free alternative with user-sourced mems, basically supercharged mnemonic devices there to help you remember everything. The interface also makes it very easy for you to make your own mnemonics without a whole lot of hassle. I find Remembering the Kana to be a lot more through with its mnemonics, but Memrise is also a good start.
Have a good reference
While you are getting used to kana, you’ll have those brain fart moments where you can’t seem to remember how to read a particular character. That’s where a handy reference can be huge boost and speed things up a bit. When I learned kana a long time ago, I kept getting things like yu, yo and ya mixed up numerous times and I would have to inevitably start typing things into my computer to see what each character looked like, cycling through them until I found what I needed.
And this struggling with recall is actually a good thing. Your brain tends remember things you fought for more easily than things that just kind of came to you. It makes perfect sense right? Why should your brain work to build a neural connection when you can just look it up in no time.
One thing that can come in handy is having a kana poster. Now, it seems like there are good number of kanji posters out there these days, but kana posters are a little rarer. You used to have to pick up ones meant for kids. However, White Rabbit Press has managed to plug that hole with their own kana poster.
I especially like the colors they used for the poster. It is pretty sharp and easy on the eyes. It is easy to look for what you need and find it pretty quickly. And it is just, well, friendly. It isn’t this big horde of mean looking characters, but something that you can easily approach and use on a regular basis while you are trying to nail down the sounds of each of the kana.
I would have loved to have one of these for my first year or so of learning kana. And actually it is still good to look up some rare katakana that I hardly see or use. If you are serious about learning Japanese, it is something you should really consider picking up. They also have a nice kanji poster that I will be reviewing shortly to help you with all of the main kanji you need to know.
What worked for you?
What was the biggest boost for you when it came to learning kana for the first time? Let me know in the comments below.