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Phase 2: Kana

March 25, 2013

“Kana”, collectively ひらがな(hiragana) and カタカナ(katakana) are what I consider the mortar which holds the Japanese language together. More importantly, they are what makes learning Japanese beyond simply speaking possible. After all, why learn a language at all if you’re going to remain illiterate?

Before I dive too deep into that discussion, let’s take a moment and go over what kana are, and why they are so important. There are two types of kana, which are:

ひらがな (hiragana)

Hiragana is one of two Japanese “syllabaries” used in everyday writing. Each “symbol” represents a sound, or syllable of Japanese. These can then be strung together to form words. If you take a quick look at the kana tables, you’ll see that there are two sections – one for ひらがな (hiragana) and one for カタカナ (katakana). You’ll notice each of these have a “romanized” section of text below them, giving an indication of how they sound. All sounds in Japanese contain a vowel, most accompanied by a consonant. The only exception to this is the sound ん (the consonant “n”, or sometimes “m”), which is by itself. Every sound in Japanese is represented by the contents of this table. For now, just focus on hiragana.

Hiragana was originally developed from simplified versions of Chinese Kanji in the cursive script style during the 5th century, and was used to indicate pronunciation. Hiragana was originally considered “women’s writing” because it was adopted strongly by women due to the fact that they were unable to obtain the same education as men at the time. Historically,  hiragana was only used in personal documents, where katakana and Kanji were always used in official or legal documents. Nowadays they are all mixed together and used everywhere.

Technically speaking, you could write every word in Japanese in hiragana and still be “correct”. However, this is extremely uncommon and gives the appearance of being uneducated (which is true if you’re still learning, but still). In fact, children first learn hiragana and katakana before learning Kanji. As they get older, they learn to use Kanji in sentences.

Hiragana has several uses, including (but not limited to):

  • Particles (future posts will discuss this topic)
  • Japanese words which don’t have Kanji associated with them, or if the Kanji is not part of the 常用漢字 (じょう・よう かんじ / jouyou Kanji), or “common” Kanji set. An example of this is こんにちは(konnichi wa / good afternoon / good day).
  • Parts of words which don’t have Kanji. An example of this would be しい (あたら・しい / atarashii), which means “new”. The red highlighted Kanji is pronounced あたら(atara). The rest of the word, (しい / shii), is written in hiragana.
  • Furigana, which is written in hiragana. Furigana are small hiragana written above or below a Kanji to tell the reader how that Kanji is pronounced. This is most often found in materials written for younger audiences still learning the Kanji, or in publications making use of Kanji outside the “common” Kanji set. Furigana is an awesome learning tool for beginners of Japanese.

All of these reasons above (especially the last one) are the reason it’s so important to know all hiragana like the back of your hand. In fact, once you have mastered hiragana, you should completely dispense with Romaji (romanized spellings of words) and only use Hiragana for learning Japanese.

I may expound on hiragana more at a later time, but since this article is just meant to be an overview I will move on to…

カタカナ (katakana)

Katakana is similar to hiragana, with some key differences. Each “symbol” still represents a sound, but has a different use. It can be recognized by its use of more angular lines versus the cursive-like flow of hiragana. If you refer back to the kana tables, you’ll also notice this “syllabary” also contains additional sounds not technically found in Japanese. Katakana has a few uses which are again not limited to the list below:

  • Proper nouns, including names and business names. Example: ニコニコ動画 (にこ・にこ・どうが / niko niko douga / “nico nico douga” – literally means “smile video”). 
  • Foreign loan words. For example, スパゲティ (supageti / spaghetti). Words like this are “Japanized”, or made to sound as close to Japanese as possible given the sound restrictions of the language. This example also highlights the point of the additional sound ティ ( ti – pronounced like “tea”). Japanese does not contain this sound, but the closest equivalent of ち (chi, pronounced “chee” as in cheese) doesn’t sound right.
  • Onomatopoeic words and emphasis. For example,  ペコペコ (ぺこ・ぺこ / peko peko / to be awfully hungry).

Katakana was originally developed from simplified Chinese characters to indicate the correct pronunciation of Kanji in the 9th century. By the 14th century, a one-to-one ratio between these symbols and the sounds of spoken Japanese was developed. The word “katakana” literally means “part [of Kanji] syllabic script”, the “part” meaning that the characters originated from portions of Kanji. Another interesting fact is that katakana was at one time considered “men’s writing”, the counterpart to hiragana above.

Overview of the Phase 2 Process

Given the above information about hiragana and katakana, I will now go back to my previous example of kana being the mortar which holds together the bricks of Japanese. The bricks are the Kanji from phase 1. They make up most of the language, but mean nothing by themselves (at least for the purpose of this discussion). Similarly, the kana serve to fill in the gaps, but again do not stand on their own. However, together, they form the sentences, ideas, structures of Japanese. Consider the following example sentence, which contains all three “scripts”:

スパゲッティ大好きです。 (わたしはすぱげていがだいすきです。 / watashi wa supageti ga daisuki desu. / I love spaghetti).

The red is Kanji, with green being the hiragana and blue being the katakana. They all are glued together form a single idea.

As this article is meant to be just an overview, I’ll table further discussion about the kana scripts themselves here and refer back to Remembering the Kana by Heisig.

As for the process itself, phase 2 is relatively lightweight in comparison to Phase 1. Essentially you should proceed through the book, covering about a lesson or two per day. I personally got through the book in about a week, but that may be a bit aggressive for some.

One additional step I took was writing the kana several times each and every time their card came up. What this does is helps to solidify handwriting skills and make the kana more readable. Be sure to take your time with this – you’re far better off learning to write them correctly the first time than having to re-learn them later on because you blew through this phase too quickly. This phase is small as it is – don’t rush it.

For each lesson, make sure to add cards to your (newly created) SRS deck, complete with examples. Work these reviews in with your daily rotations of Kanji and you’ll be reading kana in no time.

A Few Things to Note

  1. I mentioned above that children learn kana first, then Kanji. Children’s brains learn better this way, but my research tells me adults learn differently. You could technically reverse phases 1 and 2 if you wanted to.
  2. I didn’t cover pronunciation in detail here because Heisig’s book does it really well. I may write up my own guide some day, but for now Remembering the Kana is the best resource available for this.
  3. As an extension to point #2 and other points made above, pay as much attention to stroke order and direction as with Kanji. It will serve you well in the future, trust me!

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