Last week, after our Monday Japanese lesson, I finally decided to take the plunge and learn Katakana before the next lesson. I had been weirdly worried that if I learned Katakana too quickly I would forget my Hiragana but that was of course just silly and I can now read both, if slowly. Nevertheless I did kind of overdo it (who, me? hehe) On the morning of the third day I woke up to find a wash cloth on my bedside table. it took me a couple of minutes to remember waking at about 2 am convinced there was katakana written all over the bedroom walls and actually getting up to get the cloth to wipe them off. I remember returning to the bedroom and actually wiping at the walls and thinking “oh it’s gone” and climbing back into bed!
For those wondering, Katakana is one of the two Japanese alphabets (the other being Hiragana) both alphabets are phonetic, each character representing a syllable which ends in a vowel (except ‘n’) which is why many English words which have been adopted by the Japanese are given extra vowels within the spelling and at the end (for example “aisukuri-mu” is ice cream!) All the sounds in the Hiragana Alphabet are the same as in Katakana but because Katakana is used for foreign words there are a few extra combinations made with Katakana to make unusual sounds. Unlike most European languages, the Japanese have no issue with adopting words from other languages but spelling them with Katakana is how that is distinguished and it does make it much easier – you know you should be reading the word with a different mindset. Some words are hybrids which are half foreign word and half Japanese so will be written with both kana! If you see katakana it is very likely to be an English or European word which you would be able to work out even if it’s not immediately recognizable!
You can see here how, at least when not hand written, the Katakana is much more angular than the Hiragana so they stand out next to each other. You will also see that some characters (in both kana but mostly in Katakana) are incredibly similar. I found the best thing to do was to get some little flash cards and sort out the ones that are similar and spend some time working out their differences (the difference between shi and tsu, for example, is the angle of the two small strokes and the starting point of the larger line – though the pen weight is not always obvious in some typefaces.) I also found that seeing the handwritten scripts also can highlight differences because the hand written script will show the pen weight and is a more flowing, connected version and you can get a better feel for it.
The Real Kana site is a wonderful tool to drill your kana – you can even select different scripts to drill to really test yourself!
Of course the Japanese also use approximately 2000 Kanji which are actually Chinese characters. Most Japanese will only know about half that unless they are particularly educated in language and many people do exactly what we will do which is carry around an electronic dictionary to help them translate those with which they are not familiar.
To anyone learning Japanese, I highly recommend learning at least Hiragana to start and even getting your text book in the kana version if it is possible. I really believe it helps enormously with pronunciation but also on a more subtle level it seems to put you into a frame of mind which simply sees the kana and learns the meaning with less temptation to translate (usually slightly imprecisely) in between. I may be totally wrong about what’s happening in my head but that’s what it feels like to me!
I also found this chart which shows the evolution of Hiragana from their original chinese characters – warning: if you are learning Japanese from anything other than a Chinese mother tongue you may not want to confuse yourself!