Learn Hiragana: The Foundation of Learning Japanese

hiraganaThere is no denying that choosing to learn a new language is daunting. Japanese is one of the more challenging languages to master, especially in the written form. That’s largely because the Japanese language has four major writing systems: hiragana, romajj, kanji and katakana. It is largely recommended that you learn hiragana first.

The Four Writing Systems of the Japanese Language

Hiragana and kanji are the most common writing systems you will see as you learn Japanese, but here is a quick overview of each style:

  • Hiragana: A phonetic writing system in which each symbol corresponds to a single syllable. Every word in the Japanese language can be written in hiragana.
  • Kanji: Used to represent Japanese words with a single symbol and should be learned after you have a good working knowledge of hiragana.
  • Romaji: Allows you to write Japanese words using the English alphabet. As tempting as it may be to focus on what looks familiar, you really should learn hiragana first, as Romaji is rarely used today and tends to be tricky to pronounce correctly as it does not flow like the actual Japanese language.
  • Katakana: Used to write some non-Japanese names, like Cindy, and words that are not native to Japan, such as dog or cat. Katakana is also used for onomatopoeia and in some instances to make a word seem more formal or stand out more. Katakana has not been used much as a complete system since WWII.

History of Hiragana

Hiragana was developed during the 5th century as a form of Chinese writing called man’yõgama. Man’yõgama was originally a set of kanji characters that were used to communicate pronunciation rather than a meaning.

Man’yõgama had both a regular script and a cursive script form. The regular script was used exclusively by men and was developed into katakana while women used the cursive script. Hiragana was derived from the cursive script form, or shõsho, of man’yõgama and was often referred to as “women’s writing.” Because it was the form of writing allowed to women, there were many works of poetry and fiction written by Japanese and Chinese women during the early stages of the development of the written language.

In 1900 hiragana was simplified so that each syllable corresponded to only one symbol. The word hiragana means ordinary syllabic script. Thus hiragana is a syllabary, not an alphabet.

Why Learn Japanese?

Learning Japanese has many benefits to offer a perspective student. Learning any foreign language can add to your resume, and boost your brain power, but why choose Japanese?

  • Japan has become one of the most powerful nations on the planet. There are opportunities available to those with the ability to speak and write in Japanese that will not be offered to those that can only communicate in English. In the business world or as an educator, speaking Japanese will give you a competitive advantage.
  • Learning the language also gives you an insight into the culture of the Japanese people. You cannot truly understand a culture if you do not also understand the language in which the people speak, write and think. Japan developed a great deal of its culture and language through China, Korea and other Asian countries, so learning Japanese will also give you a greater understanding of the history and culture of all of Asia.
  •  Japan is on the cutting edge of medical and scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. The fields of artificial intelligence and robotics are especially important in Japan and developments are being made almost daily that could advance the world as we know it.
  • The entire literary works of Japanese writers, both past and present, are available to those that speak and read Japanese. The current literary trend is towards introspective works that allow the reader a deeper understanding of the lives of Japanese people.
  • With the help of a great instructor, learning Japanese can be easier than you would think!

Why Should You Learn Hiragana?

Learning Japanese is difficult. There, it’s been said, now let’s move on. We have already discussed the reasons that learning Japanese is also rewarding and important. So now we must answer these questions: “Why should I learn hiragana?” “ Shouldn’t I just go ahead and jump into learning kanji?” “How about romaji?” “I already know that alphabet; shouldn’t I go with what I already know?”

  • Learning hiragana will give you the basic tools to speak, write, and read most Japanese.
  • The hiragana syllabary consists of forty six symbols or kana. Each symbol is directly related to one sound, or mora, in the Japanese language. Kanji consists of several thousand symbols. Each symbol can have several meanings depending on the situation in which it is used. There are literally Japanese scholars that do not know all of the kanji symbols. It is the current practice in Japanese schools to only teach the most widely used 1200 of the kanji symbols. This makes hiragana much more “user friendly” for the student and non-native speaker.
  • Learning to read and write hiragana will help your Japanese speech patterns. Hiragana flows correctly for the normal pattern of Japanese speech.
  • Starting with romaji will encourage English speech patterns and confuse your efforts to read and speak Japanese. Because romaji uses the English alphabet, we tend to try to pronounce the words as if they were English. This leads to confusion and your Japanese ends up sounding very American.
  • Because hiragana is a syllabary it naturally lends itself to correct pronunciation. Once you have learned a few basic rules and the sounds that go with the symbols you will be able to read or write any word written in hiragana. This is very useful as you learn a new language. If you can remember what a particular word sounded like, you can write it in hiragana even if you have no idea what the word means.  This is almost impossible in English.

What is Furigana?

Hiragana is often written above or to the side of kanji kana in order to make sure the meaning is clear. This is done in newspapers, children’s books, text books and anywhere else that it is important for the meaning of the kanji to be absolutely clear. This type of reading aid is referred to as furigana. Furigana has made it far easier for children, non-native readers, and under educated Japanese people to read newspapers and other public documents.

Drawing the Hiragana Kana

When learning to write the actual hiragana kana (symbols) it is very important that you learn to write each kana in the correct order of stroke, direction, pressure and order. Each kana is drawn a particular way and must be drawn that way each time. This ensures that the kana will look as similar as possible from writer to writer and is necessary because many of the kana look similar enough that they could be mixed up. Once you learn to correctly draw the hiragana kana you will find it easier to tackle the more complex kanji kana because you will be familiar with how the symbols should feel when you draw them.

Although learning hiragana may seem to be a daunting task at first, don’t give up! Once you begin to memorize the individual kana and the syllables associated with each one, you will find the process gets easier. Don’t forget to spend time learning the process of drawing each kana correctly, as well.

After you have a working knowledge of hiragana you can begin to add in specific kanji and katakama kana in order to appear more “adult” in your writing style. While all Japanese words can be written in hiragana, it is considered to be somewhat childish to use only hiragana to express your thoughts. You can learn kanji and the compounds with this four-part course.

As a student of a new language, it is the perfect place to start! Eventually you will develop the ability to use kanji, katakama and hiragana together to write Japanese. Remember that hiragana will aid your pronunciation and inflection as you learn to read, write and speak Japanese. Learning hiragana takes time and dedication but it is a required first step towards learning Japanese.

Still not sure if learning Japanese is the right choice for you? Consider testing the waters with a beginner online Japanese course.