Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Basics of Reading Japanese

So here's my first little Japanese-centered lesson! This is just a very basic look at how the writing system works in Japan. While many of you are probably aware of most of this stuff, I wanted to go over the basics before moving on to some more intermediate materials and actual study methods.

By the way, here's a video version of this lesson :)

Many people I know who are just starting to learn Japanese aren't too worried about reading or writing - I was like that too, at first. I loved listening to the language and what excited me was the idea of understanding and speaking it, while reading and writing did not appeal to me very much. There are several reasons for this...

1. Too hard.
If I didn't know any Japanese and I looked at a block of text, it would be overwhelming. All those foreign symbols are pretty scary - how can anyone read this stuff?? There's way too much to learn, the way it all works together is way too confusing, and even if it is technically possible to learn it, the sheer amount of work you need to put into it would just not be worth the effort.

2. Boring.
Not only would learning all those symbols be incredibly difficult, the idea of memorizing character after character with no end in sight does not sound very exciting. Sure, they might be pretty to look at, but learning them by writing them over and over again? Boooring...

3. Unnecessary.
Who says I need to read or write in Japanese anyway? My goal is just learning how to understand what people are saying and know how to answer back. That's sounds like a lot more fun anyway. Why should I go through the trouble of learning a whole new syllabary? I don't need to be literate in order to learn how to speak right?

Wrong. Sometimes you may not realize just how important reading or writing can be when learning a language. Not only is being literate very useful in its own right, it's also incredibly useful in learning how to speak as well. And I'm here to convince you that it's not only necessary, there are ways to make is easy and fun too!

First, let's go over the basic elements of the Japanese writing system. There are actually three (four?) different alphabets.

1. Hiragana (ひらがな)
These are the basic building blocks of sound in Japanese. They can be used to write general Japanese words or parts of words. There are 46 of them in a set, encompassing sounds like a, i, u , e, o, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, sa, shi, su, se, so... etc. What's nice in Japanese is that there are only 5 different vowels and thus a limited number of different sounds you can make, so pronunciation is pretty straightforward. Hiragana are generally pretty round and curvy.

I would start learning the hiragana first. There aren't too many of them and I find them easier to learn, probably because they all look so different from each other. This way you'll start to get used to how the phonetic alphabet works. I learned them in small groups, write each of them out individually a few times, and cemented that knowledge through flaschcards or memory games.

2. Katakana (カタカナ)
Katakana are also simple phonetic sounds, just like hiragana, and it's the same set of 46. The difference in usage is that katakana is used for foreign words (things like "coohii" and "hambaagaa" are derived from the English words "coffee" and "hamburger"and would thus be written in katakana). There are a few other exceptions where you can use these, such as for sound effects, certain names, or sometimes for emphasis. While they sound the same as hiragana, they are generally more angular and boxy.

Learning katakana is the next step, since I find them slightly more difficult to learn, mainly due to the fact that several of them look very similar (such as ソ and ン... I swear there's a difference there...) I learned them just like I did hiragana, in small groups and with flashcards, and they're really not bad either.

Together, Hiragana and Katakana are referred to as simply "Kana" and make up the phonetic characters of Japanese. Now, once you've learned them, take a moment to pat yourself on the back and go look at a text of Japanese. You'll start recognizing some symbols! Sure, you might not know what anything means, but instead of looking like a bunch of gibberish, you'll start to see sounds instead. Let yourself feel super excited, it's such a huge step, and use that excitement to get that confidence you need to know you can learn this. The next part's a little tougher, but it's just as doable as the kana.

3. Kanji (漢字)
This is the big, scary element of the writing system. Most kanji look much more complicated than any of the kana, and there are literally thousands of them. They're actually based off of Chinese characters, which were brought over to Japan long ago. Instead of signifying a sound, each kanji has a certain meaning. For example, the rather simple symbol "人" can be pronounced in several different ways (such as "hito" or "jin") but the meaning stays the same: person (or people). So not only are there tons of kanji that can be combined to make words, there are usually a couple of different pronunciations for each kanji, depending on the context. This is generally what overwhelms people (although I'm here to say don't be discouraged!)

Kanji can take months, even years to learn. But I think that learning them bit by bit is totally acceptable - you'll start recognizing more and more as you learn new words. Plus, you don't have to learn every single kanji to be literate. So it really is more doable than it sounds. More concrete lessons to come!

4. Romaji?
I just wanted to briefly mention what is sometimes considered to be a fourth alphabet: romaji. This is just spelling Japanese words out with roman letters. Instead of 日本 (Japan), you would write "nihon." Sure, using romaji is useful at the very beginning when you don't know how to pronounce anything yet, but the faster you stop using romaji the better. It's just not used in Japan, and if you use it for too long, it gets difficult to transfer into kana and kanji. Trust, me, once you get used to how things traditionally work, seeing things written in romaji will start to feel very painful to look at...(that's a good sign!)

So there you have it! A look at all the different syllabaries in the Japanese writing system. It can seem scary as first, but once you start pulling in the part you'll realize it's really not that bad. There are plenty of ways to make reading and writing easy and fun to learn, not to mention lots of methods to keep yourself motivated along the way. I'm hoping to help with that a little bit in my blogs! Hope this helps~
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