Want to know the best way to learn the Japanese alphabet? You’ve come to the right place! Here, you’ll find some of the most effective tips and tricks to help you master the fundamentals of the Japanese language.
In the United States, we learn our “ABCs.” But in Japan, children learn their あいうえおs. Even though Japanese can seem difficult to read and write, learning the basic Japanese alphabet isn’t as hard as you think!
The Japanese Alphabet & Writing Systems
Hiragana and Katakana
Hiragana and katakana are the two types of kana regularly used in Japanese, just like print and cursive in English. The chart below shows all of the characters (the hiragana is the first character, and the katakana is the second).
Why are there two Japanese alphabets? Simple: they have different uses. Hiragana is the default alphabet used to write word endings, particles, and other grammatical elements. Katakana is mainly used to write foreign-derived words (like “kindergarten” and “baguette” in English).
Kana are very organized. First, there are the five vowels: “a” (like in “ball”), “e” (like in “green”), “u” (like in “moon”), “e” (like in “men”), and “o” (like in “bone”). These are the characters in the chart that do not have a corresponding consonant.
The rest of the kana have corresponding consonants. To read them, just add the consonant to the top of the vowel. The consonant always comes first and the vowel second, for example, the k+a=ka (かカ). The only exception to this is the consonant “n” which, as you can see, has its own box and does not end with a vowel.
SEE ALSO: 8 Essential Japanese Greetings
Pronouncing Kana Vowels
There is only one rule that English speakers need to remember about Japanese kana vowels: no diphthongs, or sound changes within a syllable. English speakers tend to close their mouths as they end vowel sounds. This doesn’t happen in Japanese, so make sure to keep your mouth open as you end your kana.
Pronouncing Kana Consonants
You may have noticed that the “t” and “r” in the kana chart have asterisks next to them. This is because they are a little different than the “t” and “r” you are used to as an English speaker.
To pronounce the Japanese “t,” the tongue is farther back (right behind the front teeth) and no air is released. The effect is close to a “d.” You’ll hear this type of “t” in romance languages like Italian, Spanish, and French.
The Japanese “r” is much closer to the flipped “r” in Italian and Spanish. It involves touching your tongue briefly to the ridge behind your front top teeth. Learn more about Japanese pronunciation here.
Tips for Learning the Japanese Alphabet
Now that you know the difference between hiragana and katakana, here are some tips so you can learn the Japanese alphabet.
- Learn hiragana and katakana together. Since there are two characters for each sound, it makes sense to learn them at the same time.
- Practice writing the characters in groups, just like you did with uppercase and lowercase letters in elementary school.
- Use flashcards. Making them gives you an opportunity to practice writing, and using them helps you memorize the alphabet.
- Pay attention to stroke order: In Japanese, the order in which you write characters makes a big difference. Use a guide or workbook to make sure you get the order right.
Now you’re ready to start spelling out all that Japanese vocabulary you’re learning. Remember, the best way to learn Japanese is with a teacher, but if you take the time to write out these characters and use flashcards to practice, you can learn the Japanese alphabet.
Keep practicing, stick with it, and have fun!
Elaina R. is a teacher in Ann Arbor, MI. She is acquainted with many languages and speaks English, Japanese, Italian, and German. She earned a Bachelor of Music from the University of Southern California, and is currently working on her Master of Music from the University of Michigan. Learn more about Elaina here!
Photo by: RW Sinclair