Probably one of the most basic but important things you’ll need to learn if you want to master Japanese.
Are you struggling to get a grasp of where to start when wanting to learn Japanese? Well, to be honest with all of you, there’s so much to process and learn with Japanese. Due to the sheer volume of information you need to absorb when learning Japanese, It can be quite intimidating.
The Japanese language is probably one of the most complex and beautiful languages you can learn. As all aspiring Japanese speakers are bound to figure out in their Japanese learning journey, the Japanese language has 3 main systems of writing– Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.
Kanji is quite easy to spot as it is the most complicated to write and basically are Chinese characters that express a word or a phrase–this makes it easier to determine the meaning of a word as some words may look the same if written in Hiragana. Unlike Hiragana or Katakana, Kanji doesn’t tell you how a word is pronounced. How about Hiragana and Katakana? What is the difference between them and when do we use them? Let’s discuss this through this blog!
Hiragana and its characteristics
As Japanese students, the first thing you learn aside from a few random Japanese words, is how to read and write in Hiragana. This becomes the base of your Japanese language studies as mastering how to read and write opens up so much more learning resources and content for you. To break down what Hiragana is, It is considered as a phonetic letter, meaning it is read as how it is pronounced–this makes it easier to determine how to pronounce a word which is especially helpful for beginners and learners who are not familiar with how the Japanese words usually sound like.
There are a total of 46 Hiragana letters which are composed of a syllable made up of a vowel and one or two consonants. Hiragana is more commonly used for native Japanese words and are usually used alongside Kanji characters to form a word. Unlike Kanji, Hiragana doesn’t specify a certain words’ meaning so make sure you review your vocabulary or at least pay close attention to it’s context in a sentence if you’re a bit unsure when you are trying to read something!
When speaking about its appearance, it’s quite easy to determine the difference between Hiragana and Katakana letters. Hiragana letters have a curved appearance despite some letters having quite a few lines in them. Hiragana can also be commonly found in lower level Japanese books used as “furigana”, or a reading aid found above kanji characters to show the reader how the kanji character is pronounced. Be careful though as a lot of words might have the same hiragana spelling but intonation can easily change a words meaning!
Katakana and its characteristics
Katakana is pretty much the second main thing you need to learn and memorise when you are beginning your Japanese language studies. Similarly to Hiragana, Katakana is also a phonetic letter that is used as a syllable in a word. There’s a total of 45 katakana letters and similar to Hiragana, they don’t signify a words’ meaning and focus mainly on how a word is pronounced. It differs quite a bit from Hiragana though as it is mainly used for foreign “borrowed words”, emphasis in advertising, and onomatopoeia. Boy, that’s a mouthful! Let’s tackle these uses one by one. Katakana is mainly used to indicate how to pronounce non-Japanese words that have been borrowed from a foreign language. One example could be how we say and spell “coffee” as コーヒー(ko-hi-), which is a borrowed word from English but has been integrated into the Japanese language.
Other examples could be foreign names like “Tom”, spelled and pronounced as トム (Tomu) or other loan words “アルバイト”(part-time job) which is borrowed from German(“Arbeit”) and means “work”. As mentioned earlier, Katakana is also used for putting emphasis on advertisements. A few examples could be seen when walking around the streets of Japan. You will notice how stores and restaurants have store signs in Katakana instead of their Kanji or Hiragana counterparts. An example could be how most Ramen restaurants have “ラーメン” plastered in the front. One more use of Katakana is for “Onomatopoeia”, or words that are pronounced how they sound. A few examples could be the english words, “Beep”, “Boom”, “Cuckoo”, and “Crash”. Some examples in Japanese are “ワンワン” (Wanwan: dog bark), “バタン” (Batan: Bang!), and “ピンポーン” (Pinpon: sound of a doorbell).
There is a stark difference between the physical appearance of Hiragana letters and Katakana letters. As mentioned earlier, Hiragana words are considerably more loopy and curved. Katakana letters are more sharp and angular. They are quite boxy and have a lot of edges. Katakana words are also usually accompanied by hyphens as most foreign words cannot be fully translated into Japanese. An example could be the word “hamburger”. As Katakana letters can’t fully spell or enunciate it, it is spelled as “ハンバーガー” in Katakana. You will definitely be surprised at the sheer amount of loaned/borrowed words the Japanese language has. It’s quite hard to detect as the borrowed words do get “Japanized” when spoken as a Japanese word. Can you think of other Japanese words that are spelled predominantly in Katakana?
What do you think so far? Was it simpler or more complicated than you thought? It might seem complicated at first but all things are in the beginning. What we have personally experienced from trying to learn Japanese for years is that things don’t usually make sense at the present but eventually do in the long run and make the most sense when you look back at what you learned. Katakana and Hiragana can be quite confusing at first but a proper understanding of the usage and its appearance will definitely help. Try practicing how to write both as much as you can and reading, writing and using Katakana and Hiragana will eventually be a breeze!