The Most Effective Way to Learn Hiragana

Posted on | September 28, 2010 | 7 Comments

Over the years, I had made a few attempts to learn Hiragana (平仮名), the fundamental character set of the Japanese language. Sadly, in every attempt I quited before completing the first row of あ, い, う, え, お (a, i, u, e, o). I never intended to learn Japanese seriously in the past, so I never tried to figure out the reason behind this failure.

About a year ago, I gave it another try, this time using the SRS approach. I found one nice Hiragana flashcard set available over at Smart.fm. I subscribed to it and after a few days of working diligently through the cards, I gave up.

Many of us do not realize that we do not learn languages effectively in a linear fashion. In particular, we do not learn well from lists or tables of words, declensions, conjugations, and other grammatical constructs. We need to associate them with context. The most effective way to learn a language and any of its sub-domains is through context. Characters should be learned in the context of words, and words should be learned in the context of sentences.

I tried to tackle Hiragana again a few months ago. I went to Smart.fm again. This time instead of continuing with the Hiragana set, I picked the “Japanese Core 2000: Step 1” set, which contained 200 simple Japanese words. One nice thing about Smart.fm set is that it provides example sentences and audio clips associated with each word. While going through each word, I made sure that I studied the sentence and listened to the audio before moving on to the next one. I also turned off the Romanji display option. This way I could force myself to associate the sounds with the Hirigana characters.

It was not as hard as I originally anticipated. I worried less on learning the characters than the actual words and their uses in the sentences. The characters popped up again and again that after going through about 90% of the course, I was already over 90% familiar with the Hirigana characters. At the completion of the course, not only did I learn 200 Japanese words, I also picked up on the way the 51 monographs, their diacritics, digraphs, and digraphs with diacritics. This was indeed “killing a few birds with one stone”.

When I look at the Hiragana character table now, I can recall the sound of each character. At the same time, I can associate context with the characters. I can bring up a few example words which contain the characters. I have a sense of frequency of use of each character. I can also identify special uses of certain characters, such as る (ru) and う (u) for verb endings (dictionary forms), and わ (wa) and が (ga) for particles.

Now looking back at the Hiragana character table just gives me a weird feeling. I am like looking at a bunch of dissembled parts removed from a master piece of art work. The Japanese characters looks much more elegant in real Japanese words and sentences.

Comments

7 Responses to “The Most Effective Way to Learn Hiragana”

  1. chris(mandarin_student)
    September 28th, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    Absolutely know that feeling, it is why I have put off learning Thai script. When I learned my own alphabet I had words to associate it with already.

  2. underhill
    September 28th, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    First off, congrats for learning hiragana! I really like how you found a way to make things work for you, instead of trying to fit your square brain into the round hole of chart-based studying. Actually, some would say your way works better – many people start using Roman characters and later move to the kana, and you can tell that they still think of the English-letter equivalents when they speak (especially on the ら・り・る・れ・ろ set).

    A tiny correction, though, that might help you: the “wa” particle isn’t written with hiragana わ, but instead is written with は, which is otherwise pronounced “ha”. Otherwise, Japanese is written pretty much exactly like it sounds – your two other exceptions to the rule are へ (“he”), which is pronounced ”e” (like え) when used as a particle (it’s one of the direction particles), and を, pronounced “o” in modern-day speech(like お), which is VERY rarely used in words and will appear as the object particle about 98% of the time you see it.

    Good luck with your Japanese!

  3. edwin
    September 29th, 2010 @ 8:20 am

    Thanks Underhill for pointing out the typo.

  4. John Biesnecker
    October 7th, 2010 @ 1:31 am

    I found that with Chinese, too. When I first started learning I tried to cram in the characters without much context, because I knew that knowing them was the bedrock that the rest of my Chinese skills would rest on. It wasn’t until moving to simple kids books, with characters used in whole sentences and paragraphs, that I really started learning. Context is so important.

  5. translator
    October 11th, 2010 @ 2:02 am

    Context is key with learning any new language. Congrats on learning this very difficult writing and art form.

  6. Chris Alesevich
    October 20th, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    Dear Edwin,

    Sorry for contacting you through this post, but I was unable to find an email address!

    I contact you because I think you may be interested to learn of a neat venture to teach Chinese online that I’m involved in. Called Wudaokou Borderless Learning, I’ve in fact started an online Chinese school that teaches Chinese to individuals and kids. Our lessons stand out from the crowd because each is a virtual “field trip” to famous sights in China, and each student learns 1-on-1 live with a native teacher in Beijing. I see that you can read & speak Chinese, so this might be a great opportunity to brush up and maybe learn something new. (Please check out our website at http://www.wudaokou.com to see more about how we teach Chinese.)

    If you are interested, I would like to offer you a free Chinese lesson with one of our teachers for you to check out — it’ll be fun, if you have the time! It would be great if you were also interested in “reviewing” the class experience to share with your blog readers (any of your language-learning related blogs), but it is okay either way — I am just happy to share our neat Chinese learning experience with somebody with similar interests!

    Thanks very much for your time and consideration — I hope you can take our free class for fun!

    Kind regards,

    Christopher Alesevich

    http://www.wudaokou.com

  7. Ruslan
    May 10th, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

    Thank you for sharing this idea of studying Hiragana. I started learning Japanese recently and was really struggling to memorize both Hiragana and Katakana. Then after making an educational mug (with multiplying tables) for my friend’s son, I came across an idea to make one for myself. So I just printed Hiragana and Katakana charts on my coffee mugs, so I can study them every time when I have my coffee. It worked well for me, so I even decided to put them on my online store.
    Hiragana mug

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