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.