I live in a small home in north Seattle, which is behind another house. We are friends with the neighbors in front of us, and the daughter is now in college (she was in high-school when we first moved in), and very interested in Japanese culture. Recently, we came home and the neighbor’s daughter asked if my wife could help her with her homework. She had just started learning Japanese language in college, and was struggling with hiragana script. I had learned Japanese in college too, so I could sympathize with her. That inspired me to write this post.
Nowadays, I am very comfortable reading and writing hiragana.1 It took me a long time, but now it feels pretty natural, and my daughter can read and write hiragana naturally too (plus some kanji). Looking back, I have a better appreciation for hiragana and why it’s so important for Japanese language, so I wanted to share some insights with other language students.
First, hiragana is a syllabary, not an alphabet. Each “letter” in hiragana actually represents a full syllable in Japanese. This is different than English. In English, the word “three” is a single syllable, but has 5 letters, while “through” has 7!. Similarly, “ought” is one syllable, and the pronunciation is different than similar-looking words like “tough” or “through”. The combination of letters determines how to pronounce it, and even then, it’s not always consistent. English is painful that way.
But hiragana is different. What you see is what you get, with a couple, minor exceptions. So for example か is always the syllable “ka”. It doesn’t matter if it is at the beginning, middle or end, it’s always “ka”. Other characters like せ (se), む (mu) and て (te) are the same way: very constant, never changing.
This is very important too because each syllable in Japanese has equal weight. A frequent mistake that Westerners make, especially us Americans, is to slur syllables together and stress them when they shouldn’t. For example, when saying “hello” or “konnichiwa”, Westerners often say ko-NI-chi-wa. The first “n” is missing, and there’s too much stress on the “ni”. But this is a hard habit to break for English speakers. Using the example of “three”, it’s five letters, but it blends together into a single sound, a single syllable.
But in Japanese every syllable, each hiragana character, is one beat. No more, no less. For example, the word for Taiwan in Japanese is also taiwan, but is written as たいわん, which is four letters, four beats: ta-i-wa-n Try saying each one as a single beat. That’s much closer to how Japanese pronounce it. In English, Taiwan is two beats, “tai” and “wan”, but in Japanese, it is four.
Another, more advanced example is the phrase かわさきにいくとおもう kawasaki ni iku to omou (I think he/she will go to Kawasaki City).2 When you see this, you should think in terms of hiragana like so:
か わ さ き に い く と お も う
ka wa sa ki ni i ku to o mo u
Better yet, try clapping each beat by yourself. Make sure you give each hiragana character a single beat. It feels a bit strange, but once you get used to this, it helps you pronounce Japanese better because you aren’t blending sounds anymore. Each one is distinct and has equal weight.
But how do you memorize hiragana in the first place? When I first learned Japanese in college, the teacher gave us two weeks to learn all hiragana, and there was nothing to do but just memorize it. It sucks, but on the other hand, once you learn it once, you do’nt have to learn it again. Fortunately, nowadays, there are a lot of good materials for learning hiragana.
Also, it helps to know how they’re organized. If you look at the chart above, they are organize in rows (or sometimes columns) based on how they rhyme. All the “a” (ah) kana are in one row. All the “e” (eh) kana are in the same row, etc. There’s even a childrens songs that helps you memorize this:
Notice how each verse rhymes, just like in the chart above. So, if you struggle to memorize hiragana, try learning a song.
Also, based on personal experience, the best way to memorize is to read very basic Japanese material, like books for newborns, or something like White Rabbit’s Graded Reader series. When I was living in Ireland, and first studyign Japanese, I started with series 1 and read all the way through series 5, and this helped my reading a lot. Hiragana felt much more natural after that.
Anyhow, this is just personal advice, so take it with a grain of salt. But there’s a few pointers I would liek to share:
- Remember: hiragana are syllables, not letters.
- Each one is exactlly one “beat”.
- They frequently rhyme with each other.
P.S. The two kana ゐ (wi) and ゑ (we) are archaic. They are never used anymore, but do appear in ancient poetry like the Hyakunin Isshu sometimes.
1 I still have bad handwriting though, both in English and Japanese. 😉
2 This is why Kanji are useful by the way: it lets you separate words. The same sentence above would normally read: 川崎に行くと思う。Once you learn how to read Kanji, this is much more readable, even without spaces.