Learning Hiragana: The Foundation for any Japanese language learner

2009 September 30

There’s good news and bad news with learning Japanese. The bad news is there’s three alphabets, two with about 50 characters, and a third, Kanji, with 2-3,000. The good news is the first alphabet you learn, Hiragana, has sounds that are repeated for the rest of the alphabets. So once you’ve mastered Hiragana, you should be able to pronounce all Japanese sounds going forward. Not only pronunciation, but Hiragana is also an alphabet that any Japanese word can be written in. So to summarize, once you’ve learned Hiragana, you can speak, write, and read Japanese!

Well, not exactly, to add a disclaimer all Japanese periodicals, tv shows, road signs, etc. are written in all three alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. In order to become fluent a Japanese language learner will have to learn all three of these alphabets, in the order: Hiragana, Katakana, and then Kanji. (Or, Kanji characters can be learned along with Katakana, but Hiragana must be mastered first) However, once someone who’s learning Japanese has learned Hiragana, they can write full sentences and even paragraphs to a Japanese speaker and he or she would completely understand. They can also read articles or any Japanese periodical, but it would have to be translated all into Hiragana. For example, some early children’s books for K-1st graders are written all in Hiragana.

Hiragana comes in bunches of 5 characters. Each character in Japanese has a vowel sound attached to it, as you’ll recognize by looking at the below sample sounds. It actually makes for really great rap music: it’s probably one of the easiest languages to rhyme in. The sounds also repeat, once you learn perfectly how the first bunch of 5 characters sound, then the remaining 9 bunches of 5 characters are just variations off the initial sounds.

In today’s article we’ll focus on the very first 5 characters, again as mentioned earlier the pronunciation of these characters is key: once learned every sound after it will just be a variation on these sounds (note: with a few exceptions). The first five characters with pronunciations added are below:

aiueo

The rhyme describes what every college graduate without a job goes through. He or she might want to live away from home, but they can’t afford food! Katrina Needs Food Hates Home (this is of course not an official rhyme and if you think of something more catchy please let me know!) The vowel in each word reflects each sound of the first bunch of 5 characters. Katrina actually has three vowel sounds, but the first and last a are the “a” sound for the Japanese character: あ.

Equally important along with the pronounciation is the stroke order for each Hiragana character. When writing each character, it is important to not take your pencil off the paper until each stroke is completed. With the first character あ, for the circle make sure to start and then curve around with your pencil, without stopping and taking it off the paper. いand うare self explanatory. For え、the directions on the second stroke are as follows: left to right, right corner to left corner, then trace back up a little bit and curve the tail. For お and the second stroke, it goes top to bottom, then curve around for the final touch.

Now you’ve hopefully learned the beginning 5 bunch of Hiragana. This article will continue to explain in detail the following 9 bunches of Hiragana, but it’s important to master both the concepts and the reading, writing, and pronunciation of the first 5 bunch before moving forward. Pat yourself on the back, learning Hiragana is the first step to learning this wonderful and fascinating language of Japanese.

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