Learning Katakana and Hiragana in one week

Osaka Travel Blog

 › entry 23 of 93 › view all entries
Random Observation/Comment #27: The Yakuza wear rings on their pinky fingers. No wonder I get weird looks. It says I’m an ethical engineer, not a blood thirsty gang member! (Actually, it’s on the second segment and usually they cut off the top of it and replace it with a fake finger to show their loyalty and dependence on a group effort. Interesting.)
Japanglish is currently integrated into a majority of Japan’s everyday life style. Just walking around to the train station, I see Katakana signs translating many of the words taken from the English language into what I call “FOBiness.” The R’s and L’s are constantly switched and they don’t even spell normal words the same way we do. The combinations of consonants and vowels are greatly reduced to b, d, g, h, k, m, n, p, r, s, t, y, and z, but there are almost twice as many letters to memorize. There’s wa, chi, fu, shi, tsu, and ji (as well as a few others), but the range of sounds and words that can be produced are limited. I haven’t mastered the Japanese FOB thinking so even when I can read from the menu something like “cocktails,” it still takes me about 30 seconds to sound out each combination of letters. I feel like I’m in 1st grade again. Reading comes so easily now that I have no idea how recognize patterns so quickly. What a beautiful mind.
With practice, recognizing the letters of the Katakana alphabet become second nature, but instead of 27 letters, you have to memorize 47 (which doesn’t even include the variations with the circle and apostrophes). Perhaps English is just easier for me in spelling things out because we use the combination of simpler sounds in the alphabet to create a flow of sounds. We do this with the tradeoff of having weird spelling exceptions which are probably not as prevalent in Japanese language. Although, they do use kanji, which pretty much forces the memorization of the meaning and context as well as the complex strokes for every word. Japanese English has separated into a more complicated alphabet, but has restricted itself of only using this arsenal. Maybe I’m just bullshitting because I have not studied anything about language and I can’t even speak or fluently read Japanese.
So Katakana is used to sound our English words, while Hiragana is used to pronounce Japanese words. Kanji is completely separate and you basically can’t sound out anything by the strokes. To me, it seems more like they’ve combined the definition within the word, so you can’t really read it without knowing a general combination of the origination of the word – it’s quite elegant, but confusing for beginners of a language based more on the melody than the lyrics.
It took me about 6 days to learn Katakana and Hiragana. The secret will be revealed within the hour (dun ching, dun ching – lol – I make myself laugh). There actually is no secret. You just need a lot of free time and the interest to learn the language. If you’re surrounded by signs that don’t mean anything to you, and then you slowly learn a letter of the alphabet with the associated sound, you’ll recognize this letter in every street sign and restaurant menu. You’ll do your own little happy dance for pronouncing that one syllable in that word that still makes no sense to you. After the first 20 sounds, you might be able to get half of the words (as you stand there in the middle of street trying to read a sign that says “haircut.” (Damn! I should have known from the swirly thing.) It’s even better when you sound out the company names and you see the English version right next to it.
Take your time with the each letter and rewrite it as often as possible (without peeking at the answer). Flash cards might help, but I think the most important part is applying what you’ve learned to everyday situations. Once you get the whole Katakana alphabet, you start reading everything around you and piecing together all of the prefixes and suffixes. If you think about how we read – we’re mostly just recognizing groups of letters at a time. This is second nature, and to train yourself to find your method of reading quickly just takes time. After you see more combinations, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Unfortunately, learning Katakana sounds in 3 days does not mean that I know how to read at a decent, or even practical, pace. Don’t give up because it will click if you stay interested in the topic. Keep your eyes open as if everything is still exotic and try not to glance over anything because it looks familiar.
Hiragana is actually the most important if you already know Japanese. It will spell out most of the words for you, like in English, so you can order at a restaurant. You probably won’t know what you’re ordering, but at least you can point to a picture and make an attempt. This is often a frustrating process to stuff information into your mind and try to retrieve it quickly (I’ve had much practice with volume and speed throughout Cooper), but to me, the challenge is actually quite exciting.
Has someone told you that you couldn’t do something? Has your own inner conflicting voice told yourself you couldn’t do something? (Note that I make the difference between your inner voice and your beliefs. I think if I believed I couldn’t do something, I wouldn’t be having the same conversation with myself – that’s just plain crazy talk.) Well, regardless of whichever method you use for motivation, for me, the obstacle ahead is what makes me interested to continue striving. I’m some junkie trying to fill up on the next dose of accomplishment. Every injection of appreciation and every line of admiration gives me a sense of fulfillment. As it should be – we should be proud of our conquests and we should be ambitious to find the next mountain to climb or country to occupy. I am the reflection of the American dream (I need oil!).
Although I haven’t given too much helpful advice on learning how to read Japanese, I hope everyone at least tries to pick up a language or even learn a useful skill (like giving good back-massages). As my parents have always said, “Take the initiative.” No matter how much materialism you obtain, it can all be taken away from you by someone (cough, the government). But the two things that will always stay with you are your knowledge and your faith (since I’m agnostic, I’ll bet more on the education). Benkyo and Gambate.
~See Lemons try to think in FOB

Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
photo by: yasuyo