Over the last few weeks I've been spending some time compiling helpful resources for students in my Japanese for Beginners and Prep for N5 courses to use while learning - or revising! - hiragana and katakana.
If you've not come across these two scripts before, just know that pretty much anyone learning Japanese will start by learning hiragana before moving on katakana, and finally kanji - a story for another day!
Learning a whole new script can be a gruelling task at times, with a lot of practice required to really feel confident recognising each character. As such, today I wanted to introduce some resources and techniques I've come across that can make make learning kana (the joint name for hiragana and katakana) a whole lot more enjoyable!
Once I started writing this post I couldn't stop adding in more and more ideas, so I've made this list of contents so you can jump ahead to sections that interest you:
- Online Quizzes
- Social Media
- Reading in Hiragana & Katakana
- Writing by Hand
- Learn to Type in Japanese
I hope you find this list helpful! Happy reading 🙂
Note: none of the following links are affiliated in any way.
It should go without saying that not everyone's idea of fun is the same, so if flashcards sound dull to you, that's quite alright - just skip on to the next item in this list.
Personally, I think flashcards can be a surprisingly fun way to study a language. There's a sense of achievement you get from flipping a card (virtual or printed) to find you finally got it right, and more than anything, flashcards are just nice and easy to pick up when you're in between things (on the bus, waiting for an appointment, on your lunchbreak...), giving you a bite-sized study session where you can spend a quick few minutes quizzing yourself.
Here are three different ways I recommend my students try out this style of learning:
- Digital flashcards: a quick way to get started thanks to the many premade flashcards decks available. In fact, there are so many apps and programmes out there that I actually struggle to say which is best. That said, many of my students enjoy using Anki and Quizlet. My advice? Play around till you find an app you enjoy using!
- DIY flashcards: if you're keen to make something that's personalised to you, you can even try building your own flashcards. I used to do this manually using paper cards on a keyring (a bit like these) as well as by creating my own digital flashcards on an online programme, which has the advantage of being a) more portable and b) easier to go back to even years later. This is something you can do on Anki, for example.
- Premade printed flashcards: if this sounds like more your speed, check out these cards by Hai Hiragana. Alternatively, you can download and print out these downloadable hiragana and katakana decks available for free from Japan Foundation, Sydney.
Quick tip: if you're learning Japanese using the Genki textbook series, be sure to check out their official Anki Decks for Genki.
Does anyone else remember having an alphabet wallchart in their bedroom or classroom as a kid?
If like me you're a fan of sticking pretty things to your wall, you might also enjoy getting your hands on a wallchart such as this beautiful Hiragana and Katakana Chart Risograph A3 Prints by Geri Draws Japan.
Mnemonics are techniques or strategies consciously used to improve memory (thanks, Wikipedia).
You're likely to have come across mnemonics before, perhaps in the form of a rhyme, acronym or silly sentence to help you remember something like a list of historical figures, the order of the planets or - my favourite - the difference between stalagmites and stalactites (stalagmites "might" reach the ceiling while stalactites hold on "tight").
Click here for some more examples of mnemonic devices.
Mnemonics can be a Japanese learner's best friend or worst nightmare. Personally, I'm still haunted by my first experience of encountering mnemonics and wondering how on earth they were supposed to help me.
So...why would I be recommending this as a fun way of learning hiragana and katakana?
Let's take a look at the kinds of mnemonics you might come across when learning hiragana and katakana.
Let's check what each of these is trying to show us.
Top left image:
- Hiragana あ (a)
- This shows you can find capital "A" from the alphabet within the character あ
Top right image:
- Hiragana お (o)
- This shows you can find two "o"s in お
- (I really like this one because a lot of people get confused between あ and お！)
Bottom left image:
- Hiragana く (ku)
- The image gives an illustration of a bird, its beak forming the same shape as く
- To the right (not shown) is a description that suggests you think of a "cuckoo" to help you remember that the sounds this represents is "ku"
Bottom right image:
- Hiragana ね (ne)
- The image shows a cat curled up within the character ね, its tail curling outwards just like the hiragana
- Here, Tofugu gives the same recommendation I do, which is to think of the Japanese word for "cat" (neko), as it begins with this hiragana: ね (ne)
So what do you think? These are by far some of the least out-there mnemonics you'll come across, as they can definitely get a lot weirder!
In my experience, most people only find a handful of premade mnemonics truly useful - though I do have some students who take to these ideas like a duck to water. But because this isn't everyone, my suggestion is that you give them a go, take what you find helpful and leave the rest!
The real thing I like about mnemonics is that once you get a feel for how they're done, you're likely to start thinking up your own ones, which tend to be a lot more memorable precisely because you thought of them yourself. This can become a seriously powerful memory tool that will serve you well throughout your Japanese learning journey.
Learning resources that incorporate mnemonics include:
- Tofugu's free Learn Hiragana and Learn Katakana books
- Hai Hiragana flashcards
- Hiragana Memory Hint Flashcards by Japan Foundation, Sydney
- Katakana Memory Hint Flashcards by Japan Foundation, Sydney
Click here to view some Japanese hiragana and katakana mnemonics on YouTube.
4. Online Quizzes
Still not convinced any of the above methods sound particularly fun? Here's an interactive option I find many of my students enjoy trying out.
Some online quizzes I recommend are:
- Kana Grid - a game that trains you to recognise specific kana one row at a time
- Kana Bento - a simple drag-and-drop game
- Tofugu's Learn Kana Quiz - an adjustable quiz that lets you choose which kana you want to be tested on, including dakuten (e.g. が - ga) and combination kana (e.g. きゃ - kya)
- Genki Study Resources - under Lesson 0, look for "Japanese Writing System" to find several quizzes you can try out, with four different exercise types available: drag and drop, multiple choice, fill in the chart and writing practice
Quizzes, like flashcards, are nice and easy to pick up when you've got a moment spare, and if you get bored of one you can always try out another!
Now here's something I wish I'd been able to use 10 years ago when I was first learning Japanese.
If you're looking for something a bit more immersive to keep you going with your studies, here are a few games you could try out.
Modelled on the classic Space Invaders game, Kana Invaders offers the chance to practise both hiragana and katakana, with three difficulty levels to choose from.
The one drawback to this game is that you can't select which characters which will be featured. However, each game will start you off with the first "aiueo" row of kana (あいうえお or アイウエオ), and the more you correctly "shoot down" a given character, the less often it is featured, meaning you should end up with more practice with characters you're struggling to recognise.
If you're a PC gamer, this may be the one for you.
A self-described "meditative language learning tool", You Can Kana has exactly the kind of vibes I enjoy in a lot of games: chill, relaxing music, aesthetically pleasing animations and what appears to be a fairly relaxed pace of play.
While this is not a game I've tried myself, it has Very Positive reviews on Steam, and appears to be a great way to improve not just recognition of kana but also writing skills (incl. stroke order), pronunciation and even vocab. At the time of writing, it was £6.99 - not too shabby!
One final recommendation for PC games is Kana Quest: "A Kawaii Kana Match-Em Up". If you're in the market for something with a more retro, pixel-art aesthetic, Kana Quest is definitely worth a look.
While it comes in a bit pricier than You Can Kana, at £11.39 on Steam at time of writing, it also looks like a lot of fun, containing over 300 puzzle levels - all accompanied by a soundtrack that I'm already a fan of from the intro video!
Reviews are slightly less glowing (though still Positive!), possibly because this game focuses more on solving puzzles than on specifically teaching you kana, but all the same: if you're looking for a novel way to test your kana skills, I'd say it's worth a try.
Also on YouTube is master calligrapher Takumi.
Even if you don't feel like following along, you may enjoy watching Takumi's videos purely for the aesthetic joy and somewhat ASMR-like experience of watching a true pro at work.
If you enjoy writing by hand or are simply a fan of observing beautiful handwriting, someone else I recommend looking up is Kayo Sensei.
Kayo Sensei gives incredibly detailed (and helpful!) tips for anyone writing in Japanese, covering not just kana but also kanji. While you definitely don't need to adhere to every rule that's introduced, Kayo Sensei's materials may be up your street if you want extra input on how to brush up on the finer points of Japanese handwriting. Kayo Sensei also introduces other interesting facts about Japanese, including word origins.
Follow Kayo Sensei:
Another one for fans of beautiful handwriting, Moji no Heya is an account that you may find a bit intimidating (as it's fully in Japanese!), but nonetheless worth checking out - if only for a bit of inspiration!
Follow Moji no Heya:
- Instagram (unfortunately this account appears to have become inactive since I originally released this post)
7. Reading in Hiragana & Katakana
Did you know there are books out there that you can read with as little as just two hiragana? I didn't until a few months ago!
As mentioned, these books start out nice and simple, with just two or three characters per story. Even if you don't have any Japanese vocab to speak of, you shouldn't need a dictionary to get the gist of what's going on. In fact, these books are designed specifically to help you read without looking things up. Instead, it's all about paying attention to the illustrations and seeing what you can deduce from context.
If you feel like you're getting a bit bogged down by your studies, I can't recommend these books enough for the sense of achievement of reading a whole (mini) story in Japanese!
Follow these links to explore the books for yourself:
*To access Series 2 and beyond, click the button hidden away at the bottom right hand corner of this first page.
8. Writing by Hand
This penultimate suggestion is definitely not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but hear me out!
While I don't think anyone should have to learn to write Japanese by hand (click here for more on my thoughts on this), I do feel a bit uncomfortable when I hear people insisting on the opposite: that you shouldn't bother to learn to write by hand.
In reality, there aren't too many "should"s or "shouldn't"s that are worth paying much attention to when it comes to learning Japanese. If you enjoy learning a certain way, go for it! You do you.
My point here is: if you enjoy writing by hand, don't feel put off if you hear other people out there bemoaning this method of study and saying we should all be focusing purely on typing. While typing is a hugely important skill in today's world, I think that anyone who enjoys writing by hand should go ahead and embrace it.
As such, you may not be surprised to hear me say that I think that writing by hand was a massive help especially in the early days of my own learning journey. For me, whether it's hiragana, katakana or kanji, I've always got a lot out of taking the time to sit and write new characters out again and again until I felt comfortable with them - which, once you're used to it, is a process that honestly gets a lot quicker.
If this sounds like something you want to have a go at, here are a few tips I have:
- Handwriting isn't everything! If you are a master of beautiful handwriting and want to carry this skill over into Japanese calligraphy, fantastic! However, if like me you've never had particularly good handwriting, don't fret - whether or not you want to show your handwriting to others, it's still a good way to practice for your own learning. Think of it like doing scales on a musical instrument. It's not something you're probably going to ever perform to others (outside an exam), but that doesn't mean there's no merit to putting in the practice.
- Consistency is key. With practice, you will build muscle memory for each character you write. As such, I recommend taking care when first tackling a new character to pay attention to details like whether one lines crosses another or how the lengths of various lines compare. The aim of the game is to build good, consistent habits that will help you learn other characters more quickly in future.
- Use your voice. When writing a character, try saying its reading out loud (e.g. "a" for あ). I've always found that doing this makes me feel more active and awake, while also helping me feel less nervous when I need to read aloud in front of others.
- Pace yourself! Don't forget it can be quite mentally and physically taxing to study this way. Consider picking a time (e.g. 20mins), setting an alarm and stopping before you get too tired to take in new info.
Here are some resources that may be helpful if you want to practise writing by hand:
I also recommend jumping back up to the Social Media section above and checking out the calligraphy/handwriting accounts I recommend there.
9. Learn to Type in Japanese
Alright: time for my final suggestion.
Thinking back to when I was first learning Japanese, one thing I found incredibly helpful was installing a Japanese keyboard on both my laptop and phone. Click here for a guide on how to do this.
By installing a Japanese keyboard and learning how to type in Japanese, you'll naturally need to navigate Japanese characters including hiragana and katakana.
There are a few different types of keyboards you may come across, the most common option being to just type on a standard QWERTY keyboard and convert rōmaji into characters.
If you want to try something a bit different, however, I recommend giving a toggle keyboard a go.
The toggle keyboard on my phone
On a toggle keyboard, you type by holding down a hiragana that represents the first "a" vowel in each row. It then gives you the option to swipe up, down, left or right to select any of the characters from that row. For example, if I hold down あ (a), I can swipe up to choose い (i).
Selecting a character on a toggle keyboard
While this may sound overly convoluted, it's actually a very systematic way of typing, and I've always found toggle keyboards do a better job of giving intuitive access to things like Japanese punctuation etc. The other benefit is that it helps you to step away from reliance on rōmaji and learn to communicate through a system that requires you to recognise hiragana right from the very first step. What better way to put your kana skills to the test?
You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.
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