How to Learn Kana My Way (Which Isn’t the Best, But Meh)

I have friends who want to learn Japanese. There’s one thing I always tell them when they ask me where to start – learn kana, also known as hiragana and katakana. They are two out of three of the Japanese writing systems and they are where you should start. They’re basically the key that opens the first door to learning Japanese.

In a nutshell, hiragana and katakana (collectively known as kana) are the ABCs of Japanese; the most basic understand of the two is that hiragana is used for Japanese words and katakana is used for foreign loan words. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but let’s not dive into that right now.

I would like to disclaim that I’m not expert at this and just a beginner. This is probably not the best way to learn it either. It might not work for you, so keep that in mind. Hopefully, it’ll send you in the right direction though!

Anyway, I learned how to read kana and write kana at two different times.

To read kana, I used:
– The Internet, or more precisely, this site
– A manga with furigana over the kanji

To write kana, I used:
– An iPod Touch (an iPad or an iPhone works as well)
The iKana Touch App
– Writing utensil, like a pencil
– Paper

I would like to point out that none of these ways taught me the “alphabetical” order of these kana and I’m still trying to learn that. You might wanna try remembering this song for the order.

PART 1: Learning How to Read Kana

The first thing I did was learn kana, way back in April 2008. I was super motivated to learn how to read kana. I can’t remember the reason why – perhaps it was because I had some Japanese-language manga sitting in my room and I was fed up with not knowing how to read it. Either way, I had some sort of motivation.

Once I had that motivation, I found probably my favourite site ever for learning how to read kana: RealKana. You can choose which row(s), which character sets, and which font faces you want to study. After you select those, you go to the “practice” tab. When you get to that tab, you just type the romaji of the kana. If you get it wrong, it’ll tell you. If you get it right, it’ll tell you. If you don’t know it and are struggling to remember, you can always mouse over the kana and see what it is (don’t get into the habit of doing this though – you won’t learn).

Anyway, the process went like this for me, which you may want to do as well:
1.) I selected the first row, A-I-U-E-O, for both hiragana and katakana.
2.) Briefly studied how the characters looked on the charts.
3.) I went to the “practice” tab and tried to remember how they read
4.) Once I felt that I got them remembered rather easily, I opened up the manga I had (in this case, Pocket Monsters Special volume 10), skimmed for the kana I had just learned, and read them, double checking my readings with the charts.
5.) I added the next row in, in addition to the first one, and redid steps 1-5 (adding in one new row each time) this same processes up until I got to the “ta” row.

Then I started getting frustrated. You know, that kind of frustration that swells up in your chest and your head so badly that you want to throw something? That sort of frustration. Why was I frustrated? You might be surprised, maybe not – I was NOT frustrated because learning kana was hard (in fact, it was rather easy), but rather that the process was slow. I wanted to learn kana now. I wanted to be able to read Japanese now. Not later.

I ended up selecting EVERYTHING (yes, both hiragana and katakana) on that chart and just doing trial & error until I remembered everything. This took me probably about a good two hours or so.

Mentally, in my head, I warped all the kana into their phonetic sounds (so あ turned into “a” in my head, た turned to “ta”, etc.) and made mental notes on telling the different between characters that looked alike (め (me) and ぬ (nu) look a like, for instance; I remembered the readings by remembering that “nu” had the little loop at the end like ね (ne) did).

Once I felt I had a grip on kana in my head, I cracked open that manga and read, double checking myself until I began to feel comfortable. Eventually I took off the mental training wheels of double checking myself and trudged through the manga, making sure that knowing how to read kana was embedded in my mind like my ABCs.

I didn’t stop there though with reading kana – I set whatever I could set in Japanese, in Japanese, played my video games in Japanese. Things like that. Understanding was not what I needed to do at this particular moment. What I needed to do was make sure I could read it and that I could keep on reading it.

So, in a nutshell:

– Go to Realkana.com, select the row(s) you want to study for both hiragana and katakana, then go to the “practice” tab and practice until you feel at least somewhat confident;
– Use a manga to test your reading ability to see if you learned what you were trying to learn;
– Continue until you learn how to read all the kana
Continue to immerse yourself in the written language and read it

But Kelly, I don’t have a manga in Japanese to read!

You don’t actually need to have manga – I just suggest it because it seems like a really fun, arguably cheap way to remember your Japanese. There’s other ways to test your reading ability too – even more cheap (but possibly less fun) would be Japanese websites. Setting your electronic devices into Japanese, if that’s an option, can work as well. A more expensive way (or cheap, depending the route you go) is to play video games in Japanese. I’m pretty sure playing games in Japanese is why I remember my kana now, as I don’t read a lot of manga in Japanese currently (sort of hit the point of wanting to be able to understand it, not just read it).

The immersion is very important. Making sure you don’t jump over the words is important too.

If you are having trouble finding reading material, I can recommend a few:
J-Comi – Japanese site that lets you read Japanese language manga for free (You’re gonna wanna browse around for something that may catch your interest)
Everyday Elementary School Student Newspaper – you’re probably not an elementary school student, but I guarantee your reading level is of one for Japanese. Unless you’ve been studying Japanese for years and are just reading this article for no particular reason. There’s no furigana over the kanji, BUT it does tell you how read it next to the kanji instead.
Pokésho – this site is a bit NSFW (not safe for work) sometimes, but I have to recommend it if you’re a Pokémon fan; it has colourful pictures, fun artwork, and pretty hilarious comics. Unfortunately, there’s no furigana over anything, so you’re out of luck for reading kanji.

Other than that, I suggest you find some way to get Japanese manga or video games from somewhere. Perhaps from Amazon Japan (and if they don’t ship the item overseas, you can always use Tenso)? Or maybe take a trip to the Kinokuniya or Book Off closest to you?

If you’re planning on buying a manga or a game, go with a series you like. For instance, if you’re a Naruto fan, buy the Naruto manga in Japanese. If you’re a Pokémon fan, buy the Pokémon games in Japanese.

Part 2: Learning How to Write Kana

Okay, while the first part is easily doable and arguably cheap (depending on what you do for the immersion portion), this part is a bit more expensive and may be impossible for some people. You are probably going to want to revert to a different method if this one isn’t possible for you.

I used to have an iPod Touch (I don’t know where it is now, and to be honest, I don’t care) and I purchased an app from the App Store called iKana Touch. It’s this nifty little app that has flashcards with audio pronunciations, writing test, and speed test (as in how long does it take you to read the kana). Presuming you’ve already done the previous step, you’re pretty much only going to need this app for the writing bit.

Essentially, just open up this app, click on whatever set you want to study, go to the “Writing Test” portion, and repeat it over and over again until you feel like you have a decent grasp on writing the character.

Then pull out that good, old pen(cil) and paper and write. Write. WRITE!

I have to admit, learning how to write kana is easier when you have a bit of vocabulary under your belt. You can always write words English loaned from the Japanese (like sushi and tsunami) if you don’t really know anything. The flashcards in this app have words as well, if you want to use those.

I started using this app shortly after I took my Japanese class in school (which, unfortunately, uses Rosette Stone – I HIGHLY advise against the program. HIGHLY) to learn how to write more than あ・い・う・え・お/ ア・イ・ウ・エ・オ and a few others. Surprisingly enough, drawing my finger over the screen was super helpful in learning kana. I just repeated the test many times until I felt confident enough to do it on my own. There definitely was a few blanks here and there, but they eventually went away with practice.

Just as a side note, a few (very few) of the kana have the wrong stroke order during the test.

Kelly, I don’t have an iPod Touch/I can’t buy the app because [put reason here]!

You ARE aware there are other ways to learn how to write kana, right? The cheapest method would be just using a pen and paper to learn how to write it, writing over and over again. There are other ways too, but you’ll have to figure them out yourself.

If you find the repetitive writing to be boring, try to make a game out of it – maybe for every set of kana you write, you get points towards doing something (like using the computer)?

If you do go with the traditional method, you’re going to have to look up the stroke order. You should be able to find it if you do a quick Google search.

Anyway, I hope this is/was of some help to you! Remember – my way may not work for you or you might have to adjust it. No one way is the correct way!

If you would like to see more ways to learn kana, I suggest you head over to Tofugu’s Top 100 resources list. It’s a bit outdated, but still wonderful!