How to effectively learn and review the Hiragana and Katakana

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Note: If you are learning Mandarin Chinese instead of Japanese, and you are interested in learning the Zhuyin/Bopomofo phonetic system, you can still apply the main tips you will find in this article (like using imaginative memory and Spaced Repetition Systems) to help you learn bopomofo effectively, efficiently, and quickly.

I found a pretty cool guide for learning Bopomofo that includes mnemonic images on this site. Check it out, and apply with it what you learn in this article in order to learn the bopomofo really well!


As you may know, one of the very first steps in your Japanese journey is learning the Japanese syllabaries, known as the Hiragana and the Katakana. If you care about being able to do different tasks in Japanese that require literacy, like reading texts in Japanese and use Japanese dictionaries effectively, then mastering the Kana is indispensable.

Learning from scratch these sets of symbols doesn't have to be terribly difficult though. In this article I share with you what I believe is the best way to master the Japanese syllabaries, so that you waste as little time as possible learning each symbol, and so that you actually remember every single character for the long term.

First of all, I want to share with you this video explanation about the Japanese writing system. If you are already familiar with how the Japanese syllabaries and kanji work, then you can skip said video.


How most people learn the kana: The ineffective process of grinding


When new Japanese learners get down to learn the hiragana and katakana for the first time, most of the time they follow a process I like to refer to as grinding.

This grinding process involves drilling each Japanese character on paper and repeating their pronunciations in your head over, and over, and over again. In a nutshell, drill down those "weird squiggles" until their images become permanently burned in your brain (and hand), and repeat the mantra "a,i,u,e,o - ka,ki,ku,ke,ko..." all the way to the "n", until you hear it in your sleep.

To me, this is basically a brute-force method to learn the kana (and kanji too). But this is what most learners do to learn the characters, and at first glance, it looks like the most straightforward way to do it.

In fact, most students do succeed by following this method (I did back when I started learning the kana), and after a couple of months of grinding their butt off they finally manage to remember each character and their special combinations.

Thing is... they also start forgetting each of the characters they drilled, one by one, as time goes by. This forces us learners to keep grinding like crazy just to maintain those characters in our memory.

Sounds like fun? Sure... like an ulcer.

As I mentioned, maybe grinding seems to be the most straightforward way to learn any new kind of writing system, but just because this method is so popular and widely used doesn't mean there are no better alternatives out there.

As you will see in this article, there are much more effective methods and tools available for you to this, which can help you learn the entire kana much faster, as well as help you remember each syllable with more strength and for the long term.

The methods and tools I will share with you here is what I would use if I needed to learn the hiragana and katakana all over again. These tools are not some kind of magic key though - you will still need to put in the time to do the learning, have a bit of creativity, and you also need to remain constant with your reviewing process.

However, I really believe that if you follow these tips you will not only learn the entire kana in record time and remember it better too, but the process can even a bit fun and engaging.


How to best learn the Hiragana and Katakana: By harnessing the power of Imaginative Memory!


As I mentioned before, most people learning Japanese rely on rote-visual memorization to learn not only the kana but the kanji as well, which only leads to a path of frustration, massive amounts of wasted time and little retention. Sadly this is the path that most learners follow, because they know of no better ways.

The path of learning the different Japanese characters can be significantly shortened and even made a bit fun if we use our imaginative memory instead of our plain old visual memory to remember each new character.

How do we do this? It's simple yet very effective: instead of trying to remember the shape and reading of a kana symbol through mindless drilling, you inter-relate both elements (the shape and the sound of the character) to something else that helps you remember these components.

Both the pronunciation and shape of each character can be mentally tied to a pictograph, a story, or a concept. The more impact the story and/or pictograph has on you (it's crazy, very funny, weird, ironic, XXX, etc.), the easier it will stick in your memory and the easier it will be to recall the character associated to that story and/or pictograph in the future.

Here's an example of this idea taken from the book Kana Pict-O-Graphix.

As you can see it is much easier to remember 'u' as a baseball player yelling "Uhh!" than trying to remember it as... some weird curved stroke with a drop at the top.

Here's another example from the same book.

Here we see how the katakana 'i' kind of looks like an idle eagle. By associating 'i' with "eagle" we remember both how the character looks like (a standing eagle), and how to pronounce it (the 'ea' in "eagle"!).

To implement this idea you can either rely on your own imagination to create pictographs and stories for each kana character you come across, or you can follow a resource with neatly presented pictographs and stories already created by other people, like a book or website on the matter.

With such a resource you can either relax and just learn the pictographs/stories presented by the author, or you can also use them as inspiration to create your own.

There are lots of resources out there (paid and free websites, workbooks, etc.) that tackle the matter of kana learning, but in my experience, the vast majority of them don't implement any kind of pictographs or stories to help you memorize the characters. Most kana resources are based on the model of rote memorization and grinding, and you know how I feel about grinding...

Fortunately, there are a few resources out there that do implement the use of pictographs and stories to teach you the Hiragana and Katakana. One of my favorites is the book Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for beginners by Timothy Stout. If you get only one resource to learn the kana, get this book - it has everything you need to learn the kana.

That book should be enough for you to learn all you need about the kana. However, if you still get stuck on some characters and need some more inspiration to create your mnemonic stories, then you could try complementing the previous book with similar books that also implement pictographs.

Books like Kana Pict-o-Graphix and Dr. Moku can help you with this. Also, if you wish to follow a less-pictographic and more story-oriented method for mastering the kana, then I suggest you check out the book Remembering the Kana, written by Professor James Heisig. You can get all these books on Amazon.com.


How to practice the Hiragana and Katakana


Now, let's say that you decided to give this method a try and you got the Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for Beginners book, and maybe any of the other suggested books.

Once you have the book in your hands I would recommend you set apart a couple of days to work through the whole thing. If you really focus you can plow through the entire book in a single weekend, or you can take it easy and space out your learning during the next week or so.

Follow the book, check out each character and write them on paper or on a tablet/smartphone screen just a couple of times just to get used to writing them.

Once work through the entire book and you reach the end, what you have to do next is to ensure that all those Japanese syllables you've learned don't leave your brain, ever!

Pictographs and stories help a lot with memorization, but you still need to practice consistently what you've learned so you never-ever forget. But how should you practice, exactly?

Maybe you are thinking about... cramming your kana list each day and doing a bunch-o-drills by hand? Well, either that or reviewing using some overpriced deck of paper flashcards that you could've just made yourself... or something similar.

No and no. Thanks to modern technology and the work of researchers like Piotr Wozniak (creator of the software SuperMemo) we now have special software tools that we can use to review lots of information at timed intervals, so that we only review what we need to at the right time – not too soon and not too late.

That kind of software are called Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS for short.)

A Spaced Repetition System works very similarly to flashcard software: You are presented with a question, you either write your answer somewhere else or you answer in your head, and then flip the virtual card to check if your answer is correct.

The difference is that once you flip the card you have to rate yourself on how easy or hard was to answer the question. The higher you rate yourself, the later you will have to review that same question, and the lower your rating the sooner you will have to confront that question again.

So first, by using an SRS you save yourself from having to carry around a big paper deck of kana flashcards and having to drill so much that your hand hurts.

Also, using an SRS is much more effective than using plain old vanilla flashcard software, because it schedules intelligently the best time to review each item in your virtual deck.

Some SRS applications are paid (like SuperMemo), and some others are Open Source and free to use. My favorite and free to use SRS application is called Anki. That is the ichiban (number one) SRS tool that I recommend for reviewing the kana as well as kanji.

Anki is available as a standalone desktop application (for Windows, Mac and Linux-based OS), as an Android app (the app is called AnkiDroid), as a paid iPhone app, and is also available as an online service (which is free and can be synced with all previous versions).

If you want to try out this tool for your kana reviews then download the desktop version of Anki here. Also remember to check out the user manual, where you will find documentation and video tutorials on how to use Anki.

Once you download and install Anki, experiment with the program for a little bit. Read some of the documentation, watch the video tutorials, make a sample deck if you want, just mess around with it for a bit.

Learn how to suspend/unsuspend cards in a deck and also learn how to install decks downloaded from the Anki Shared Deck List. Familiarize yourself with Anki before using it for your kana learning.

Once you feel comfortable using Anki you need to download a kana deck to do your reviews. To do this press the "Get Shared" button at the bottom of the main screen of the program or go to the AnkiWeb Shared Deck List directly. In the search box type "japanese kana" and hit Search. I suggest you look for a deck called "Japanese Kana + Extension". Click "Info", scroll down and click on Download.

Once the corresponding .apkg file has been downloaded, double-click it. Anki will ask you "Would you like to add to your collection, or replace it?". Select "Add". A window saying that the cards were imported will appear; close it. Your new deck should now appear in the main screen.

Once you have your deck ready to go it's time to start reviewing! I think 15 minutes a day to do your reviews should be more than enough.

Each time you are presented with a reading in roumaji recall its related character by thinking about its mnemonic pictograph and story. Also, write down the character just a couple of times before answering. Then flip the virtual card, see how you did, grade yourself accordingly and move on to the next card.

Each time you are presented with just a character, do the same thing but in reverse: try to remember its pronunciation by thinking about its mnemonic pictograph and story. Write it down a couple of times too. Then flip, grade yourself accordingly, and review the next card.

Some kana symbols will be piece of cake to remember while others will be a tad more difficult. Don't get frustrated if you fail to recall many of the characters you've already studied. Have in mind that, ironically, the more you fail to recognize a certain character the more you will encounter it, which makes it easier to eventually master it.


Extra exercise: Expose yourself to the Japanese characters!


Using imaginative memory and Anki to review the kana is great, but at the end of the day you are learning all of these symbols in order to be able to read real, native, raw materials in Japanese. To do this is good to get your brain used to seeing the Japanese characters as frequently as possible.

So, once your Anki reviewing is going strong, I recommend that you start getting used to seeing hiragana and katakana (and also kanji) just how they appear in native materials.

What I mean is that for some time everyday you should try focusing your eyes on pieces written in pure Japanese text, like newspapers, manga, blog posts, websites, books, etc.

Just scanning with your eyes those long lines of Japanese characters, crammed with kanji, kana and a bit of roumaji here and there helps you get used to seeing Japanese text, as to train yourself to not look away when confronted with text in Japanese.

You can increase your exposure to the Japanese characters by doing things like:
  • Changing your desktop wallpaper to one with lots of Japanese characters.
  • Taking newspaper articles or printing blog posts in Japanese and pasting them around your walls.
  • Changing the interface of the devices you use to Japanese.
  • Playing flash games or mobile games that involve practicing the kana in some way.
  • In short, doing anything that can help you gain passive exposure to the Japanese characters.
At this stage you will not understand anything of what you are currently "scanning" in Japanese, but having this kind of exposure to the characters helps you get used to seeing them directly instead of averting your eyes when you see them. That happens at first!

Doing this also starts building in your brain a vague sense of how written Japanese text is organized. This sense becomes much more developed once you master the kanji and start learning Japanese vocabulary.

Finally, all of that said... this kind of "passive exposure" to Japanese text is optional. It really is. If you want, you can just focus on active learning of the language and not do passive exposure.

It will be hard to get used to seeing Japanese text and listening to Japanese actively, but with practice you will eventually become comfortable with it, and you will eventually learn the language.


Now that you have this knowledge... what will you do now?


All right, now that you have discovered this effective way of learning the kana, what are you going to do now?

Will you actually try out some of the information you've found on this page, or will you just go like "Heh, nifty article... but oh well, time to stop procrastinating and complete the kana drills for class and cram like crazy for the Japanese test I have tomorrow morning... yay me..."?

Are you currently taking Japanese classes at college or a language institute? If so, consider if it's really worth it to be taking them. Nobody will tell you this, most teachers don't fully accept it, but the truth is that language classes don't work for the immense majority of people.

Sure, not all classes are terrible, and some can even be genuinely engaging. Some teachers do a great job in making classes a lot more enjoyable, and I honestly admire them for that.

But the problem with most Japanese classes is that they focus on VERY ineffective learning methods (besides forcing you to do it their way). One of these ineffective methods is learning the kana and kanji through rote-visual memorization and grinding.

In my other article, How to learn Japanese - My take, I discuss more in depth why classroom instruction in general is obsolete nowadays and what I think is a better alternative to learn the language.

I also talk about leveraging the wealth of knowledge and resources to be found on the Internet in order to learn the Japanese language on your own terms.

Taking full control of your own Japanese learning journey gives you the freedom of learning at your own pace and to choose your own schedule.

It's totally ok to follow an structured method if you like structure, and it's also cool to have a coach-like tutor that can assist you and keep you on track... if that's what you truly want, and you have the extra money to pay for that service, of course.

But whether you have a tutor giving you one-on-one instruction or if you are all on your own, you should be the one on the drivers seat of your Japanese learning. You should be the one under control of the process, not a teacher or some other authority.

Studying a language is not the same thing as actually learning it, so don't let any naysayers discourage you from doing things your way as long as the methods and tools you follow are giving you good results!

After this, you might be thinking something like: "Hmm, interesting idea... but how do I get started, then?"


A great guide to help you in your Japanese journey: Master Japanese


What should you start doing if you decide to take charge of your own Japanese learning? What should you work on first? And how? What kind of resources should you use? Should you ask a tutor for help right away?

To answer these questions I recommend you get yourself the fantastic digital guide Master Japanese, which is a very comprehensive resource about independent, effective (and even fun!) Japanese learning.

If you want to learn more about this guide, I invite you to click on the image or blue button below:

Note: The following links are affiliate links. This means that if you follow any of these links and buy a product in the page you end up in, I earn a commission.


¡Click here to buy the complete Master Japanese package!


Thank you for reading this article! I honestly hope you found it useful for your Japanese learning journey. Cheers! :D


Summary


Note: If you are learning bopomofo, the main tips on this TL;DR can still be useful to you. Read them, download this bopomofo mnemonics guide, and apply with it the tips you'll learn here.

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Most people learn the kana by grinding, which is drilling each character over and over again while thinking about its pronunciation, with the hopes that both the writing and reading of each character all stay in your memory.

Most people are successful learning the kana in this way, but the process is slow and a tad painful. You can learn the kana much faster and effectively if you use your imaginative memory to learn the characters, and a Spaced Repetition System to review what you've learned.

How to use imaginative memory: Instead of trying to learn the shape and pronunciation of each kana character by brute force, use your imagination to create pictographs and mnemonic stories that tie the shape of the character with its pronunciation.

Here's an example. The crazier and outstanding the pictographs and mnemonic stories you create, the better.

There are many resources on the web for learning the kana, but almost none of them implement pictographs/stories. You can try creating pictographs/mnemonics on your own if you want.

I would recommend you get the book Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for Beginners by Timothy Stout (and/or Kana Pict-o-Graphix and/or Remembering the Kana by James Heisig), and work through it to learn the kana. I recommend this book because it includes pictographs and mnemonic stories to help you learn more effectively.

How to review: Download Anki, learn how to use it, download a kana deck from the Shared Deck list, and use it to review what you learned working through the previous book (or on your own). Be consistent with your reviews.

Optional: Expose yourself to text with kana and kanji (like manga, blog posts, books, etc. in pure Japanese) to get used to seeing text in Japanese, even if you don't understand what you are seeing yet.

Now that you have this knowledge, apply it to your kana learning instead of doing nothing with it!

Also, if you want more information on how to learn the rest of the Japanese language, I suggest you read my How to Learn Japanese article, or you can also check out the Master Japanese digital guide by John Fotheringham by clicking on the link below:

Note: The following is an affiliate link. If you buy something through it, I earn a commission.

Click here to check out the Master Japanese complete package!


Last Updated: June 3 of 2016

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