Learn Katakana: where to start
(If you don’t have Japanese installed on your computer, some characters may display as squares or unreadable symbols)
The Japanese written language is comprised of three different writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are both referred to as the Kana symbols.
Katakana is used mainly to write foreign words that have made their way into Japanese.
Hiragana is used to write native Japanese words or to spell words or part of words that don’t have their own Kanji symbol. Kanji symbols are the busy looking characters derived from Chinese.
Hiragana and Katakana each consist of 46 basic symbols which can be modified slightly to cover every syllable you need. It is recommended you Learn Katakana after you Learn Hiragana.
Should you learn Katakana or Hiragana first?
In some ways, newbies find Hiragana easier to learn than Katakana due to Hiragana’s distinctive, smooth cursive style and Katakana has several kana which look terribly similar.
But a big plus for learning Katakana first is that if find yourself in Japan you can more readily apply your reading skills as Katakana is used for “foreign words”. So you will be able to read food menus, brand names etc once you know Katakana.
There are differing schools of thought but the bottom line is: Dr. Moku makes learning Hiragana and Katakana so easy that you can easily learn both in a couple of hours.
In general, words spelled with Katakana are derived from foreign words (not always English) which is a great help to the student of Japanese because once you are familiar with the pronunciation, you can make a good guess at how thousands of words are said in Japanese.
You are already familiar with how native Japanese speakers pronounce ‘R ‘and ‘L’ so always keep this mind when reading or speaking.
Let’s look at some examples:
Note how the dash stretches the vowel to give the ‘ee’ sound. This is called chōonpu.
Note the small circle and slightly smaller sized symbol that make PYU. This is modified Katakana.
In the English alphabet, there are many different ways depending on the font or typeface that a letter or word can appear. Think of the world famous Coca Cola logo, it looks much different from the simple abc’s you first learned as a kid doesn’t it?
Now let’s look at some real life Katakana examples.
The kana HA ハ is converted to BA バ by adding two small strokes called dakuten. The small tsu ッ called a sokuon, indicates that the following consonant is doubled so we have Battoman.
This is an interesting example as it shows 1) How kana can be written vertically and 2) How a Japanese word has been adapted into English instead of the other way around.
Here the text is coloured and overlapping
So from these examples you can see that each Katakana symbol represents a syllable. This is why the Kana are referred to as ‘syllabaries’ instead of alphabets.
Download a free Katakana chart here and check out the Dr. Moku interactive Katakana Learning console here
DAKUTEN are the two small strokes that change the sound of the Kana.
The ‘k’ sound becomes a ‘g’ sound (for example ‘ka’ カ becomes ‘ga’ ガ The ’s’ sound becomes a ‘z’ sound (for example ’sa’ サ becomes ‘za’ ザ .The ‘t’ sound becomes a ‘d’ sound (for example ‘ta’ タ becomes ‘da’ ダ The ‘h’ sound becomes a ‘b’ sound (for example ‘ha’ ハ becomes ‘ba’ バ
HANDAKUTEN is a small circle that changes ‘h’ to ‘p’. So ‘ha’ ハ becomes ‘pa’ パ
YŌON uses smaller than usual versions of one of the three ‘y’ kana, ya, yu or yo to make a contracted word. For example kyō ( meaning “today”) is written きょう with the smaller ‘yo’ and kiyō, (meaning “skillful”) , which is written きよう has a full-sized ‘yo’.
SOKUON is a small tsu (っ or ッ in either Hiragana or Katakana respectively). This small tsu means that the consonant in the next character is ‘doubled’, and a slight pause results. For example, in the word ‘Yukkuri’ (ゆっくり), the word is pronounced ‘yu’ (a slight pause ) ‘kuri’. The っ (tsu) represents this slight pause
CHŌONPU (rarely used in Hiragana) appears as a ー (a long dash shape) indicates the use of a long vowel sound in the preceding character.
You can watch how each character is written in the learning console. Stroke order is important, the general rule is left to right and top to bottom.
There are three different ways to end a stroke: tome, hane and harai.
- Tome (means “stop”). You bring your pen to a complete stop at the end of a stroke.
- Hane (means “jump”). You end the stroke with a slight flick.
- Harai (means “sweeping”). This is the broad sweep at the end of a stroke.
Traditionally, Japanese is written in columns going from top to bottom, with columns ordered from right to left. After reaching the bottom of each column, the reader continues at the top of the column to the left of the current one.
However, modern Japanese is horizontal and reads from left to right.
Learning Katakana is not as hard as you think. You can Learn Katakana in under a day with Dr. Moku, some people have managed to learn Katakana in just one hour by using our mnemonic learning systems.
Read how to Learn Hiragana here