What exactly do you need to learn to read in Japanese?

So you’re thinking of learning how to read Japanese, eh? Great idea. But before you start it’s worth trying to fully grasp the task ahead of you. See, when you learn a language like English or Korean, where the alphabet is more or less phonemic — i.e. the written characters represent sounds that combine to make meaningful words — all you need to learn to recognize is a relatively small number of characters and the sounds they represent.

Since you’re reading this, I’ll assume you know a thing or two about English. English has a written alphabet of 26 characters, each representing about one or two sounds. Additional sounds can be represented by combining these characters. Despite lots of exceptions and spelling inconsistencies, this kind of system is, at its heart, a phonemic alphabet.

In English, if you learn one phonemic alphabet of 26 characters, you are well on your way to picking up any written material, sounding out what you see, and figuring out the meaning based on the vocab you already know, or by consulting a dictionary.

Japanese, on the other hand, is a bit lot more complicated. It has two (or three!) phonemic alphabets, plus a logographic character set.

The most important phonemic alphabet in Japanese is hiragana. It alone contains 46 characters — twenty more than English’s mere 26. But don’t let that scare you. Sure, you’ll need to put in a bit of effort to memorize the appearance of each character, but in terms of sounds to learn to pronounce, it’s actually far simpler than English. There are just 14 basic sounds — five vowels and nine consonants — that combine in pairs to form the sound combinations represented by single hiragana characters. There are a few little extra things to learn, but they aren’t difficult. Depending on how much time you have, you can learn hiragana easily within a few weeks, if not days.

Then there’s katakana. Katakana is another set of 46 characters. These basically represent the exact same sounds as hiragana (with a few exceptions), but look different. Katakana is generally only used for writing proper nouns and loanwords from other languages (apart from Chinese). Like hiragana, katakana can be learned in a matter of weeks, but it can be a bit harder to remember these over time because they do not appear as frequently as hiragana in Japanese reading materials and therefore you will be less exposed to them in daily life.

To ease your learning, both hiragana and katakana can be written out systematically using what you know as the English alphabet. This is called rōmaji, and is arguably the third phonemic alphabet. Although it’s not really used in Japanese writing, all elementary school students in Japan learn it, mainly so they can learn how to type. And because everyone learns it, everyone can read it, so you’ll often see it used in business logos or shop signs.

Finally, there’s kanji. These characters are logographic — each character represents meaning rather than merely sound. This means it’s possible to see a word written in kanji and know what it means without being able to read it out loud. Kanji are derived from Chinese characters and used for the huge amount of Chinese loanwords that now make up a large amount of the Japanese lexicon, as well as many original Japanese words. To be able to read like a Japanese adult, you’ll need to learn just over 2000 kanji characters. More if you want to get into higher brow reading materials. This sounds like a lot, but since Chinese uses tens of thousands of these characters, 2000 is really not so bad. Japanese kids spend their entire school lives learning these characters by rote, but with better study techniques you can learn all 2000 characters far more efficiently, within a few dedicated years.

So…you might be thinking by now that learning to read in Japanese is a mammoth task that will take significantly longer than learning to read a phonemic language like Spanish. And you’d be right. But if you’re only learning Japanese to be conversational, it is quite possible to do so with only a few hundred kanji under your belt, so do not stress about learning all 2000+. Many learners get quite far into their Japanese learning before dedicating themselves to intense kanji study. Nevertheless, if you do want to be able to read widely in Japanese, I’d highly recommend making a start on kanji as early as possible.

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