In the vast scheme of learning to read Japanese, the very first step is learning the hiragana and katakana, known collectively as kana. These are the two phonemic alphabets of Japanese, meaning that, like the English alphabet, they are made up of characters that represent sounds in the Japanese language.
There are many ways to learn the kana characters, but one of them is superior to all others: learning with mnemonics. Mnemonics are simple memory clues that you use to help you learn complex information more easily. For example, many people remember the order of the planets from the sun by associating the first letter of each planet with a word in an easily memorable sentence, such as My Very Earnest Mother Just Sat Up Near Pop (I learned the planets back when Pluto still was one).
For learning Japanese kana, pictorial mnemonics work perfectly. For example, in trying to remember the character こ, pronounced “ko”, it is helpful to look at the character and picture its lines vaguely outlining the shape of a coin, the first two letters of which are pronounced the same as this character. Or く (“ku”), pronounced like the first three letters of the word kookaburra, whose wide open laughing beak can be visualized in the character, く.
If you are extremely creative and have all the time in the world, you can come up with your own pictorial mnemonics for very single hiragana and katakana character. But if you’re busy like most people, there are many terrific books available that come with these sorts of mnemonic clues. With the help of these books, you can easily learn the kana in a matter of weeks. Start with hiragana first, as these will come in more handy as you learn. Once you feel 90% comfortable with hiragana you’re ready to move on to katakana. Some of the most highly regarded books are:
1. The old classic, Kana Pict-o-Graphix.
2. Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for Beginners: First Steps to Mastering the Japanese Writing System, which comes with a CD of printable flashcards as well as games, quizes and puzzles to help you practise.
4. Or if you prefer flashcards to carry around with you, rather than a book, Kana Flashcards: Learn and Remember Kana in a Flash With Visual and Verbal Mnemonics is just what you need. In addition to pictorial mnemonics, these flashcards also include stroke order diagrams to help you write the characters correctly, and hundreds of new vocabulary using the characters that you learn.
5. Finally, if you don’t have easy access to a Japanese native to help you pronounce the characters correctly, you can’t go past Japanese Hiragana and Katakana Flash Cards, which comes with a great CD of audio recordings for each character’s pronunciation as well as additional vocabulary.
So what are you waiting for? Order one of these books and get started!