learning to read japanese: beginners

Does learning to read Japanese need to be hard?


As both the regular readers of my blog know, I have been learning Japanese on LingQ this year, mostly to see how hard it is. I wrote some posts on it, if anyone is interested:  http://tracesofdodo.blogspot.com/2009/11/learning-beginner-japanese-with-lingq.html and http://tracesofdodo.blogspot.com/2009/12/why-is-japanese-so-hard.html

The conclusion I came to after 2 months’ worth of study was this: the hardest thing about learning Japanese is the writing system. Japanese people regularly use four different writing systems, within the same sentence and often within the same word. I talk to people who have spent hours drilling with hiragana, katakana and kanji, and bought expensive books to help them study. I talked this week to a student who said he “only knew about 200 kanji, which wasn’t very much when you consider there are about 3,000 left to go”. That sounds like hard work to me. I don’t do hard work.

So can the hard work be avoided? I have tried some shortcuts:

1.     Using lessons written in romaji


·         I can already read the roman alphabet

·         Easy to write and type with my UK keyboard.


·         I found no good dictionary keyed on romaji

·         Romaji doesn’t really help you pronounce the words properly

·         There are too many different meanings for the same word when spelled with romaji.

2.     Using lessons written in hiragana


·         Hiragana is phonetic so it makes the pronunciation clear.


·         I had to learn hiragana (still wobbly after two months of practice)

·         Japanese people don’t use spaces, so it is very difficult to work out where a word begins and ends. This makes dictionary lookup very hard.

·         There are still too many different meanings for the same word when spelled with hiragana.

3.     Using lessons written in kanji


·         Solves the dictionary look-up problem. Kanji  provides disambiguation, i.e. different words are written with different kanji, even when they are pronounced the same way.

·         This is how Japanese people actually write.


·         Gives no clue about pronunciation.

4.     Using lessons written in kanji, with added furigana


·         Simple to create, use an online furiganiser like http://www.furiganizer.com/ or http://nihongo.j-talk.com/kanji/.

·         Gives you the kanji and the pronunciation in hiragana.


·         I can’t get it to display properly on my ereader in zoom mode.

5.     Using lessons written in kanji, with the hiragana version on the line below:

Advantages :

·         Still gives you the kanji.

·         Easy to produce with a online converter tool such as http://nihongo.j-talk.com/kanji/ or http://www.romaji.org/.

·         Easy to convert to a PDF with a virtual printer program, for download to my ereader.


·         I have to convert each lesson manually

·         PDF output is slightly untidy.

I’m currently using method #5. I download the kanji versions of the LingQ lessons, run them through http://nihongo.j-talk.com/kanji/ to add the readings, and then create LingQs keyed on the kanji, with the hiragana “reading” in the hint.

This way, I figure I don’t need to invest time in “studying” kanji. If I come across a character often enough, then sooner or later it will stick in my mind. From the first time I encounter a word I can read it, look it up in a dictionary and learn the meaning of it, as well as (thanks to the mp3 file) the pronunciation.  If I ever need to write kanji, I’ll study the stroke order then and not before.

Likewise, I don’t see the need to spend time “studying” katakana. It’s only used for the odd word, like italics in English. As long as you know the reading, you will in time pick up the katakana, letter by letter. That’s another workbook I don’t need to buy!

I know we have a lot of very motivated Japanese learners on LingQ. With any luck, some of them are also lazy. If anyone else has come up with a way  of making reading Japanese even easier, I would be very pleased to hear about it.

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