Japanese Hiragana is the often referred to as basic alphabet of the Japanese language. However, it is not an alphabet, but a syllabary consisting of 48 syllables. It is the first script children learn at school. It also should be the first script you learn as a student.
Hiragana is mainly used to write word endings, grammatical elements such as propositions and words not normally written in Kanji or Japanese characters. Many adverbs, nouns and adjectives are written in this elementary script. Also, it has replaced many obscure and obsolete Kanji. You will find the script widely used in materials for children, textbooks, animation and comic books.
You most likely know that the Japanese language has two other scripts – kanji, and katakana. Basically, Kanji is used for meaning (semantics), while kana are sound scripts. Katakana is used to represent loan words, onomatopoeic words, terminologies in the fields of study like science and medicine, and foreign names. You will also find it used for emphasizing words in manga and children’s books that would normally be written in Kanji or Hiragana.
When learning to read Japanese you should start with Hiragana. I have read arguments that Katakana is better to learn first for non-native speakers. The idea being learners can relate to Katakana easily as it deals with foreign words. While this might be true, it won’t help you with your general understanding of Japanese. Katakana isn’t used for verb inflections, particles and other grammatical elements. Nor is it used with Kanji. Katakana is the script you should learn last as it won’t introduce you to any fundamentals of Japanese.
You can learn Hiragana quite quickly if you put your mind to it. Just give yourself 10 to 20 minutes a day for Hiragana practice and in a few weeks you be moving on to Katakana and Kanji.
A word about Romaji
Romaji is not a Japanese script and you should not waste your time learning it. Many students start learning Japanese by mastering romaji believing it is Japanese. Romaji is only the transliteration of an aspect of Japanese into a western writing system.
Many students and teachers believe this to be useful, because it means Japanese can be written in western letters, but this is a false assumption, because of the fact that romaji only captures one aspect of the language – sounds. Learning romaji will not help you understand the grammatical aspects of the language nor help you read and write. It may only help those not interested in becoming proficient in the language to learn Japanese words.
Author: Brett Foster
Bill Kemp lived in Japan for 10 years studying Japanese, Aido and Karate.