21G.501 | Fall 2019 | Undergraduate

Japanese I

Instructor Insights

Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji

In this section, Takako Aikawa, Wakana Maekawa, and Masami Ikeda-Lamm discuss their strategy for teaching students the three separate writing systems in Japanese.

"The most effective way for students to memorize hiragana and katakana is to practice writing them by hand."

Japanese writing uses 46 hiragana, and 46 katakana, and an unlimited number of kanji, which are Chinese characters. It’s a lot to memorize! But we still think the most effective way for students to memorize hiragana and katakana is to practice writing them by hand and to use flashcards to memorize them. It’s traditional, but we find it’s effective for long-term memory. To help them memorize efficiently, students can also use mnemonics. And also, they can see the image and associate the sounds, and that could help them memorize faster in a more efficient way.

Katakana are used for loanwords, and Japanese has a lot of loanwords from English. So once students memorize the 46 katakana, I usually ask them to read words written in katakana and guess what they are. And they already know what they are, they just have to read it. So they can also expand their Japanese vocabulary once they memorize katakana, because they already have that vocabulary in English. For example, they might read “te”-“re”-“bi,” and then think, “What is it? Oh, it’s a TV!” That’s a fun, good, and also useful exercise to facilitate their katakana learning.

As for the kanji, the Chinese characters, there are different types. For example, there are the pictograms that are based on pictures of actual objects. The kanji for “tree” is based on an actual tree, and looks kind of similar. And there are simple ideograms, which are made of dots and lines to represent numbers. For instance, the kanji for “one” is just one line, “two” is two lines, “three” is three lines. For these types of kanji, we can use the image to facilitate memorization.

The other type of kanji is a compound ideogram, which is made from a combination of two or more kanji or meaning elements. For this kind of type of kanji, we can teach students what each element means. And also, we can make a story for each kanji. For example, the kanji for “to rest” has two elements. One is “person,” and the other is “tree.” So when we teach this kanji we can say, “a person resting under a tree.” Strategies like this help students learn the kanji.

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Instructor Insights