Monday, March 10, 2014

Learning Katakana

With my trip to Japan coming up quickly (just a little over a week away now), Lindsay suggested that we all learn to read katakana before we go.

As someone who has tried to learn two other languages in the past, I had my doubts about actually learning this stuff. However, it turned out to be pretty easy, and I think most anybody can learn katakana if they want to.

Now, make no mistake: learning katakana does not mean knowing how to speak or understand Japanese. However, it will be helpful for reading some basic things: many signs, restaurant menus, etc. That's because, strictly speaking, katakana isn't Japanese. At its core, it's just the alphabet they use for words that are not Japanese, which often means English.

So, really, by learning katakana I've learned how to write English with a different alphabet.

For example, the Japanese word "クリスマス": ク is pronounced "ku", リ is "ri", ス is "su", and マ is "ma." So, that word is "kurisumasu," or "Christmas."

The Japanese language uses sounds differently than English does, so English words sometimes take some work to fit them into katakana. On the plus side, Japanese vowels each only make one sound: while the English "a" can be "ah", "eh", or "uh", the Japanese equivalent of "a" is always, always, always  "ah". Thus, the vowels are: "ah", "ee", "oo", "eh", "oh" or, for the Metal Gear Solid fans out there, you can remember them by La Li Lu Le Lo.

From there, most of the katakana are just variations on those vowels: ka ki ku ke ko, ga gi gu ge go, sa si su se so, etc. It's just a matter of matching the sound (tsu) with the symbol (ツ) for each of the 46 characters and their variations.

At first, it seems like 46 characters are a lot compared to the 26 letters of the English alphabet, but when you consider all of the different ways our letters can combine to make different sounds, even when in the exact same order (screw you, "lead" and "lead"), it's actually much less complex than our own alphabet.

You can easily learn katakana yourself with the help of any number of free apps on your phone or whatever. If you have an interest in doing so, just spend an hour or two each day playing with the app and you'll have katakana mastered in less than a week.

That said, katakana is only scratching the surface of the Japanese language, since it only handles the words that they've had to borrow from foreign places. It doesn't cover grammar at all, nor any words that originate from Japan. That, I believe takes years of study and commitment.

However, it will help if you happen to be in Tokyo and suddenly get a craving for some chicken (チキン).

1 comment:

  1. I got two years of Japanese under my belt and Hiragana and Katakana were definitely the easiest things to learn. Hope you have fun! I had a blast when I went last summer!