23 January 2016

漢字、ひらがな、カタカナ ♡ Studying Japanese

As many of you know very well by now, I'm an undergraduate student in Japanese studies, which includes language classes and since my dear fellow blogger Jessie from Bijou Heart asked me about it, I decided to put up a small something for everyone, who wants to study Japanese or is studying Japanese or just generally interested in this kind of stuff: 
How do I study for my Japanese classes?

Generally, I should start with explaining, that I was always rather strong in the academic language/fine arts field, which means - for example - that I learned my second language, English, rather easily (this does not so much apply for my third language, French, that I learned for 6 years but can't remember nor use most of now, whatsoever).
Also, I'm a really ambitious student, which means that I study and work a lot.
But that's something, I honestly think you need to do if you want to do well in a language, that you can't practise as much in your everyday life (at least if you're not living in a community with a large number of Japanese members, that form an inviroment where you're forced and/or encouraged to practise and use what you've learned)
I will focus on written Japanese and how to study kana and kanji, since the different alphabet appears to be one of the biggest obstacles when people try to approach a language that is so different from European languages.
And though there shouldn't be any reason to be scared of them, overcoming the fear of contact with kanji is freaking hard. Even now, in my 4th year, a text that bristles with characters I don't know strikes a weird kind of fear into my body.
If you want to read about spoken Japanese, let me know in a comment below and I will try to make it happen.

     Eingebetteter Bild-Link

I still remember that in my first semester, in one of the first lessons, my professor said "The main problem about kanji is that they exist", and we all laughed but there comes a time when you realize that - in fact - you are so lucky to have them.
If you're fluent in kana go and try to read a children's book that's only written in them.
As soon as you learned a specific amount of kanji you'll realize what kind of weird blessing they put upon us: it's in their nature to structure the sentence visually and help you to find the beginning and ending of words, which otherwise turns into an adventure because there are no spaces between words in Japanese.

tips for learning kana
ひらがな & カタカナ

First off, kana is the word used to describe the syllabic Japanese scripts.
There are actually three of them but since I never heard of man'yogana and it doesn't seem to be used anymore actively anyway, I can only talk about hiragana and katakana.
hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) have directly corresponding character sets, in which each character corresponds to one sound of Japanese, which means we have syllabic characters instead of letters.
They are either vowels or consonant+vowel combinations
(with the exception of an additional stray n).
hiragana and katakana are used for different purposes. Most of the time you'll use hiragana: it's for particles, furigana (small hiragana written above or below kanji, so that you know how to pronounce them or what they mean - if you heard the Japanese word before), verb-endings and a lot more, whilst I only see katakana in use for sounds
(the mew of a cat ニャーニャー [nyaanyaa], the bay of a dog ワンワン [wanwan], a loud bang バーン[baan], ...),
non-Japanese proper names or words that don't originate from Japanese like ice cream アイス・クリーム [aisu-kuriimu], hair style ヘアースタイル [heaasutairu] or milk ミルク [miruku].

 always use them
Once you learned how to write and read hiragana and katakana, you should use them whenever you get the chance. don't know the kanji? write hiragana!
I had a friend who wrote Japanese words in romaji (the Japanese word for Latin letters) if it wasn't for a test and I can't help but feel like they wasted a great opportunity to improve their writing skill.

That is literally the only tip I could come up with for kana because you'll use them so much that I'm positive, you will have so many chances to practise them, you will be able to write them in your sleep.
The list for tips on studying kanji is a bit longer, as you will probably spend a lot more time stuggling and working with them anyway.

tips for learning kanji

In case you didn't know, kanji (漢字) are the logographic Chinese characters used in Japanese. "kanji " literally means "han characters" and the character for han is also used in the original Chinese word "hànzì", as well (in the simplyfied form they use another character now, but in Japanese you still have to write the 'traditional' characters).

 try to see the images behind them
Since kanji are logographic characters, they have pictures in them, if you want to say it like that.
Within the context of the Chinese language, the characters by and large represent words and morphemes rather than pure ideas; however, the adoption of Chinese characters by Japanese (and Korean) makes it more complicated:

"Many Chinese words, composed of Chinese morphemes, were borrowed into Japanese and Korean together with their character representations; in this case, the morphemes and characters were borrowed together. In other cases, however, characters were borrowed to represent native Japanese and Korean morphemes, on the basis of meaning alone. As a result, a single character can end up representing multiple morphemes of similar meaning but different origins across several languages" (wikipedia).

Yet, they still are images and though you might need an extra spoon of creativity, your brain will eventually be able to read these images with their respective meaning which doesn't work for all words but should help with a bunch of them at least.

 tell yourself small stories
This tip goes hand in gloves with the one prior.
It always helps me a ton if I can make up small stories that help me remember the meaning of the words I'm learning. Especially if you have to learn long words with several kanji after another (like 異国情緒 [ikokujōcho] which means "exotic atmosphere/exotic") it can be a big help if you learn to read their 'ideas' and be able to explain the word to yourself.
Your stories are like mnemonic - they don't need to make sense to anyone else.
I will still try to share an example to make it a bit more lively. 

兄弟 [kyōdai] means "siblings".
If you split the word in its two characters you have 兄 [ani], which means "elder brother" and 弟[otōto], which is "younger brother" - and suddenly it's pretty self-explanatory.

Also to simple kanji that are used in all sorts of words and even as radicals (graphical component of the character under which it is traditionally listed in dictionaries) of other kanji, this can be applied: [hi] for example, means fire and looks either like a bon-fire or a man who throws his arms up in the air as if he'd scream "fire!" - it's all up to your imagination.
But once you know the meaning, you can already guess that words like [kemuri] - "smoke", or 焼く [yaku] - "to fry", have something to do with fire.

There is no way around practise.
Use them whenever you get the chance, because just as with kana it will help automate them and at some point there are characters that you can write without putting much thought into them because you've done it so many times and you got used to writing them.

Eingebetteter Bild-Link     Eingebetteter Bild-Link

general tips

  • be patient with yourself but also persistent
  • go by the right stroke order (seriously, just do it! one can see if you wrote it correctly or not and learning the basic pattern and rules will actually make it a lot easier to write even unknown kanji for you)
  • practise makes perfect

If you have any further questions or need help, I'll gladly help you.
However, I am just a student myself and therefore are far from perfect.
I made this update to take away some fear from Jessie or at least fuel her curiosity and excitement enough to get over the personal insecurities for her upcoming language classes.
You can do it!

Please let me know in a comment if you want me to talk more about Japanese (and/or Korean) in the future and share some of your study tips.

What are your learning strategies for learning new languages?
Tell me in a comment below.

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