I’ve been doing a bit more on my 日本語 studies recently thanks to the excellent iOS app Human Japanese. This app is essentially little more than an electronic textbook, but it does a few things that are enormously helpful, particularly when attempting to learn hiragana. For starters, when learning the various characters, you can tap on them to see the appropriate stroke order, which is apparently important. Then there’s revision quizzes throughout the chapters that, in the case of the hiragana chapters I’ve been trawling slowly through so far, allow you to test yourself by attempting to read the characters and determine what the various “words” (or, more accurately, combinations of syllables) make up. I was quite pleased when I realised I knew how to spell one of School Days’ characters, whose name also happens to be the word for “world” — せかい.
I’ve also learned how typing in Japanese works, and I think it’s probably going to be quite a helpful way to learn the hiragana characters, particularly with the way the iPhone’s Japanese keyboards work.
For those unfamiliar (and curious enough to continue reading) it works like this: the Japanese hiragana character set, which tends to be the first “alphabet” that beginners learn, is split into “sets”, and the iPhone hiragana keyboard simply represents these sets — press and hold on one and you’ll see the five different characters that make up each set. Rather than simply vowels and consonants like we have in English, hiragana characters all represent a complete syllable rather than an individual sound or, as more commonly happens in English, a number of possible sounds. Think of how many possible ways you can pronounce the letter “O” depending on where it is in a word, for example — confusing when you think about it that way, isn’t it? Not so in hiragana — each character always sounds the same when read aloud.
Each of the aforementioned “sets” is made up of, at the very least, a vowel sound, and often a consonant. When learning the vowels, rather than the order A, E, I, O, U we English speakers are used to, Japan uses A, I, U, E, O. In hiragana, the symbols for these vowel sounds are あいうえお. These, of course, have absolutely no resemblance to the Roman characters we use in English, so it’s necessary to actually drill them into yourself by repeatedly writing them down over and over. I already have several pages of a notebook devoted to effectively writing “AAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIUUUUUUUUUEEEEEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOOO” which I hope is never used as evidence against me in a Japanese court because it makes me look proper mental, like, innit.
Anyway, yes, sets — beyond the initial vowels, each set is combined with a consonant. For example, the K-set runs ka, ki, ku, ke, ko or, in hiragana, かきくけこ. Just to make matters more complicated, certain characters can add a little symbol called a ten-ten or dakuten to themselves to “soften” the sound and make another set of sounds. For example, the K-set can be softened to the G-set, which runs ga, gi, gu, ge, go or, in hiragana, がぎぐげご. It might be difficult to see at that font size, but the little quote mark-like symbol in the upper-right of each of those characters is the ten-ten that softens the sound — or, more accurately, turns an unvoiced consonant into a voiced one.
I’ve actually been quite surprised how quickly some of these symbols have stuck in my head — though the problem with learning them by rote is that you start to remember them according to the patterns rather than in context and out of order. I seem to find some symbols much easier to remember than others — I can remember all the basic vowels without much difficulty, for example, and the K/G sets are also reasonably firm in my mind, but the others gradually drop off in memorability. This is probably nothing more than a side-effect of the order in which I’ve learned them — I’ve known the vowels and the K/G sets longest, so it’s unsurprising I know them the best — but I’ve still been quite impressed with myself that I can successfully decipher if not the meaning of words just yet, then at least the sounds therein. It’ll come with time.
The thing to keep doing, I think, is just to keep immersing myself in as much of it as possible. I’m picking up words all the time by listening to Japanese language-track anime and games, and now that I’m learning the hiragana I’ll be able to spell (and, by extension) read them before long too. When I can read and understand a Japanese sentence, I’ll be truly impressed with myself, but it remains to be seen how long that will take me. And then there’s kanji to worry about after that, but we’ll cross that particular bridge when we come to it.
Anyway, so, if you’re the slightest bit interested in learning Japanese via self-study, check out Human Japanese. It’s available on iPhone, iPad and Android and there are lite versions to try out before you splash the cash. Pretty generous lite versions, too — you should be able to figure out whether or not you’re going to have difficulty without having to spend a penny. Which is nice.