Learning Japanese – An Opinion

Learning Japanese

Now I am not by any means an expert on learning languages, nor in learning Japanese in particular. But I have tried to learn some languages and am currently trying to learn Japanese so what the heck, here’s my opinion =)

I’ve been thinking lately, of the order I have been learning Japanese. We started with hiragana, then katakana, then grammar and vocabulary. We continue grammar and vocabulary and now are adding kanji to the mix. We had a Japanese tutor for awhile, which was incredible – living in the middle of nowhere and all. But then she returned to Japan so we continue being self taught. We also use a few online programs to help us remember kanji and vocabulary.

Which Comes First, Hiragana or Katakana?

Learn katakana or hiragana first

Now I got to thinking (I’m not sure which way I am leaning yet) would it have been better to learn katakana first, before hiragana. The reason I was thinking this would maybe be a good idea is this: Most of the katakana words are variations of an English word. There are of course, other languages but as far as my experience has been a good majority of them are English. Now if a person learned katakana first, they would be able to sound out a word and then be able to figure out what the actual word was and be reading right from the start. That might be a pretty encouraging way to begin when you already understand some of the words.

Of course, I’m not completely sold on it. The thing that makes me hesitate to suggest it, is that often the first thing you learn will stick in your memory a bit more firmly. And if that is the case, hiragana is used more often than katakana and so it should perhaps be learned first. But, and this is my counter argument, you can’t read anything after you learn hiragana. You can sound out some words and word endings, but in the end it doesn’t give you as much understanding as learning katakana does at first because you don’t have the vocabulary in Japanese yet.

So I’m kind of torn. Another thing I would like to have done better is keeping hiragana and katakana separate in my brain. Sometimes a katakana image has stuck in my brain better than the hiragana and then I assume it is the hiragana image when it isn’t at all. I’ve done a few online memory things to try and get them in a bit more solid, but I am still embarrassingly weak on my kana.

King of the Kanji


Kanji however, I adore. Having one word encapsulated in that one image appeals to my way of thinking a lot. They seem to stick in my head way better than the kana trying to match just a sound with an image. Of course, when I refer to learning kanji here, I am only referring to learning the symbol and the translation, not the different pronunciations of the kanji. But at least with that skill, you can at least read the important parts of a written piece. Maybe one should start with kanji? It is the most important after all.

Perhaps I am drawn to it because our learning focuses a lot on the visual side of the language. We are just starting to get to the point of being able to create full sentences in Japanese and so speaking moves way slower than the reading. Or perhaps it is just my style of learning. Perhaps visual is better than auditory – although since our tutor is gone we get a lot less learning time in an auditory manner.

Your Opinion?

I don’t know. I just can’t decide what is the best order to learn things. I think you have to learn a bit of everything all at once: grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, kana and kanji. But what is the best thing to start with? I can’t decide. Do you have an opinion? What order did you learn in?

Photo credits: Splash photo by: baldheretic, Katakana by: Alexis Carrasco, kanji by: Kanpeki Yume.

12 Responses to “Learning Japanese – An Opinion”

  1. Ben Wim  on June 21st, 2010

    I think it’s essential to learn Hiragana first. You need it for so many things and it helps you understand the language. Katakana is only used for english words. The reward is more immediate, but on the long term you really need hiragana a lot more.

  2. happyhayz  on April 8th, 2011

    I’m trying to learn Japanese at the moment and it’s allot harder than I imagined!! I downloaded a great App that teaches Hiragana, but I have along way to go before i can fully read Japanese. How long has it taken you to learn the language? :)

  3. Travis  on April 8th, 2011

    I’m still a long way from the learning the language :) I’ve been studying very casually for about 2 years. I figure at my current rate I should be conversationally comfortable with the language in another 2 – 3 years. Someone who can immerse themselves in the language could do it much quicker. I met someone from Ghana who has progressed much further than me in just 6 months of being in Japan.

    Reading will take much longer, but I’m prepared to that as it comes.

  4. Sasksak  on April 11th, 2011

    Yeah, it seems as soon as you learn one aspect of Japanese, it reveals 3 more things you didn’t even know about yet.
    One thing I still think tho, now being in Japan for the holiday, is that learning katakana is very helpful for many things. A person rarely has time to learn enough Japanese before they go on a holiday, and so I think katakana ends up being the most useful. With this I am thinking mainly of reading, because when you read katakana so often it turns out to be an English word that you know what kind of chips you are getting or what will be in the store.
    However, if you can read hirigana, if you don’t know the word in Japanese they are trying to spell, you are no further ahead. A few kanji like open, closed, chicken, beef, would be very helpful to learn for reading a menu.
    If you don’t have a lot of time before you go, I would focus on a pimsleur, oral type learning. Learning phrases and sentences and then katakana and kanji you can see yourself needed.
    Then once you get back home and are still interested, go into the deeper study of grammar, and vocabulary. Just my thoughts at this point.

  5. mentusanarih  on February 9th, 2012

    I started learning very casually for a couple years, just by occasionally glancing at a Japanese-English dictionary. I had my katakana down-pat, could recognise a few hiragana, and maybe a few kanji. I was completely clueless on grammar, though.

    Once I started taking formal lessons, my teacher started me on hiragana, then a quick run-through of katakana, all the while teaching some grammar and simple phrases. Now I’ve moved on to other sentence forms, learning more kanji, and I can actually read hiragana faster than katakana, while my katakana reading-speed has decreased a little. But I’ve learned so much more since taking lessons than I ever would have on my own.

    Great articles here, by the way. Keep up the great work!

  6. Travis  on February 9th, 2012

    Thanks mentusanarih! It’s funny, but my katakana speed is pretty bad, too. I guess I don’t come across it as much and therefore don’t get the practice.

    I’ve considered a more structured lesson format, but there isn’t anything within 2 hours of where we live, so I’ll have to keep using online sources until our next visit to Japan.

  7. SkipKent  on April 18th, 2012

    Round-robin is the approach I take. Pimsleur here, iKnow there, book study, jpod101 and so on.

    Each feeds into and reinforces the other.

    The main thing, as you have said elsewhere, is to damn the torpedoes and JUST KEEP GOING!

    Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s one Eureka after another and sometimes it just looks like an insurmountable vertical wall.


    Keep going anyways!

    You will then look back occasionally and realize just how much you are learning. If you only go in fits and starts here and there, though, (we’ve all done it so don’t feel bad) or only study when you’re ‘in the mood’, progress will be slow and frustrating.

    KEEP GOING, even if it’s at a snails pace. That’s okay.

  8. Travis  on April 18th, 2012

    100% agree SkipKent!

  9. SkipKent  on April 18th, 2012

    Another thing.

    Use the materials you already have.

    “Yeah, but the reviewers say this book sucks because it uses romaji” (or whatever)

    That book was written to teach you Japanese by people who know what they are doing. It may or may not be the ultimate ideal approach but don’t let that stop you.

    Romaji is nice sometimes, kind of like listening instead of reading. If it bothers you, then meet the challenge and translate it all yourself. There. You just doubled the mileage of that book beyond what the original authors intended!

    All I’m really saying is, don’t get too caught up in which book or software is the best.

    The best one is the one you

    1. Have access to
    2. Actually use

    Don’t fall into the trap of ‘throwing away’ your Japanese For Busy People books just because someone else says that ‘Genki’ is better, or vice versa.

    You’ve got Material. Use it!

  10. SkipKent  on April 18th, 2012

    Thanks Travis, and I love the site. I have to laugh cause I was just thinking how my kids and I see snails in the Summer time and often wonder, “How did he get THERE?”

    Easy! They just. Keep. Going!


  11. Karas  on June 17th, 2013

    My brain can’t seem to remember something unless it’s related to something else, so I’m sorta learning all 3 at once, now that said I did start hiragana before I started katakana and now my brain is having a hard time wrapping itself around katakana. My practice at the moment involves writing the kanji and the on reading in katakana and kun reading in hiragana. Repetitive writing is effective but has its limitations, I don’t see myself writing more than 50 kanji in a single session.

  12. Travis  on June 17th, 2013

    I think that’s a good process Karas. I think the more opportunity your have to review and reinforce the better. I know just casual reading is an easy way to review kanji, hiragana and katakana. I’ve been doing that with old issues of Hiragana Times and it seems to be working OK.

Leave a Reply