Learning Japanese: Learn a language with three alphabets

Japanese scripts

Now don’t be frightened:
Japanese is a language that is with three different scripts.
Japanese is written with:

  • Hiragana
  • Katakana
  • Kanji

All three alphabets are used in parallel, as each script has its own particular purpose.

A first example: A small Japanese text

Have a look at this text from a Japanese language course.
Here you will see all three scripts highlighted.
Kanji ideograms are highlighted in grey.
Hiragana Ideograms are marked in yellow.
Katakana ideograms are highlighted in blue.

きよしの 携帯電話 故障 しています
[Kiyoshi no furui keitaidenwa wa koshō shite imasu.]
Kiyoshi’s old mobile phone is broken.

しいのが しいんだ
[Atarashii no ga hoshiinda.]
I need a new one.

機器 では、 ボタン がもう せない
[Boku no furui kiki de wa botan ga mou osenai.]
The buttons on my old mobile no longer work.

Hiragana – looped Syllabic script for helping to pronounce Japanese

The first script that Japanese children learn in primary school is the ひらがな [Hirigana] script.
It is comprised of 46 ideograms.
What is the function of the Hiragana script?
The primary function of Hiragana in Japanese is grammatical.
We find them by prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns and by the inflexive endings of verbs.

Katakana – Syllabic script for writing foreign words and names

When writing foreign words in Japanese, Katakana ideograms (カタカナ) are usually used.
People’s names are also usually written in Katakana.
Also new words, which arise in Japanese, are written in this script and added to the vocabulary.
The Katakana is also a syllabic script.
It is comprised of 46 ideograms.

Kanji – A script of Chinese origin

The third and largest group of symbols is the 漢字 (Kanji) alphabet.
This script was adopted from the Chinese.
The Kanji dictionary 大漢和辞典 [daikanwajiten] comprises approximately 50,000 ideograms.
Don’t despair. Very few Japanese know all Kanji from memory.
Usually only 2,000 ideograms are needed in day to day life.
A Japanese learns 2000 ideograms during his education.
Even college students are only expected to know 3,000 ideograms.
The remaining ideograms are rarely used and many Japanese will have to look these ideograms up in the dictionary.

Further information: Japanese was written historically from above to below

In the past Japanese was always written from top to bottom and from right to left.
This traditional style of writing is still found today in printed newspapers, some magazines and in some Japanese books.
If you buy a Japanese Manga to practice then you must begin reading on the last page.

Would you like to learn Japanese?

Have you heard of the Japanese courses from 17 Minute Languages?
A1/A2: Basic Japanese for Beginners
B1/B2: Further Japanese for intermediate students
C1/C2: Advanced Japanese with over 1,800 words