Perhaps one of the most challenging things about learning Japanese is that it does not have an alphabet – but it appears to have an alphabet.  So we, as English speakers, try to overlay what we know about alphabets onto Japanese, and then it simply doesn’t work.

Japanese, instead, has syllabaries – which are very different animals.  They are more like a grid than anything else.  There is no set order – in fact, any order that we put them into when we learn Japanese is based upon the romaji order – a b c, etc.  They don’t even have names, like romaji characters do – they are basically named after the sounds they make.

And the syllabaries aren’t an alphabet in another important way – they were created from kanji as a simplified way of representing syllable sounds.  The true alphabet in Japanese is in the kanji, as pointed out by kanji damage.  This alphabet is in the form of radicals, many of which were actually abstracted out into the syllabaries.  There does not seem to be an order there, either, but those symbols are used to build up words in the form of kanji.

But not only are we not taught/do not recognize that, we even come into the whole deal thinking that kanji that have the same radicals are related to each other.  But they’re not, in the same way that the word “add” is not related to the word “ade”, even though they have two letters in common.

So while memorizing the syllabaries is absolutely necessary to learn Japanese, it’s not at all learning the alphabet in the same way that we learn the alphabet in English as children.  It’s learning the phonetic building blocks of Japanese.  The letters of the romaji alphabet are not the phonetic building blocks of English language.  We have special, not widely known characters for that purpose.

So in learning the Japanese syllabaries, you are learning the sounds.  The letters (which are not related to the sounds in any but a superficial way) are actually the kanji radicals.

Basically, unlearn everything you knew when learning English.  It really doesn’t apply – at least not in anywhere near the same way.  That’s the only way, I think, one can start understanding Japanese.

Learning Japanese

I’ve tried several different approaches to learning Japanese.  Some work better than others.

The first thing I looked at was duolingo.  I then trashed that very quickly, as I didn’t think it would do well at teaching me what I wanted to know.

I looked at Rosetta Stone and tried it out.  As I mentioned, I have very mixed feelings about it.  It teaches a lot of vocabulary very quickly, which is a plus.  What it does not do is give any kind of background to the vocabulary – so you don’t really understand what you’re saying, you’re just repeating back by rote.  I imagine in later lessons it might teach some of that stuff, but it’s not how I learn.  Couple that with being very horrible about their chat, and I gave up on that.

I decided that I was going to take community college classes.  But if I do so, I figured that the best “bang for the yen” I’d get would be to learn the stuff that needed memorization, so that I could concentrate on the grammar and vocabulary.  That means, getting proficient at hiragana, katakana, and learning as much kanji as I can.

Hiragana and Katakana aren’t that hard, honestly.  They are syllabaries of about, what, fifty or so characters along with a few “small-case” structures, and while there’s no real pattern to them (they were pulled out of kanji that sounded like them), once you memorize them, you memorize them.  Drawing them is entirely different, but that’s also not too hard.  I’ve found that spaced repetition tools like memrise or some of the android apps are very helpful for that.

Kanji is an entirely different animal, though.  There are a couple of thousand characters that seem to have no rhyme nor reason, and it’s mostly just memorization.  Each kanji has two or more different pronuciations, too.  However, I find that a method called “kanji damage” is actually really useful for this purpose.  It teaches the kanji in a logical progression, starting from “radicals” and moving forward.  I find some of the names for the radicals to be funny, such as “George Michael’s Moustache”.  It condenses it into what I’ll really need, and then I can go back and study the rest later.

Which is kind of what I was looking for.

So I’m not studying grammar or vocabulary seriously right now, though I’m learning some as a side effect of my other studies.  I figure being fluent at hiragana and katekana reading and writing will give me a leg up in classes, as will knowing as many kanji as I can get my hands on.  Then the rest will take care of itself once I start the classes.