Originally Reviewed back in 2009
Katakana is a Japanese syllabary and a component of the kana system to read English or foreign words not native to Japan and are derived from components of complex kanji.
If you are a new to learning Japanese, you may have just finished learning how to read and write Japanese in hiragana but now you are realizing that for English words, the Japanese use a whole different syllables to read those words. So, on top of hiragana, now you will need to learn katakana.
When I first started out learning Japanese and before I went to college to minor in Japanese, it was important for me to learn katakana. If you are a foreigner from another country, you will need to write your name in katakana. Go to a restaurant or even a public restroom, you will notice signs that are in katakana. If you are an avid anime viewer or manga reader, you will notice that titles such as “Dragon Ball Z” and “Bleach” are written in katakana. And as daunting as it seems, that you have to learn another syllable system in addition hiragana, you will eventually learn to read and write katakana.
Like hiragana (which you should actually try to learn first), the first thing you will learn is that in Japanese, you will need to learn the a,i,u,e,o but then you move on to the ka, ki, ku ke, ko and then sa, shi, su, se, so and then eventually using the “t’s”, “n’s”, “h’s”, “m’s”, “y’s”, “r’s”, “w’s” and others such as “n”, “g’s”, “z’s”, “j’s”, “d’s”, “b’s” and “p’s”. As difficult as it may seem, the truth is that katakana is quite easy to learn and possibly after a week of studying, you will be learning how to read and write words in no time.
I have had the opportunity to test a few katakana workbooks over the years and primarily the workbooks focus on two principles:
- Learning the stroke order of how a katakana is written
- Writing the katakana, for example, “ka” several dozen times.
“KODANSHA’S KATAKANA WORKBOOK: A Step-by-Step Approach to Basic Japanese Writing” by Anne Matsumoto Stewart was actually a bit of a surprise because you write the katakana symbols about 16 times but then after each lesson, you start learning and writing words.
So, for example, you learn “a, i, u, e, o” or ア、イ、ウ、エ、オ and then “ta,ti,tu,te,to”, “ka,ki,ku-ke,ko” and so on.
You also learn how to write the symbols in the correct order. So, for an example, symbols like ri (リ) and n (ン) are written differently. With “ri”, you are writing top going down. While with “n” you are writing the bottom stroke from bottom to top. So, it makes it easier on the eye especially when things are handwritten.
After learning how to write and read these vowels and eventually the syllables, then you will start learning more and eventually in the book you will start learning to write words such as tomato or トマト (to-ma-to) or a holiday like Christmas such as クリスマス (ku-ri-su-ma-su).
Rarely do workbooks have you start writing the words down. So, the book does a great job in getting the person to learn how to write words immediately.
So, writing and repetition is a quick way to learn how to write katakana but the book also includes flash cards. So, you can practice with a partner who can quiz you on your katakana skills which is wonderful.
Some people find it easier to have a teacher than learning from a book because it helps with pronunciation. For example:
a (is pronounced as “ah”), i (is pronounced like the letter “e”), u (is pronounced like “ew”), e (is pronounced as “eh”) and o (is pronounced as “oh”). So, a word like “anime” (word for Japanese animation written in katakana as アニメ), and I know many people who never learned Japanese start off and saying it as “ah-neem) but you want to pronounce it like “ah-ni-may”. So, Kodansha International allows the user of this book to go online to their site and learn how to pronounce the symbols and words correctly. Here is an example.
This is important because for those who don’t go through a class on pronunciation, these MP3’s are wonderful in learning how to pronounce the words. And most katakana workbooks do not offer audio files to learn from.
Personally, I have found katakana a bit more challenging to learn compared to hiragana (it’s important to mention that I learned them within a week). The challenge was not of reading them but it’s that in katakana, you will notice long vowels. This is a challenge for those, even when you are tested in school is knowing when to use the “-” symbol. So, an example would be the word “smart”. For some people, you would write it as スマルト (su-ma-ru-to). But the correct way to write it is スマート (su-maa-to) or “screen”, some may write it as スクリン (su-ku-ri-n) but the correct way to write it is スクリーン (su-ku-ree-n).
So, it takes a bit of time learning to see how the words are used in Japanese writing and then eventually, you start to catch on. It’s not easy at first learning the long vowels but eventually, you get a hang of it.
“KODANSHA’S KATAKANA WORKBOOK: A Step-by-Step Approach to Basic Japanese Writing” is probably the best workbook that I have seen on learning how to write and read katakana. It goes beyond the learning of the strokes and writing the symbol dozens of times but offers you the chance to learn words, write words, use of flash cards and also download audio files through the Kodansha International website for this book.
If you are wanting to learn katakana, I highly recommend this workbook!