I started attempting to teach myself to read and write Japanese for a very geeky reason. I say attempt because it has been a while now and I would say that i am no where near fluent.
You see I am a hard core Japanese-anything addict the only problem was that i could not read what the characters were saying in my beloved mangas (Japanese comic books for the uninitiated). So I started teaching myself to read Japanese. Now I can carry a conversation (slowly) in Japanese but the reading is what is holding me back.
I have my cherished cheat sheet taken from a Japanese text book and I will sit there going back and forth from that to the text I am trying to read. It makes it so much easier especially because of the fact that the Japanese seem to have three alphabets!
One of these is called Kanji. When I first started reading Japanese they looked like little pictures to me. During my studies I learned that they each represent a word or an idea and are actually Chinese in origin. This was confusing to me until I learned that at one time the Japanese held the Chinese in high regard and adopted their system of writing as a sign of respect.
The second alphabet is called Hiragana. These are very fluid looking and graceful symbols. I call them symbols because they are not letters in the way that we look at them but more a consonant vowel grouping for the most part. With the exception of the letter N and the vowels A, E, I, O and U, all of the remaining symbols represent a sound consisting of a consonant followed by a vowel.
Now I see the simplicity of having a writing system that does not have individual letters, but this is where it lost some of that simplicity for me; the third alphabet - Katakana. Katakana is not as fluid looking as Hiragana. I have always thought that it was the masculine looking of the two. If Hiragana was a graceful dancer then Katakana would be a staunch soldier.
Now why you ask does Japanese have two other alphabets?
Hiragana is used to modify the Kanji, changing its verb tense or other nuances. Additionally Hiragana can be used to write out words in the Japanese language that do not have a Kanji associated with them.
Katakana is used from what I can tell primarily to write out words that have been incorporated into the Japanese language from other languages. For instance, the Japanese word for bread is Pan which was taken from the French word for bread. One thing I have tried in the past is looking for the Katakana in the sentence and seeing if I could figure out what word that was - I knew automatically that it was not Japanese. These can be the easier words to learn so I tried to start with them first.
I have this system that I developed for practice reading Japanese. I take a sentence in Japanese written out in Kani, Hiragana and Katakana. First I write out the whole thing which is no small task. Have you ever tried to write out a k\\Kanji with a ball point pen? Those nasty little blobs of ink off the end of the pen make it difficult to read the final product and sometimes it takes a few tried before it is even legible.
After I have it written out, I write it out again this time replacing the Kanji with those oh so helpful Furigana that can be found in very small print just above the Kanji. Apparently these are there because not all Japanese even know ALL of the Kanji and this is a way to let them know how it is pronounced. Comes in very handy for someone just trying to learn the language too. A word of warning though, not all Kanji have Furigana above them. These are words that the publisher thinks are easy words and should be known by the reader. Invest in a Japanese-English dictionary, I find mine to have been a godsend.
So Now I have the original sentence written out plainly in Hiragana and Katakana. Now comes the fun part - translation into Romaji. Romaji is the term for transliteration from the Japanese alphabet into western letters. I try this without the aid of my cheat sheet at first and when I am finished I check my work and make any corrections. This is when I look back to the previous sentence and look at the Katakana. This word I underline because I know it will be one word and I try to translate that word. Sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn't. Then I go through the whole sentence and see if I can pick out any words that I know. If I see a word or two that I know I write it out in English underneath.
Now if you manage to get the whole sentence translated into English, congratulations! I have never gotten that far but I must warn you what you end up with might make no sense to you at all because Japanese Grammar Structures are no where close to English at all but that is another lesson.
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