Why You Should Use Mnemonics - the Quickest and Best Way to Learn Hiragana and Katakana


This week I finally got around to going through the mid-course feedback from my students and drawing up plans to incorporate some of what you asked for into the rest of the course.

Several learners mentioned the importance of learning the kana early on.

Learning to read Japanese can be a daunting task. The Japanese language has three distinct "alphabets" (four if you count romaji!) and learning kanji is a task that takes years.

You can learn the kana (hiragana and katakana) pretty quickly, though, if you use the most efficient way to memorise them - mnemonics.

It's a bit like brute force memorisation, except it's fun...

Hiragana and Katakana are the "building blocks" of the Japanese written language. Students in my beginner class mostly start with the romaji edition of 'Japanese For Busy People', because my priority is to get you speaking from day one, and to spend class time on speaking as much as possible. Reading and writing is mostly set as homework.

But if you want to learn to read Japanese, you definitely need to start by learning hiragana.

But how to remember them?

The best, quickest, most fun method is to associate each character with a picture that it (clearly or vaguely) looks like, ideally also using the sound of the letter.

Hiragana and katakana are pretty simple, so associating each character with a picture is super easy.

Here's hiragana き (ki), which we can imagine is a picture of a KEY. My key is an old-fashioned one. Yours might be modern and spiky. Or it might have wings on it and be flying about getting chased by Harry Potter on a broomstick.

The point is to think of a strong visual image that makes the picture of the key stick in your mind:


Of course, you need to learn to read words and sentences too. So as well as learning each letter, you need to practice writing and reading. This where the mnemonic really sinks in.

Memorisation doesn't help you remember. What helps you remember is active recall.

Let me give you an example.

You're reading a sentence and come across the word きのこ. You're staring at the letter き - "which one was that again?" and struggle a little bit to remember it.

Then you remember - aha! it's the KEY! This is ki.

This process of active recall - pushing a little bit to remember something - is the process that cements the mnemonic in your mind.

Hurrah! You're on the path to reading Japanese.

Fun fact: Toad is a きのこ (kinoko).

For me, one of the great thing about using mnemonics to remember the kana is that when I explain the system to learners, they often tell me that's what they're doing anyway, even if they don't have a name for what they're doing:
"Oh yes, that's how I remember む too - it's a funny cow's face! MOO"

"No, む is a man saying MO-ve!"
I've also found - luckily for me - it doesn't matter seem to matter if the actual picture is rubbish. (You don't even have to draw them, I just did this to help my students out and to share the idea).


What's important is that the picture in your head is super clear.

...and once you finish hiragana, you can do the whole thing again for katakana!

You can find the whole set of hiragana and katakana mnemonics with the hashtag #stepupkana - please check it out and let me know what you think.

I'd love to hear what mnemonics you use to help remember the kana - let me know in the comments or add your story to the instagram posts for that character.

Have a lovely Friday everyone. 素敵な一日を過ごしてください!