Why Does Everybody Forget Katakana?

I'll let you into a secret. I hate katakana.

Students of Japanese tend to start with its two phonetic alphabets. We start with hiragana, the loopy, flowing letters that make up all the sounds of Japanese.

Then we move on to katakana - all the same sounds, but in angular blocky font.

Hiragana seems fairly easy, I think. And when you start learning Japanese everything you read is written in hiragana, so by reading you constantly reinforce and remember.

Katakana? Not so much.

The katakana "alphabet" is used extensively on signs in Japan - if you're searching for カラオケ (karaoke) or ラーメン (ramen noodles) you'll need katakana.

But if you're outside Japan, then beyond the letters in foreign names, you don't get a lot of exposure to katakana.

I think that's why a lot of beginning students really struggle to remember katakana.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

1) Use mnemonics

Personally I still can't remember some of those sticky similar katakana without goofy mnemonics.

For example, I still think katakana ウ (u) and ワ (wa) look super similar - I remember that ウ has a dash on the top, just like hiragana う (u) .

2) Practice, practice, practice

I'm not a huge fan of having you copy letters over and over again, but there is something to be said for "writing things out".

By writing letters down, you activate muscle memory, which helps you remember. So get writing katakana!

3) Start learning kanji

It might feel like running before you can walk, but starting to read and write kanji (Chinese characters) before your katakana is completely perfect can be a good option.

Kanji textbooks have the Chinese readings of the characters in katakana, so learning kanji is also really good katakana practice.

And maybe, you'll turn into a katakana lover, not a hater. 

I Bought All The Kanji Textbooks So You Don't Have To

I started out thinking that beginner classes would be a kanji-free zone.

I thought we'd be totally focussed on speaking as much as possible, and reading and writing would be a homework-only activity for my students.

But, two things happened:
1) Students sometimes need help in class with reading and writing; and
2) It turns out lots of students are really interested in the Japanese writing system.
Which makes sense to me, as the writing system is kind of what got me interested in Japanese in the first place, too!

Anyway, I have a lot of kanji books. And today, I'd like to share some of them with you!

So here are my TOP FIVE KANJI BOOKS, for beginners up to advanced.

1) Kanji Pict-o-Graphix

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You've probably already heard me say a hundred times that mnemonics are the best way to learn hiragana and katakana.

(If you haven't...you should go check out my instagram).

And for a lot of people, mnemonic devices can be a great start to learn kanji, too.

Kanji Pict-o-Graphix gives you visual hints for remembering common kanji characters.

The book is arranged thematically, so you have a whole page of kanji with one component (like this page of characters containing the kanji for "sun" 日:


2) Kanji Look and Learn

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Like Pict-o-GraphixKanji Look and Learn combines visual mnemonics with stories. But whereas Kanji Pict-o-Graphix is more of a fun coffee-table book, this is more of a serious study tool.

As well as stories to help you recognise the shape of kanji characters, you'll also find readings and example vocabulary.

If you've ever used the Genki textbooks, you'll notice that the layout of this is similar to the kanji sections at the back of those books - that's because this is an extension to the series called 'Genki Plus'.

There's a Kanji Look and Learn Workbook, too, if you're feeling super keen :)

3) Basic Kanji Book

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No bells and whistles here - the Basic Kanji Book is a comprehensive guide to 500 kanji, arranged by theme. There's plenty of reading practice and quizzes throughout.

It's not going to hold your hand for you and you'll need a dictionary (or a good teacher), but if you're serious about getting out of the beginner stages, this is the book for you.

4) Remembering the Kanji

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People who've tried the system suggested by James W. Heisig in his Remembering the Kanji series fall into two camps: they either love it, or they think it's totally stupid.

You won't find a single drawing or pictographic in Heisig's book. Instead he requires the reader to use their imaginative memory to memorise each character. And - here's the controversial bit - he argues that before learning any kanji readings, you should first learn their meanings using an English keyword.

It's not for everyone...but if you think it might be for you, read the first chapter (and its illuminating introduction) for free here.

5) Kanji in Context

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When I was studying for the JLPT N1, I came up with a picture in my mind of the kanji practice book I wanted.

I wanted to be given (in hiragana) a vocabulary word I should know, and be tested on my ability to write the kanji from memory.

A couple of years later, I discovered that the book of my dreams already existed. It's called Kanji in Context, and instead of teaching you kanji in isolation, it presents them in example sentences and phrases - in (you guessed it) context.

So there you have it - my top five kanji books from beginner to advanced! I'd love to know what you think - how do you like to study kanji? And what did I miss?

P.S. if you'd like to learn kanji with me, check out my new Japanese language courses here!

5 Apps to Download Before Your Trip To Japan

If you just love missing your bus because you waited in the wrong place, overpaying for things because you can't remember the exchange rate, or wandering around for hours looking for a wi-fi spot in vain - stop reading now, because this one's not for you.

Today I'd like to share with you five super-useful apps to download before you travel to Japan!

Whatever you've got planned in Japan, these apps should get you well-prepared.

(Looking for language-learning apps? You should read my other post Five (and a Half) Apps to Get You Started Learning Japanese!)

1) HyperDia

Once you look past the sometimes awkward-sounding English (when Hyperdia tells you "TAKE TIME", it's not wishing you a leisurely trip, but telling you the duration of your journey), it's a solid tool for navigating Japan's wonderful rail system.

Hyperdia's app, just like the website, allows you to plan journeys and search timetables for (almost) all of Japan's train services. In English! It also benefits from the "Japan Rail Pass Search", which as you might guess allows you to search for routes you can take with the JR pass.

The app is free for 30 days, which should be enough for most trips.

Hyperdia: App Store | Google Play

2) Norikae Annai

Norikae Annai is Japan's most-downloaded travel app. It's easier to navigate than Hyperdia, much more nicely designed and more user-friendly...so long you can read Japanese.

If you can't, you'll be a bit stuck. You might want to stick with Hyperdia - or you could always get someone who can read Japanese to help you. Or download both and use Hyperdia in a pinch?

Norikae Annai: App Store | Google Play

3) Tokyo Metro

I LOVE the Tokyo Metro app, because as well as transfer information it also has a fully offline, pinch-and-zoom map of - you guessed it - Tokyo's metro system.

Good for getting to grips with (what often seems like) the world's most complex underground rail system!

Tokyo Subway Navigation for Tourists: App Store | Google Play

4) Japan Connected-Free Wi-Fi

Even if you don't want to be connected all the time, you'll probably want wifi at some point on your travels. Navitime is an app with an offline map showing free wifi spots, as is JapanTravel and its sister app Japan Connected-free Wi-fi.

The wifi app also has downloadable offline maps of all the major cities in Japan - and all for free!

(Or you could just do what I do on holiday and stand outside McDonalds pretending to wait for someone while actually using the free internet. That's cool too, right?)

Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi: App Store | Google Play

5) XE Currency

Not Japan-specific, but definitely useful.

Until the exchange rate hits a nice easy number like 100 yen to the pound, you'll probably want a currency converter so you can figure out how far your spending money's going to go. And the XE converter works offline, too.

XE Currency: App Store | Google Play

So that's what's in my "essential Japan travel apps" folder! What's in yours?

Planning a trip to Japan this year? Check out the Travel Japanese for Beginners course at Step Up Japanese starting April 12th!