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Learning Japanese – Katakana Lesson 1

February 27, 2016


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Learning Japanese is a pretty daunting task. I’m really terrible at learning languages. I have to work really hard at it while other people seem to just get it. I find that the best way for me to learn something is to teach it. So in this small Learning Japanese video series I’d like to share how it is that I am learning. I tend to use visual cues when learning, so this video features my terrible doodles. I’d love for us to share methods, tips, and tricks with each other so we can all help each other learn. Today’s video is Part 1/5 for Learning Katakana.

Katakana vs Hirigana

Okay, I know some of you might be wondering why I’m starting with Katakana instead of Hiragana. First let me explain the difference between the two so everyone is on the same page.

When you’re learning Korean or English you memorize one alphabet and you’re done. Japanese, however, has two different alphabets: Hiragana for native Japanese words and Katakana for foreign words. Now throw in Kanji, a system of Japanese writing using Chinese characters, and you got a whole lot of work to do to really understand Japanese. The good news is both Hiragana and Katakana sound exactly the same, they are the same alphabet BUT they use different looking letters so that you can differentiate them.

Why Learn Katakana First?

I initially started my Japanese learning by memorizing Hiragana because I figured that would be the most common alphabet being used in Japan…but I was totally wrong. Turns out Katakana is everywhere and it doesn’t just describe foreign words anymore. I see Katakana being used to describe things that have Japanese words, for example 鮭 is the Kanji for salmon which is pronounced as “sa-ke” but I always see Katakana being used for salmon which looks like サーモン and is pronounced as “sa-mon”. Even at a sushi restaurant I see a combination of Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana being used. It seems like when it comes to menus, Katakana is the major go to alphabet.

Now, POP QUIZ HOT SHOT!!! Can you guess what these fruits are? They are written in Katakana but I’ve written the English pronunciation beside them so you can get an idea of how English words sound in Japanese.

オレンジ o-ren-ji

マンゴー      man-gō     

パイナップル    pa-in-a-pu-ru  

メロン       meh-ron  

キウイ       ki-ui       
Pretty similar to their English pronunciation. But here lies the problem: if you order a glass of orange juice using straight up English the server may not understand you. Many Japanese people have learned these words only in their Katakana form, so your English pronunciation may not make sense. They know that “o-ren-ji” = orange, but they don’t know the English pronunciation for it. So that means you really have to learn the correct Japanese pronunciation (of English words) if you want to be clearly understood…but that also means struggling with forgetting your native understanding what these words are supposed to sound like.

That was a huge problem I had in Korea specifically with the word Canada. In Korean, it is pronounced “KAY-NA-DA” but I would always say “CAN-NA-DA” since that’s how you actually say it, but people would not understand what country I was from. Though barely different in sound, many people could not connect that KAYNADA was also CANADA. This struggle of English words being turned into Korean or Japanese words is huge problem for those of us that have ever taught English as a foreign language, since students will fall back on their Native understanding of the word as the correct way to say it but in reality many Korean/Japanese English words are not understandable by actual English speakers. If you haven’t seen it already, I’m linking to the part where we struggle to understand what English words are being used in the Katakana Challenge for our EYS Episode 3.

So that’s it for now! What did you think about my crazy doodles? That Sailor Moon…so bad…Did you have any other pictures that helped you to learn these letters? Please share your tips with me below! FIGHT….OH!



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Learning Japanese – Katakana Lesson 1


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  1. Hey guys, how are you? When is the new “Learn Japanese” episode coming? Thnx and have a nice day

    4 years ago
  2. Hey Martina! I am still learning Japanese myself and admittedly don’t have all of the fundamentals of Japanese, but I spent a small amount of time in Japan and host students from Japan in my home all the time. If you’ve already been there about 3 months, I’m sure you’ve already learned a lot, but I’m just gonna through this out there anyway. While looking at your drawing for “ク”, it kind of made me think of a dude sitting back looking all cool, which the word for cool is カクイ. When students come over, the three words I hear most are スゴイ(sugoi-wow/awesome), カワイイ(kawaii-cute), and カクイ(kakui-cool; our Japanese girls always use this to point out a good looking guy). Also, these words tend to be preceeded with the younger generation word, “めっちゃ”, which is used to emphasize a word (like “very” or “really”). I tend to really only understand some conversational stuff, so I’m glad you decided to let us in on your journey to learn the language. I’m super excited to learn with you! :)

    4 years ago
  3. new country,new languange, new everything guess that’s the awesomeness of LIFE!! haha :D

    4 years ago
  4. I actually had Japanese classes at one point and I was fluent in Hiragana and Katakana.. my tip: Keep reading it! It may be easier for you guys in Japan, but I didn’t practice it for a while and now it’s super rusty..
    @Martina (and Simon- if you like this idea), for you it may be fun to listen to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s songs, find the lyrics and try to understand which word means what. I do that whenever her songs come out and it’s really fun.

    I own this book for Kanji, didn’t start it yet but I heard it’s good: http://www.cdjapan.co.jp/product/NEOBK-563144

    4 years ago
  5. I remember learning hiragana and katakana back when I was in hospital for 2 weeks and all I could do was reading books and listen to music. I had my parents print out tons of Japanese lyrics in romaji (romanized spelling) and I would rewrite them in hiragana and katakana. As boring as it sounds, it helped me a lot to memorize the shapes and the stroke order which then came in handy for kanji. All the best!

    4 years ago
  6. As it was explained to me, the little tsu meant you should squeeze the sound off in your throat.

    Note that instead of syllables as you understand them, the units of the language last for equal lengths of time, so メロン is actually me-ro-n, three units of time.

    Katakana is used for animals, ALL CAPS probably because it’s harsh and angular, foreign words, and a few other things (especially if kids need to read them). It’s easiest to learn because you can sometimes guess the missing ones due to context.

    One problem can be the contortions Japanese sometimes has to go through to fit the many sounds in English into the few sounds available in Japanese. Re-ba-a will be an interesting surprise for you. It’s a food. You can eat it. But you may not want to.

    4 years ago
  7. Fun fact: The small tsu (ッ or っ) creates what is called gemination in linguistics. It simply means that the following sound is lengthened. In Japanese, it is used to lengthen consonants (except “n” which actually uses ん). Most of the time, this sounds like a pause, but in words like 湿疹 (しっしん – rash), you hear the lengthening (like SSHHHHHHHHH). An example in English would be the difference between ‘a named’ and ‘unnamed’.

    4 years ago
  8. “This struggle of English words being turned into Korean or Japanese words is huge problem for those of us that have ever taught English as a foreign language, since students will fall back on their Native understanding of the word as the correct way to say it but in reality many Korean/Japanese English words are not understandable by actual English speakers”

    I have a similar problem in the Philippines. The way they say graham cracker is GREY-HAM, it drives me nuts because neither American or British english says it that way. When I say it the american english way, they dont understand me.

    4 years ago
  9. Ho that’s great! It seems you have already great ideas to rember the shapes!
    I would like to share mine, but there are mainly based on french words. The syllabic sounds are practically the same so it’s easier, you have more work to do ;_;
    With great mnemonic ideas along with writing practice you will master quickly! I thought maybe you like a song… I’m sorry if it will hunt you, but I used to sing it and try to visualize the characters in the same time, and it worked great, as a side-learning dish. It’s a good thing to do in the shower ^.^ or in the street. Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRp_G7ENZo4
    It’s a song that makes me smile too

    For the ツソシン many people wrote about, it worked for me when I put ツソ tsu-so and シンshi-n (shin means heart) together. (and ソノ:sono)

    I’m looking forward to see the following parts,
    Thank you!

    4 years ago
  10. There’s a katakana version of these drawings, and they helped tremendously back in high school Japanese class (ありがとうございます
    さんさい!). I Still remembered most the hiragana 3 years later, and now!). Check out these doodles: http://www.darton.edu/programs/Humanities/foreign-language/kana.html

    4 years ago
  11. I think that for spanish speakers it may be easier to learn Japanese because the letters represent a letter in the spanish alphabet (they have the same sounds).
    For example:
    A= ア
    I =イ
    Is the same sound!! Yay for us!

    4 years ago
  12. I think this segment is a great idea! Both as a fellow Japanese language learner and as a language teacher. And the drawings are super cute! My Japanese teacher also used drawings to make us learn kanas back in the day and I still remember some of them now…

    I might be a bit ahead of the game but since you asked kanji advice in the video there’s a tip I’d like to leave here if anyone is interested. Difficult kanjis are generally a combination of several easier kanjis, or radicals + easier kanjis. For exemple, since you mentionned pork in your video: the kanji for pig, 豚 (buta), can be divided into the kanji of the moon (月) and has the same part as the kanji for house (家). Now it might not help for memorizing (unless you want to make your own histories out of it^^) but I think it makes kanjis less scary. I still try to remember it whenever I meet a super crazy difficult kanji when reading…

    Also, I have a question for other Japanese learners: does anyone know a good book/free online ressource for learning kanjis from the JLPT N1 level? I can’t seem to find any and I don’t want to relearn all the kanjis that I already know >.<

    Anyways faito to everyone learning Japanese!

    4 years ago
  13. I’ve learned Hiragana first since it’s easier :) I’m still struggling with Katakana though ==. My advice for both is investing in Dr Moku’s app. I kid you not, it took me 1 day to learn the Hiragana. It’s super cute, funny and uses lots of stories :) Here’s an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J47H1U9zulI. It’s fun to have your own associations but some dr Moku’s are really creative. Have fun! (they don’t pay me to say this but if the want to start… call me XD)

    4 years ago
  14. I wish I could help you with learning katakana but I learnt them from a book that had Finnish words helping to memorize them… But I will say that you should pay attention to the stroke order! It might sound silly but it will help you if you plan to write Japanese in general because it will make writing easier and automatic when you know where to begin. Especially with kanji it is important to know the stroke order rules, for example it helps you to find the right kanji from dictionaries/apps in situations you can’t copy&paste words but when you need to draw them. ;D
    Oh and I found it really helpful to learn how to read katakana and hiragana on Japanese game sites, one of them is gone but if both of you are interested there’s this game called Pigg which is connected to a Japanese blog site ameba. I like to play Pigg Life the most, it’s like a farming game and a nice way to learn vegetables for example! :D I think you’re at a great start and good luck with studying~

    4 years ago
  15. The tiny ッ makes the consonant after it doubled.

    Ex: がんばって or in katakana ガンバッテ (‘do your best!’)

    Instead of ‘ganbate’ it’s ‘ganbatte’. I’m pretty sure the double consonants work the same as they do in Korean. Also, it’s always a tiny ‘tsu’ that is used in both hiragana and katakana.

    Be careful with ツ (tsu) and シ (shi) and ソ (so) and ン (n). It’s easy to see the difference when typed but written it can look too similar. I was told that writing the ‘eyes’ horizontally for ‘shi’ and ‘so’ and vertically for ‘tsu’ and ‘n’ is very common. The curve is usually written the same with only the eyes changing. I hope that makes sense. I still mess up writing them and recognizing which one is which on their own

    4 years ago
    • If I may regarding the writing of ツ, シ,ソ and ン:

      For ツ (tsu) and ソ (so), the curve should be written from the upper right corner to the bottom left corner and be more curvey, while for シ (shi) and ン (n) it should be written from the bottom left to the upper right corner (and be a bit flatter, I think).

      But man do those letters look alike. Even after several years of practice I generally know who is who depending on the context and not the letter itself.

      4 years ago
  16. Just a quick tip for writing the エ character: when you write it, the top line is shorter than the bottom line. So they aren’t equal lengths. :)

    4 years ago
  17. Thanks Martina! This lesson was very helpful and I certainly look forward to the rest of the courses. While I took quite a few japanese courses back in the day, katakana were the hardest for me to remember. Every day when we play Splatoon online, katakana is useful for reading the names of other players since a lot of them use katakana (Canada and Japan are in the same region zone – hey maybe we could play each other now – LOL!). As for speaking with people who’s english is only passable, I’ve found that speaking english with a heavy japanese accent is much easier for people to understand because though they have taken english courses, they always default back to the words they learned randomly from tv and popular culture, like “sawnk yu” rather than “thank you”. It’s not my first instinct when talking to people but if conversation/understanding becomes difficult, this usually seems to work. You are not making fun of them, you are simply speaking the works in a way that is more familiar to them and they are usually happier with the understanding. Anyways, when you get to kanji, here are some “helpful” cartoons:


    Cyber_3 – in my japanese 101 class, one smartalec tried to convince the teacher that, just like japanese, adding more words in english made the sentence more polite, only he added swear words. She didn’t buy it but a fellow student did and it was fun times for the rest of the day ;)

    4 years ago
  18. Have you tried Memrise? It’s an app for learning most anything. A ton of us use it in conjunction with other apps for language learning.

    4 years ago
  19. This takes me back to when I started learning katakana! Thanks for doing these videos :)
    Just a tip on コ/”ko”… stroke order gets more important as you go along (very important for kanji), so remember that the top and right strokes go together L-R-Down, but then the bottom stroke is written separately, from L-R. If you practice proper stroke order from the very beginning, it makes it much easier later on.

    4 years ago
  20. Trace overtop what you wrote physically with your fingers, and that will help your brain overnight when you sleep connect to the katakana and later the hiragana. There are different ways to activate memory and you are using word association which can work, but there are others to try as well. Tracing works for me. Especially when characters look similar, because you remember how you physically write them they then don’t have that confusion. This also works out later when kanji gets pretty wild. Anyway, give it a go ;)

    4 years ago
    • just to be clear, trace out the letter after writing. It’s a minor change in how your write and you remember things better when only a minor change occurs. It susses out the shape in the head in a way writing alone doesn’t do. Think finger painting. (And, yes it’s science!)

      4 years ago
  21. MLE

    In terms of menus, katakana makes more sense because they’re just singular words, not sentences or phrases.

    For example, in English we write things on menus like “Clam chowder in bread bowl”, but in a sentence you wouldn’t say “I tried the clam chowder in bread bowl” or “I like clam chowder in bread bowl” because it sounds weird.

    Hiragana is used more in conjugating words, making sentences, etc so if you’re trying to learn how to read things other than menus or working on your speaking, that’s when it’ll come into play.

    If you haven’t seen them already, Daiso has a ton of super cute items you can get to learn hiragana and katakana. It’s for kids but they’re so cute so go for it!! There are work books with stickers, plastic sheets for kids to bring in and play with/look at in the bath tub, charts that you can stick on walls, etc.

    4 years ago
  22. Zee

    I used Japanesepod101 when I first started learning Japanese a few years ago

    4 years ago
  23. Val

    Hi Martina. I want to thank you for sharing these tips with us. I’m having a really bad time learning Japanese. Now i’m feeling like i can finally learn something new! Please keep doing these type of videos. Kisses~

    4 years ago
  24. Since you seemed to be doing a lot of foods in your examples (and they’re often the ones written in Katakana), for your ケ example, I recommend:
    ケーキ! (*≧∀≦*)

    4 years ago
  25. If it helps you or anyone else I made two blog posts listing a ton of Japanese learning resources. Most of them on the free or cheap side.

    4 years ago
  26. Thanks for sharing this. My katakana isn’t as strong as my hiragana because like you, I thought that would be the obvious one to learn first. Although I’m not in Japan I do see hiragana more often I think. Especially in books or manga. What I did to learn was just get a small whiteboard like in your video and just write them over and over and over. Saying it out loud each time I wrote it.

    4 years ago
  27. I didn’t think you all were even old enough to remember The Vapors.

    4 years ago
  28. If you need help I highly recommend tofugu and textfugu and all of their websites!

    4 years ago
  29. Hi Martina! I’ve been studying Japanese, as well. I have a little tip for you.
    I noticed in the video that when you wrote Ken (ケン), your handwriting made it look like Keso (ケソ). Yeah, unfortunately, ‘n’ and ‘so’ look very similar. I was taught that curve in ‘n’ is supposed to be a bit flatter and the little line in the corner should be either horizontal or a tad diagonal, but with ‘so,’ the line in the corner should be more vertical. Also, the curve and the line start at roughly the same place (if you imagine a box around the character). This link might help explain it better:

    The same situation applies for ‘shi’ and ‘tsu.’ In ツ ’tsu,’ the lines are vertical, like ‘so.’ With シ ’shi,’ the lines are horizontal, like ‘n.’

    Also, there’s a neat website I use to study kanji. I wanted to suggest it to you, because it helps me quite a bit. It’s called WaniKani. When you can, check it out!

    Oh, and have you heard of the fun vocabulary game called Shiritori? You can use it to practice with words you’ve learned. Basically, one person says a word (in Japanese, obviously) and the next person has to say a word that starts with the last kana of the previous word. For example, if I said ‘ringo/りんご,’ the next person would have to say a word that started with ‘go/ご.’ There’s one important rule to this game, however! You cannot say a word that ends with ‘n/ん,’ because no Japanese words start with ‘ん.’ If someone does say a word that ends in n, they lose.

    I think this would be a fun little game to play on Eat Your Sushi with a challenge for the loser! Maybe you can play with your cameraman, too! I would really enjoy it.

    4 years ago
    • nie

      I’d like to add a tip that helped me memorize which is the katakana form of tsu (つ) and of shi (し).
      After you learn the order of writing, if you connect each stroke in that same order, you’ll see that the hiragana form and the katakana form are very similar:
      tsu = ツ = つ
      shi = シ = し

      Now, about learning those things, I just kept writing over and over again while saying out loud how to pronunciate at first. But I followed the order “a, ka, sa, ta, na…” so if I memorize this first line, it was easier for me to remember the rest of the alphabet.
      After you get used to writing, you can guess the order of strokes even when learning new kanji! It’s quite fun!
      I just don’t know a better way to begin.. ^^’

      4 years ago
  30. Hi Martina, I’m learning Japanese too and have mostly got Katakana and Hiragana pretty much down. I can tell you that the little “tsu” or ツ in katakana is pronounced as a short, silent pause. In romanji it is usually indicated by doubling the following consonant. It’s the same later when you learn hiragana, the “tsu” つ is like a silent pause. The ツor つcan make a big difference in pronouncing words that sound very similar like “kitte kudasai” (please cut it) verses “kite kudasai” (please put it (clothing) on). “Kitte” can also be a stamp; so as I’m learning, most meanings in Japanese are all about the context of the situation.

    4 years ago
    • I think more than saying that it’s always a silent pause, I would say that your description of it doubling the following consonant is better. Sometimes it’s a pause, as in your example where it doubles the t. But in the example of エスプレッソ, it doubles the s (like, esupuresso), giving the s double the length in terms of sound. So, esupuresso does not sound the same as esupureso. Also, to get more specific when talking about the times when it’s like a pause, it’s not just a pause. You want to close the sound on the following consonant. So when you say kitte, you don’t just want to say ki, pause, te. You would want to pronounce it like, ki, bring your tongue up like you’re going to pronounce the t but pause a moment, and then pronounce the te. There is a difference, I promise. Haha~ Just think of it like you’re doubling the sound of the t. Another example is kippu. Ki -> close your lips like you’re going to pronounce the p but pause a moment -> pronounce the pu. This is all super technical, but I hope it helps a bit. Good luck with your studies! :)

      4 years ago
    • HHAHAHHA good to know! I can just imagine…”Hello, please put clothing on my pizza” BLANK STARE FROM WORKER. Thank you for the example!

      4 years ago
  31. http://learnjapanesepod.com/kana-invaders/ This is legit the way I learned Kana when starting to study japanese. It’s absolutely hilarious and the only way I could manage to memorize anything. Katakana is pretty dificult for most people, and I still sometimes read them wrong or have a mental breakdown when reading stuff after three years of studying and living in Japan, so don’t beat yourself up too much about it. :)
    For Kanji flashcards and also an awesome kind of translation-dictionary-app, try Akebi. Most people like Anki for flashcards, but I prefer the Akebi one because it’s free and also really easy to use.

    4 years ago
    • WHOA. AMAZING. I just played a couple rounds! I’ll be sure to mention this in my next post cause that was awesome.

      4 years ago
  32. I completely understand what you’re going through, I’ve lived in Japan for five months now and I’m STILL struggling with picking up even a little bit of the language. But for me, I don’t have as much trouble memorizing the characters…it’s the grammar and sentence structuring that trips me up. I study a lot in my free time at the school I work at, but I’ve been burnt out lately…so I started attempting translations of songs from anime, which surprisingly is slowly seeming to help me understand sentence structure…and I’m even learning some fun new words! Totally irrelevant words like 未来 and 涙…but it’s still a fun way for me to practice understanding the language!
    Also, you asked what the “sideways smiley face” was. It’s a small “tsu” kana, which has a similar function to the “ー” function of dragging out a sound…but in this case the “ツ” character doubles the consonant sound of the following character. So for your example of “エスプレッソ”, that tsu character is doubling the “s” on “so”…eh-su-pu-re-sso!
    Happy studying! I look forward to more of your videos!

    4 years ago
    • Thanks for the advice Britney! And I’m glad to see other people struggle because man, it seems like math and languages just don’t compute with me. But I like that we can all gather and share our tips and tricks. :)

      4 years ago
  33. It’s awesome that you immediately started with learning Japanese. It will be difficult at times, but absolutely worth it ^^
    A site that I like, because I am a bit competitive, is japaneseclass.jp There you can learn from the beginning hiragana, katakana, kanji and a lot of vocabulary by repetitive practice that earns you EXP to level up ;)

    4 years ago
  34. Hiragana is MUCH easier IMO. For some reason I have a lot harder time remembering my katakana and reading it than I do with hiragana. Despite the fact that I’ve been reading both for, god, 9 years now?

    For kanji, check out http://www.wanikani.com
    It’s lovely for kanji, but you do need to know hiragana and katakana first.

    As far as books, genki is supposed to be pretty good, and so is japanese from zero.

    I’m nowhere near fluent myself (or even that awesome) but I’m happy to help however I can!

    4 years ago
    • I found hiragana easier too, so I learned it first and then realized it wasn’t helping me in Japan as a newbie. It is a struggle to remember Katakana so that’s why I decided to start with Katakana first. GAHH! We can do it!!! FIGHTTTT-OH!

      4 years ago
      • haha, I don’t know why Katakana is so much more difficult! A lot of the other people in my Japanese classes had the same issue.

        4 years ago
  35. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokuon

    –This might help you understand the little tsu better. My Japanese teacher explained it as being a kind of glottal stop.

    4 years ago
  36. Hello :)!, i would like to share with you Martina this awesome webpage i found long time ago, it has lots of kids’s stuff to practice hiragana and katakana, lots of draws, etc..I hope you and Simon enjoy it.

    Hugs and Kisses~

    The webpage: http://print-kids.net/

    4 years ago
  37. Hey Martina, now I’m not an expert (not at all) but I think if my memory is correct the smiley face in Espresso is a small ‘tsu’ and it is used in both hirigana and katakana and serves the purpose of drawing out the consonant sound of the character it proceeds. ex. espreSso vs espreso. Similar to how they have the marks which draw out the vowel sound in some words. Hope that is correct and makes sense :)

    4 years ago
  38. I love the cute katakana vs. hirigana. Where did you find these adorable tools?
    Blue haired Beth from Seattle, WA.

    4 years ago
    • Beth~~~~~ awww we miss Seattle! Had nothing but a perfect time there. Oh, I searched the internet looking for anything cute to use as wallpaper for my iPhone and iPad so that I could constantly study just using my lock screen. :) I left the watermarks on them so you can check out the original creator by clicking the picture.

      4 years ago
  39. That’s soo cool that you’re tackling Japanese. Before I developed my love of all things Korean, I enjoyed anime qith my brother. He was learning Japanese at the time and tried explaining the 3 different alphabets and–Whew–mind blown! The only thing I remember is how to write my name. Hehe…thank you for taking us on your language learning journey with you. I look forward to more lessons. Maybe I’ll end up being able to write more than my name.

    4 years ago
    • Hard to tackle but my end goal, even in Korea, was being able to communicate with people. I love going to a local shop and making friends with people even if they have terrible English and I have terrible Korean/Japanese but we can understand each other with our limited language skills. It is a great feeling. :)

      4 years ago
      • Exactly! I work at a hotel and I love that feeling of connection when you are able to speak to someone in their native tongue–even if it’s only hello and broken sentences. It leaves me smiling, and smiles are some of the best things in the world IMO ^^

        4 years ago