How to Memorize Kana in 60 Minutes

Written by Yuri Karabatov. Follow me on Twitter.

I’ve finally started on Japanese, and there’s not much time until December, when I’m taking the JLPT.

My mission for today was to memorize all Japanese kana characters, most of which you can see in the picture.

Kana Chart

I tried to do it once, several years ago, and failed miserably. It took me three days and even then I confused the characters. Those three days were my first and last days of learning Japanese.

This time, it took me 60 minutes.

What did I do right this time?

0. State the goal before you start

Remember what I’ve said in “Set Smart Goals — or Else!”: always have a goal, no matter what you do. If you don’t have a goal, you won’t be able to measure your progress and won’t know when to stop.

My goal for this mission was “to be able to read simple sentences, written in kana (both hiragana and katakana) with little to no mistakes, in 60 minutes”.

My goal had a deadline, it was measurable and it was related to the real world: the sentences were from a textbook I wanted to look through.

Time to start!

1. Discard the unnecessary

Hiragana and katakana are basically organized into a table with vowels in rows and consonants in columns. They also have modifiers (Dakuten) which have an effect on pronunciation.

In order to achieve my goal I did not need to memorize the order of the characters. Quite the opposite: hiragana and katakana characters were to appear in sentences, which meant random order.

If I memorized their order, it would be of no use. If I need order at a later stage, I think you’ll agree with me that it’s much easier to arrange a set of familiar items that a set of non-familiar ones. And the kana characters were definitely non-familiar at the moment.

So I settled on dropping the order and concentrating on memorizing the characters themselves.

2. Use the simplest mnemonics available

When you encounter a huge number of new characters, it’s not the time to use complex mnemonics, which demand a large chunk of attention to maintain. Instead you should use the simplest mnemonics available, like the ones I’ve used.

I focused on two points:

  1. Similarity to a picture
  2. Word to match the picture and pronunciation

The first point is very simple. Remember, when someone pointed out how a cloud looked like something obscene, and you couldn’t let go of this imposed picture every time you looked at the cloud?

It’s the same here: a character should be easily associated with a picture. You need to do it consciously only once, after that your brain will draw the picture around the character all by itself.

One little advice: if you actually draw the pictures, do it beside the characters, to over them. Drawings should be beside to help your brain identify characters, not replace them in memory.

The second point is a bit more complex. You have to find a word which has pronunciation of the character in its first letters. Ideally, it should also match the picture from the first step.

Example. Say, you have a character . To me it instantly looks like a fishhook with two worms as bait. Two worms result in more fish.

When you see , you brain “sees” a fishhook, and then you “hear” the phrase: “More fish”. も = mo.

If you do this step yourself, you’re losing some time, but in exchange you get personalized associations resulting in rock-hard memory. It’s worth the time.

2. Install Anki / Make flashcards

Anki is a great piece of software at a price no one can beat: free. It makes use of spaced repetition. In a few words, it shows you the material just at the moment when you are likely to forget it. It works. I used Anki to randomize the kana characters and check my written answers.

As an alternative, feel free to use flashcards. They are pretty much the same, and don’t require a computer. You can flip through them any time you feel like it: in transport, in a queue, or just walking along the street. You’ll be amazed at how much time can be squeezed out of a day, if you use any available minute. Flashcards fit those spare minutes perfectly.

3. Learn as you go

Remember: the principle “less is more” works every time. A lot of students make the mistake of not following it. How? By learning everything at once.

If I tried to memorize all of hiragana at once, I would fail. And I did, once. It’s too distracting. Our brain craves focus.

Instead of reading through the table of characters over and over again, I ask myself a single question, with a flashcard.

At any moment I have only one character in front of me, which is on a flashcard. It is not passive information, it is a question, and it makes my brain think: “What is this character?”

As I go through all the characters, one by one, I don’t lose focus and attention, and memorize each of them almost on first sight.

The first run on both hiragana and katakana took me 15 minutes each.

Some characters are similar and are easily confused, so I paid them special attention. They are (so) and (n), (shi) and (tsu), (te) and (ra). The difference is quite clear once you have a look at them.

4. Two full tests without looking

After the first run I’ve taken two consecutive runs with Anki, testing each character and not looking it up, recalling it from memory instead. Recall strengthens memory, and during the last run I had no mistakes and few pauses of several seconds.

Some characters were much easier to memorize than the others. It was strongly related to their similarity to the picture I had drawn and the word I had assigned.

My advice: spend a little more time on mnemonics and throw frustration of memorizing out the door. Well thought-out pictures and words help memorize characters at first sight.

Results

I’ve achieved my goal by reading aloud some sentences written in hiragana and katakana.

Reading whole words was harder than reading single characters, but I had dropped character order for a reason: recall of random characters was quite fast.

Ugh, sorry for that academic language, but experiment demands! And I hope I’ve made myself clear.

All in all, a few techniques and simple considerations may dramatically reduce the time you need to learn something. That’s great, because you can reach fluency faster and save time for other things, like — learning another language. Why not?

Thanks for reading!

If you have your own secrets, I know you’re eager to share them in the comments. Please do so! :)

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