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Learning to Read in Japanese

Reading is the hardest part about learning Japanese. Here are some things I have learned to get along. First, go ahead and study the hiragana. Once you have learned the hiragana, you have the basis for the pronunciation in Japanese. It isn’t that hard to learn to read it. My Japanese teacher gave me a set of cards with hiragana written on it, and she went through the cards with me one by one and gave me the pronunciation, and I wrote it on the back. It is just one alphabet, so learning just one isn’t that hard.

Once you learn hirgana, you might think you could read the elementary school books because they are all written in hirgana. However, the elementary school books have words that only children use, and you probably haven’t studied. With hiragana, though, I could easily read my language books that my Japanese professor wrote. You don’t have to take several years to know how to say everything on the page because you don’t read it like you read English. IN English, we learn the name of the letter, then we learn the sound of the letter, and then we learn the different combinations of letters where the letters influence the sound of the other letters. Reading in English can actually be much more complicated than beginning reading in Japanese. In Japanese, you learn the name of the letter, and when you read it, you just say the letters, and you have the pronunciation. There are a few things that make you put more stress in one place than the other, but they are not complicated.

You need more than hiragana, though to read a book. The next thing you will need to do is learn the katakana. The katakana is another alphabet that is used just for foreign words. Every katakana letter has the same sound as the hiragana letters, so you just learn another way to say that sound.

I couldn’t get the picture very plain, but I got it so you can see that there are hiragana written next to the kanji. That is the pronunciation. If you don’t know the kanji, you can still read this book if you know hiragana.

Next, you think you need to learn kanji, and it takes 12 years to learn enough kanji to read the newspapers in Japan. However, if you get the right book, you don’t need the kanji, and if you get a book made for adults, you don’t have to worry about the children’s special language. If you go to the bookstore in Japan or order something off the internet, you can get books you can read. Some of the books have the kanji with the hiragana pronunciation written next to it. If you have a big enough vocabulary or use your dictionary, you can read that book without waiting until you know all the kanji the adult Japanese know.

I am going to show you how to learn Japanese from reading even if you don’t know the kanji.

“In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

はじめに神は手土地とを祖ぞれた。(創世記)

My computer is actually pretty uncooperative when I try to use Japanese letters. This time, it insisted on putting the kanji in without the hiragana pronunciation, and it almost refused to change back to English, but I needed the verse in Japanese to show you.  

To begin with, the Japanese begins just the way the English does, “In the beginning,” (hajimeni). (Now my computer is refusing to give me Japanese letters, but I can explain it anyway.) “Hajime” means beginning, and “ni” is a Japanese preposition that can mean “at,” “to,” or “in.” “Hajime” has three syllables, and it is the first three hiragana in the verse above. The next hiragana is “ni.”

After four hiragana above, you can see a kanji. That kanji is “kami.” “Kami” means “God” in Japanese, and the “ha” after “kami” is actually pronounced “wa.” If it is in a word, it is pronounced “ha,” but it is a subject marker, and as a subject marker, it is pronounced “wa.” That means that “kami” is the subject of the sentence just as “God” is the subject of the sentence in English.

The next kanji is pronounced “ten.” “Ten” is how you say “Heaven” in Japanese. Somehow, the computer messed up, and I didn’t catch it because it put a kanji next, but it should have a hiragana. The computer probably put it there because it means “dirt,” and the next kanji is “earth.” Also “to” means “and,” and “do” means “dirt” or “earth.” After “ten” (Heaven), there should be “to,” meaning “and,” and it should be written in hiragana.

The next kanji is “chi,” meaning “earth.” It also has a hiragana after it that reads “to.” That means that “Heaven” and “earth” are added together as the direct object because the next hiragana is “wo,” usually pronounced “oh.” There is more than one hiragana that is pronounced “oh,” and this one is used especially for putting after direct objects.

The next kani is “so-u,” and coupled with that hiragana after it that reads “zo,” it means create. It is conjugated and the last word in the sentence, so you know it is a verb, and what comes after “so-uzo” is the conjugation. Sometimes in Japanese, there is a past tense conjugation that has “ta” at the end, and that conjugation has “ta.” That means that “so-uzo reta” means “created.”

If you can find books that have the pronunciation of the kanji next to the kanji, then you can read some book in Japanese if you try. It is not completely impossible. Reading the newspaper for foreigners is mostly impossible because they don’t include the hiragana, and because most foreigners haven’t studied Japanese long enough to know that many kanji. However, try. Find a book that has hiragana next to the kanji like my Bible does. I put the same verse in English above in case we needed a reference, but we didn’t even need it. However, using a translation is helpful. If I didn’t already know what those words were, I could have used the English translation to tell me what they were. You can also use a dictionary because with the hiragana, you have the pronunciation.

Sometimes it feels like a language is overwhelming, especially when the writing is so strange, but there are ways to get around it. Look for books with hiragana next to the kanji. Hiragana and katakana are not that hard to learn. If I had chosen a verse from the Bible with a lot of names, the names would have been written in katakana because they are not Japanese names. For example, I just opened my Japanese Bible to a random page, and at the top, it is written “irumia” in katakana. “Irumia” is Jeremiah. If you look at the first verse of the first chapter of Matthew, there are a lot of foreign names in Matthew. the first verse begins “aburahamu” in katakana which means “Abraham.” It is important to learn the katakana too. Don’t give up because you can do a lot if you can just read hiragana and katakana.

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