Q: There have been questions recently about learning to speak Japanese vs. learning to write Japanese first. I was under the impression that it was best to learn hiragana before diving into learning Japanese (I’m already familiar with some Japanese basics, but I haven’t gone headlong in yet) so that you can learn in hiragana rather than romanji. This seems to make sense to me, and I figured that if I was learning hiragana first, I might as well learn to write it at the same time. Is that a good way to approach it?
A: No! : ) It’s true that you should always learn hiragana instead of romaji because romanji really kills your accent. And if you are a word orientated person then it probably is just as well to learn to write hiragana at the same time you learn to read it.
But …. before doing any of those then learning to speak quite a bit of Japanese, by listening and then talking, is the most important first step. This is why everyone in Holland speaks such good English, because they listened to English TV as kids. And it’s why people in Japan are usually terrible at speaking English, because they learnt to read and write it from textbooks! Luckily we’re in the Youtube era so it’s possible to get lots of really good Japanese listening input every day.
But just learning hiragana on its own doesn’t actually help you to speak, or learn to speak, Japanese.
Q; Second, I write left-handed. I was wondering if the Japanese also have left-handed writers, or if they train kids to all write right-handed as it used to be here. If there are Japanese left-handed writers, do they write differently than right-handed writers? For example, I write “O” counter-clockwise and cross “T” from right to left, which I believe is backwards from right-handed writing.
A: Good question! At the moment almost all left handed kids are “corrected” in school and forced to write the characters right handed. There are lots of reasons given for this, but I have a feeling it will only take one major left handed celebrity to say it’s not fair and teachers might start thinking again.
Q: Third, I’ve noticed that on all of the hiragana worksheets I have found on various websites, the strokes and complete characters are completely calligraphic. Is there a trick to figuring out what your strokes and complete characters should look like (all the little flips and hooks) if you are using a pencil or ball-point pen? Or is it recommended to practice with some sort of calligraphy or other specialized pen?
A: Another good question! Japanese kids practice calligraphy as an integral part of their character learning. Good handwriters would always use a “fude” brush or brush type calligraphy pen to write and never resort to a ball point pen! I’d really recommend getting a calligraphy pen, they look really cool.
As far as learning all the little hooks and loops, that’s a whole art form in itself. It’s called 書道 - shodou – the way (or tao) of writing. There are “dan” rankings just like in karate or judo, my office manager has a “black belt” in it!
Q* Fourth, I visit a lot of Japanese websites with projects and activities for kids. I noticed that generally when kanji are used, the hiragana are included in small type either above or beside the kanji. I assume this is so that Japanese children can read the material prior to having an understanding of kanji.
A: Correct. And also for adults. No adult in Japan can read a whole newspaper and know all the characters.
At what age do Japanese children begin learning kanji?
A: Easy kanji start in first grade of primary school. It’s a never ending journey from there!
When do they begin learning hiragana? Katakana?
A: Just before they learn the kanji. Although some parents push their kids to learn the kanas when they are still in kindergarten.
Q: Fifth, in your Numbers video, you use nana for 7, with shichi in parenthesis. When my cousin (by marriage) visited from Japan in the mid 1980s, she taught me to count to 10 with shichi for 7. What is the difference between the two? Are they used at different times, or for different usages, or are they completely interchangeable?
A: Different times and different usages sometimes, although most of the time they are interchangeable. Especially if you are on the phone then “shichi” can be a little hard to hear, so “nana” is sometimes used then. But it’s just like in English with “one thousand five hundred” or “fifteen hundred” , there are some rules but mostly it’s just a feeling you pick up for each one when you’ve done lots of listening! No need to worry about it, just relax and enjoy listening!