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Japanese Alphabet | Rosetta Stone®

Learn about the Japanese alphabet, words, and phrases using the award-winning Rosetta Stone app.

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Learn About the Japanese Alphabet

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Japanese alphabet is that it’s technically not an alphabet at all. Modern Japanese writing is actually a combination of logographic (i.e., symbol-based) kanji, adapted from Chinese, and syllabic kana.

Kanji, the element of Japanese writing that’s based on Chinese, contains thousands of pre-defined characters. It’s among the trickier aspects of the language to pick up, but a solid command of the around 2,000 characters is considered the mark of fluency.

Kana, the syllabic element of Japanese writing, contains two very specific sets of characters, hiragana and katakana. Each is made of 46 characters that represent the same sounds/syllables. The key difference between hiragana and katakana is that the former is used for native Japanese words, while katakana is used to represent foreign words. Although two sets of 46 characters may sound intimidating, many students find them straightforward to learn.

Using Rosetta Stone’s Dynamic Immersion® methodology, you’ll learn the language, not just the words. What makes Rosetta Stone effective is that we prepare you to use your new language in your everyday life. So, it’s not just about the features, but what you’re able to do because of them. That way, you’ll be ready to handle any situation with ease and confidence.

Speaking, Reading, and Writing Japanese

Learning Japanese may at first seem very intimidating. But you may be surprised to find you begin to understand and speak the Japanese language rather quickly. This is due to the fact that most characters in Japanese have only one correct pronunciation. This characteristic of the Japanese language simplifies things for many beginner learners.

Just like the English alphabet, there are five Japanese vowels. Once you’ve learned the Japanese vowel sounds, you’ll be able to pronounce some basic Japanese words that are made up of just a vowel sound and one consonant. These include basic Japanese words like き, which means “tree” and is pronounced simply as ki. Another example of a basic word with an easy pronunciation is the word “hand” or て which is pronounced as te.

In addition to these five vowels, Japanese has just 14 consonants. And each consonant has just one accurate pronunciation. Because the Japanese alphabet has a limited number of letter combinations, you’ll be able to quickly learn all the variations of sounds that can occur in spoken Japanese.

What’s more, the syllables of Japanese words can also be easier to pronounce than other languages. That’s because in Japanese, syllables are given equal stress, with some slight differences in intonation. Japanese intonation has two pitches: low and high. Some pronunciations can be a bit more complicated than that, because they vary from region to region. For this reason, it’s often best to mimic fluent local speakers. And it’s important to know that the pitch of a spoken word in Japanese can alter its meaning. So you’ll want to listen carefully to spoken Japanese to make sure you get it right.

Once you’ve developed the ability to accurately make the basic sounds of spoken Japanese, you’ll want to practise with fluent Japanese speakers. Then you will find that kanji is a natural next step to accelerate your learning of the Japanese language. As noted previously, kanji is the Japanese written system of characters, and has its origins in written Chinese. Kanji is made up of characters that are in turn made up of even smaller parts. Those smaller parts that make up the characters are called radicals, and each individual brushstroke of written Japanese emphasises balance and composition.

While some learners of Japanese find that writing is one of the most challenging aspects of the language, there are some tips that can make learning kanji just a bit less intimidating. And although there will be challenges, learning to write kanji can be very helpful if you plan to travel through Japan and navigate your way around a huge city like Tokyo. Acquiring the ability to read Japanese road signs, menus, and maps will make your journey and your communication with locals a bit easier.

Refining your Japanese requires that you receive precise and immediate feedback on your spoken Japanese. Feedback will allow you to make any and all needed corrections to your pronunciation. Then you’ll need to practise speaking Japanese until you can readily shape the sounds that make up the spoken Japanese language. Rosetta Stone embeds our proven and patented TruAccent™ speech-recognition engine into every Japanese language lesson. It provides precise and instant feedback so you can match your pronunciation and accent with that of fluent Japanese speakers. TruAccent was developed by carefully scanning and closely analyzing the speech of native and non-native Japanese speakers—a powerful tool in helping you learn to understand and speak in Japanese.

After you have acquired the basic words and phrases that are the building blocks of speaking the language, you’ll be able to naturally transition to learning the longer phrases that make up so much of everyday Japanese conversation. Rosetta Stone’s digestible, 10-minute language lessons are designed in exactly this way—moving you towards the ability to comfortably understand and confidently speak Japanese. Rosetta Stone lessons structure vocabulary acquisition in context with real-world situations, a proven practise that can accelerate your understanding of the Japanese language.

Try Our Award-Winning App

Surround yourself with Japanese whenever, wherever with the Rosetta Stone app.

Download a unit and knock it out on the train or a flight. Select a 5-10 minute lesson and sneak it in while you wait in line or for your ride to show up. And explore dynamic features, like Seek and Speak, where you can point at an object in the real world and get a translation.

The best part? You don’t have to choose between app or desktop. Both come with your subscription and sync, so you can switch between devices seamlessly.