Learning a language with a different writing script

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How would you go about learning a language that has a different writing script such as japanese?

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Tallman wrote:
How would you go about learning a language that has a different writing script such as japanese?

I won’t go through the whole “How to learn Japanese” spiel because it’s pretty long. But I’ll summarize the way I’d learn the writing system if I was to start all over again today.



Start by learning Kana, which is made up of Hiragana (Japanese native words) and Katakana (loan words). These are phonetic scripts. Here is a summary of the general way I learn scripts:

1.    Find a list of all the letters, that includes audio. Listen to the audio for the first letter a few times then repeat it while writing the letter. Keep doing this until you've written the letter a few times. Do the same thing for the next 3 letters.

2.    Go back to the first letter and read it out loud without listening to the audio. Play the audio. If your pronunciation matches, go on to the next letter. If not, repeat step 1 for that letter, then try to do step 2 for the next letter. Keep doing this until you are able to pronounce all 4 letters correctly before listening to audio.

3.    Repeat steps 1 and 2 until you finish the whole list of letters. You should be able to quickly read all of them with correct pronunciation.

4.    Now that you've got the most basic grunt-work done, you can find and use a beginner's program for reading and pronunciation. A good program should teach you all the basics of spelling and pronunciation. I find beginner alphabet type books, with lots of simple reading and writing exercises, to be helpful at this point. Youtube is also an option.

You might be able to find a good beginner course that does everything on this list, and if so you can just do that instead. I included the detailed description so that you can see what needs to be done; some beginner courses are incomplete, or don’t give enough instructions. You might also be wondering why I didn’t recommend using a Youtube video from the beginning. That’s because I don’t think they stick very well by themselves. It’s good to combine grunt work with Youtube imo.



The third Japanese script is Kanji, which is composed of Chinese characters. There are thousands of these, but most of the important ones are contained in the Joyo Kanji, 2136 common use kanji. Some are quite complicated. You should wait until you have a decent mastery of kana before starting kanji. And it is a good idea to have a decent base in the language in general before starting. A few months is probably sufficient.


Many people do not learn kanji explicitly these days. Due to tech, few people need to actually be able to write, and that has made the language much more accessible. It is quite possible to learn how to read without being able to write. If that is what you want to do, I recommend you learn characters via a combination of a ton of reading and memorizing new vocabulary items. But I’m going to assume you want to explicitly learn how to both read and write characters. 


I recommend developing a “just in time” philosophy when learning kanji so as not to be overwhelmed by large quantities and to actually have the associated vocab in use so characters stick better when you learn them. Only learn a kanji after you already know a word containing it pretty well; you should recognize the word when you hear it, and be able to use it. This being said, have all the radicals, the pieces that make up kanji, well memorized beforehand, since it is a such a valuable tool for learning characters, and relatively speaking, does not take a great effort. There are only 214 Japanese radicals, as compared to thousands of kanji.

Anyway, when you are comfortable with a word that has a new character in it, learn the character by making up a simple story or phrase that contains the meanings of the radicals, the meaning of the character and pronunciation. Heisig popularized this method in Remembering the Kanji, and you can find a free PDF for the first few hundred characters by googling, and is worth going through just to get used to the method. Mnemonics are your friends in this case – they are just memory hooks which fade away when you no longer need them.

To be able to write a character, put the meaning on one side of a flashcard/list, and the character + pronunciation on the other side. When you see the meaning, recall the story, and write out the character as you pronounce it.

To be able to read a character and know it’s meaning, put the character on one side, and the meaning + pronunciation on the other side. When you see character, recall the story, pronounce it and recall the meaning.

That’s about it for the specific instruction. From that point on, read and write a lot, and practice all other facets of the language so as to form a strong base and reinforce the script. Good luck!


In Thailand now. Next up Tanzania and Philippines.

Learning Chinese - Mandarin, French, Japanese, Korean, Swahili, Chinese - Cantonese

To add to what leosmith said, make sure you learn the script with the correct stroke order. It's very important. I ignored it at first when I started learning Japanese, and eventually I had to relearn how to write everything again from scratch.

Also in practice, unless you're a student you probably won't be writing a lot of kanji by hand these days, but writing things down is an immense help to memorization, so I recommend it.