Reading in Japanese: How a Five Year Old Taught Me Hiragana

As anyone will tell you, learning a new language is hard.

For me, this is especially true for Japanese. Pre-learning-Japanese, I’d only really studied latin-based languages. Because of their similar alphabets, root words, and general sentence structure, I was able to pick them up quite easily and begin speaking them within a few months.

Japanese has been, to say the least, a completely different experience! It has not one, not two, but three (four if you count romaji) different writing systems. And none of those use the Latin script that I’m used to! There’s hiraganakatakana, AND kanji. So, needless to say, my learning curb is pretty slow right now, compared to the speed with which I learned Spanish. But I’m still trying hard and I’m pleased to say that my reading is coming along nicely.

I started out simply: I would ask friends or coworkers what this sign said, or what this menu item was. Before long, I was correctly identifying many hiragana symbols. After this slow start, I put my nose to the ground and looked up a hiragana chart. I tried to memorize as many symbols as possible.

Obviously reading signs and menus was helpful to me, but, if I’m being honest, I would say that my students – one in particular – played a much bigger role in my learning than those things did.

One day, I was sitting in the lobby with one of my younger 5 year old students. She brought me a Japanese children’s book and asked me to read it. I wasn’t sure that I could, but I told myself: “Let’s give this a shot. She’s so little, she probably won’t notice if I say it wrong anyway!” So I sat down and began reading… And she read along! Whenever I made a mistake, she would point and say the symbol correctly. Once I had repeated what she had said, we would continue. Who knew 5 year olds could be such good teachers?!? This little song and dance became part of our regular daily routine: she would bring me a book while I was waiting for class to start and we would read it together. If I made a mistake, she would make sure to correct it. Eventually, she must have been confident enough in my reading skills, because she started bringing me books and asking me to read them TO her, rather than with her… And so I did.

Within three weeks of this little routine, I was comfortable enough with hiragana to read an entire passage in front of my coworkers. And 4 months after my arrival to Japan, I’m proud to say that I can now read all 46 basic hiragana symbols (as well as their modified forms). I’ve set my sights on katakana next. Who knows? Maybe my 5 year old teacher will help me with that too!  😀


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