When you begin learning Japanese, in a classroom or with self-study, usually the first writing systems you learn are hiragana and katakana, often simultaneously. During classroom study, you begin to use nothing but hiragana, often at the end of the first term. Thus you begin to quickly internalize the characters.
However, even when writing out homework in Japanese, katakana is used much less frequently, since it is the syllabary or alphabet for foreign loan words. So I notice that students have a more difficult time with learning and retaining katakana, and they often complain that katakana is harder than hiragana.
Despite the fact that the characters are different, both syllabaries have the exact same number of characters and the exact same pronunciation for each character. I don’t think that katakana is technically more difficult than hiragana, but that students often don’t get to use them as much and don’t internalize them as well.
I’ve come up with some other reasons why katakana is difficult for foreigners, from my experience studying and tutoring Japanese.
Katakana symbols can be very similar.
The characters for shi シ and tsu ツ are only subtly different. As are the characters for so ソ and n ン. Remembering the correct character can be difficult without a lot of practice, and can be frustrating in an exam. Reading is a little more forgiving, because you can usually tell by the other characters in the word or the other words in the sentence which one it is – although this is more difficult if it’s a word you don’t know or recognize.
For example, determining the difference between tool ツール and sticker (seal) シール in a sentence. Context really helps when you aren’t sure about the reading, but for writing you just have to memorize.
Loan words can be difficult to write in Japanese phonetics
The way that English, French, German, or other foreign words are pronounced in the native language, and the way that they are pronounced as Japanese loan words, can be very different. For example, in English we say virus, but in Japanese it’s uirusu ウイルス – which can be difficult to sound out for a native English speaker.
One in ten Japanese people will spell a loan word the exact same way in katakana, but for many foreigners without a native perception of how Japanese syllables connect together it can be difficult to correctly guess the correct spelling. When you write a loan word in Japanese, the spelling is not the important point, but rather the pronunciation of the word. So my name, Kay, would not be spelled kai カイ (based on the English spelling) but rather kei ケイ, because the sounds match.
Many words you can sound out relatively well with practice, and can get by in writing even if the spelling is not 100% accurate (unless it’s an exam, of course). If I run across a difficult word, I will usually look it up when I am writing an e-mail. When reading, slowly sounding out a new word you can usually discern the meaning.
Loan words may have different meanings from the original
Katakana words may mean something different than what you associate with the original word. For example, the word mansion マンション means an apartment building in Japanese, but in English it conjures up a large, rolling estate.
Words can also come from a variety of foreign languages, and if you don’t know the word in the original language, the meaning may be mysterious to you. The word for part-time job is arubaito アルバイト, which comes from the German Arbeit. I do not speak German, so when I learned this word I had no idea why it was in katakana. When I found out that it was German, I was quite surprised.
Japanese loan words are constantly evolving
I was reading a Japanese fashion magazine, and I found the word tronche coat トロンチコートー spelled in both English letters (romaji) and katakana. I had no idea what that was, and as I searched for it in both English and Japanese, I was quite confused. I could tell by the photo in the magazine that it was like a trench coat, but searching in English didn’t bring up any results that made sense. Searching in Japanese, however, I was able to find that it was a softer version of a trench coat. Essentially, it’s a trench coat made of soft fabric, specially for spring. This word was made up by the Japanese fashion writers, designers, etc. to describe something in particular, although foreigners in the fashion industry have not picked up the term.
Fashion magazines make up quite a few new words for fashion trends, as well as other media. Language is a constantly evolving entity, and different combinations of Japanese and foreign languages, combinations of katakana and hiragana, and even combinations of katakana and kanji lead to the creation of a lot of new words.
So, the challenge posed to foreigners is to learn how the Japanese people use and incorporate loan words to create a unique language. I think that this is one of the most interesting parts of learning Japanese, and why I enjoy learning this language.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in studying katakana? What about challenges in using katakana in your writing or reading it in books? Let me know in the comments!