Learning Hiragana Like a Baby?

By Donald Ash | Articles

I found this toy at a Japnese second a shop quite some time ago. I won’t say it was for babies, but maybe for toddlers. It was in perfect working condition and I thought I would be a great way to practice hiragana. For some people studying Japanese, they feel insulted or belittled if they have to study using child-based learning tools. I take a completely opposite approach. If it works, I say use it. But I didn’t always feel this way.

There was a time when I would be just a little embarrassed to walk into my local library and be the biggest thing moving in the Japanese children’s books section. I felt embarrassed because I’m adult who, by Japanese standards, I’m just barely literate. But these were the only Japanese publications (except for the Hiragana Times) I could actually read. I couldn’t fully understand them, but I could read the words. There were so many kids in that library who could read and speak so much better than me. I would trudge into the kids section feeling a bit like a six-foot-two, African-American, dunce…sigh.

However, after teaching in a Japanese elementary school and having a chance to interact with Japanese students, I don’t feel bad anymore. I realize that you can learn so much just by listening to kids speak everyday. Now if I get a kids book in hiragana, I am inspired to really try hard. Doing so may make communication with my students easier, and dare I say, conversation with adults easier.

With hiragana, katakana, and the kanji that I do know…I know them and in many cases can reproduce them. The challenge for me sometimes is in the speed. So with this particular toy I bought, is a great tool for helping me to recognize the hiragana more quickly. There are game modes in this teaching tool that make the learning whole lot less repetitive and a lot more fun. This is what the toy looks like in action:

In the U.S., I’m sure you’ve seen kids toys that are similar and you’ve probably walked by them without giving them a second glance. I know I have. Maybe you’ve flipped past Sesame Street or some other TV program in search of more age-appropriate programming. I’ve done that, too. But being in another country and living there really changes your perspective on things. While kids shows seem very simple to a native child who is watching them. Take away the luxury of knowing anything about the language, not a lick of vocabulary or even the foggiest idea of how to formulate a decent sentence. Then try watching that very same kids show. It becomes a whole heck of a lot harder.

I have to be brutally honest with myself at times…I’m not fluent and some days I feel like I’m not even close. I realize that sometimes I have to lose the ego, check my pride at the door and be shamelessly willing to do what’s necessary to make the learning real to me. I know not everybody will feel the kid’s approaches to learning. I personally think it should be only one component of your Japanese studies (especially if you’re an adult).

Nevertheless, whether it’s kid’s toys, workbooks, television shows, or even talking with children directly, I think these methods are under-rated ways to build a great foundation…especially if you’ve still got a lot to learn…like me.


Donald Ash


About the Author

Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

  • Scott says:

    Oh man, is this good reading Donald! I just stumbled across your blog searching for an athletic club in the Toride/Moriya area. My wife and I just moved to the area a few days ago from California. She’s a native, meanwhile, my Japanese comprehension level is in its infancy. It seems learning Hiragana is the first step of most language courses I’m exploring. I NEED THAT TOY! Where did you get it? And have you taken any live or online courses? I heard of a free course nearby starting in September, and also giving Rocket Japanese a try. Well, keep up the good posts. You can bet I’ll be subscribing and commenting!

    • thejapanguy says:

      Scott, I was going through some old posts and I could’ve sworn I remember responding to this very comment. I really appreciate feedback (more than you know, brother). I haven’t taken any online course, but the community center near me was offering free Japanese lessons. I was going until they changed the time and it didn’t fit my schedule anymore. The toy? A friend gave it to me actually. But don’t worry, I will show another very soon that’s WAaay cooler than the one you see here 🙂 I’m gonna keep the posts coming, and I am really glad you took the time to come by and post. Thank you!!

  • Roger Starkey says:

    That is the coolest thing ever! You ought to start selling them.

  • Jonas says:

    I’ve never liked learning languages this way, but I’m sure it works. It’s not embarrassing or anything but using tools meant for adults work better for me 🙂

    • Donald Ash says:

      I hear you on that Jonas. I think a lot of people feel the same way. I don’t really mind it being kiddy, but a lot of people would. Thanks for posting 🙂

  • Ken says:

    Cool gadget. I like how each hiragana has an image of correlated object. Having images sometimes helps me to memorize stuff faster than not having one.

  • Julia says:

    I know how you feel about being a tad embarrassed going into the children’s section at the bookstore or library. We all have to start at the bottom and work our way up, right?!
    Nowadays I just say that the book is for my (non-existant) younger sister, haha.

    But now I’ve started reading books without the furigana next to the kanji, which is very hard & takes ages… but much more rewarding when I finish the book, and more kanji gets drilled into my head that way. I admire your willingness to learn.

  • keneki says:

    how buy in vietnam??

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