Hiragana, Katakana, and a sea of Chinese characters

The art of language has intrigued me since my first Italian class in junior high. Back then I fantasized about running off to a Tuscan villa and an Italian romance of the tall, dark, and handsome variety. Little did I know my future would lead me to the other side of the world and immerse me in Japan.

In high school, fellow linguist enthusiasts, along with anyone dreaming of an exotic trip or a break from overbearing parents, joined me on a trip to four European countries in twelve days. My eyes were opened to more languages, cultures, and fodder for new dreams. Each language came with unique phrases and distinct mannerisms.  I feel in love with the small piazzas of Florence. The intimacy of the piazzas correlated with the warm flow of the Italian language. While I thought Paris would be the epitome of worldliness, my inability to speak French among the proud French left me isolated. It also taught me the importance of communicating in other languages. Barcelona wooed me with the offbeat vibrancy of Gaudis architecture. His architecture is as vibrant and animated as the Spanish spoken with voice and gesture in the tapas bars.


Spain became my new crush and Spanish became my minor in college. My studies took me to the rainforest in Costa Rica and. Flamenco performances in Seville. I purposefully deleted most of the Italian I learned over six years of study because it’s similarity to Spanish created much confusion in my head.  Both Italian and Spanish brought lingual challenges and new perspectives. Who knew every noun could have a gender?  And the gender seemed arbitrarily assigned! Where English had one verb conjugation, the Latin languages had six! I had to learn a whole different vocabulary for formal speech and casual speech. And those who have encountered irregular verbs and the fickle propositions of por and para know my struggles. I am also embarrassed to say I still can’t roll my r. I know, I’m missing the best part!

After ten years of studying Latin languages, I thought I knew the challenges of learning new languages. I failed to appreciate my key advantage in studying Italian and Spanish; they used the same alphabet as English! So basic and so important! I could read and write early on.

While I was studying abroad in Spain, life threw a major curveball. I fell in love but not with a Spaniard. My fantasy of romance abroad happened in the most peculiar way- I fell in love with a Japanese guy living in America while I lived in Spain. Time to learn a third language!

So here I am ten years later still illiterate in Japanese. Why? I don’t know the alphabet! This is quite embarrassing living with a six-year-old who can read and even write many Japanese characters.

The Japanese language consists of three separate sets of characters. Hiragana is the main alphabet, with 46 characters. The number is intimidating and even more intimidating is that each character has a partner character in Katakana that often looks completely different. This doubles the alphabet to 92! But that is just the very small beginning. There are numerous, seemingly infinite, Chinese characters spread in between this alphabet. Literally thousands of characters. The secret to learning them is rote memorization from what I hear. For now, I’m sticking to the 92 phonetic letters through practice and grammar school style study. Here is my four-year-old level writing!

Hiragana and Katakana



  1. You are quite worldly my dear. I do my traveling vicariously through you! Japanese sounds rather difficult but I’m certain you’ll be successful. I’m a very proud mother. Please wish Satomi’s husband a happy Father’s Day.
    Pictures pictures pictures!

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