The most effective way I’ve used to learn kana (hiragana and katakana) is to write out tables of them. I believe any table will work if you stick with it, but I tried to find the official “alphabetical” order which led me to this japanese stackexchange post.
I was soon (in a couple of days) able to write all the kana from memory. I suspect that this is because I can make more/better associative memories against the position of kana that I do remember when I forget one.
Try it out. Worked well for me.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not completely new to japanese, and so it’s possible that my previous experience makes this table thing more effective than it would be for a complete beginner. However, I suspect that it’s the recalling position of the characters that makes this technique more effective, and so I think it will be effective for a complete beginner as well. But so that you can get a feel for my experience, I give you some background.
I only tried a couple ways to learn kana, and fortunately this one worked out. I did take one semester in beginning japanese many years ago (which I’m not counting as these couple ways of learning kana). Then, several months ago, I decided to start seriously teaching myself japanese.
At first I tried Rosetta Stone’s Totale Japanese. That was fun, but it’s very slow, and it would probably have been much slower if I hadn’t already had a course long ago. I used it several hours a week for about two or three months and only learned a few kana. That’s probably partly because of how I used it.
At first I tried matching up the sounds with the characters (kana and kanji), but grew impatient and just started clickin the pictures as soon as I figured them out. Now, my ability to match up sounds to characters was facilitated by my japanese course from long ago. I bet that a complete beginner wouldn’t be able to do that very efficiently, it would probably take them many times the amount of time it took me. I have a friend who was in that situation, and he said it was stupid because he didn’t understand a thing – I take this as evidence for my view.
The next thing I tried was using flashcards. I checked out all kinds of japanese flashcard apps, mostly for iPad, but I ended up using Anki (free, any computer), and it’s pretty awesome. There’s this shared deck that you can download for japanese kana (free), and I’ve been using it for a while now.
At first, I was just clicking through, and trying to memorize and recall from my memory, but I could tell right away that I needed to write the characters in order to memorize them faster. So whenever a sound description comes up, and you’re supposed to recall the character, I write it as the test to see if I remember it. I also supplemented this with the kana page on japanese.about.com so that I could learn proper stroke order.
I really like Anki, and I was learning the characters fairly quickly, but I kept forgetting characters too.
After a while of that, it occured to me that sometimes, I visualize the English alphabet as a long line of characters, and I vaguely remembered times where I’ve used tables or (to put it even more abstractly) where I was able to remember the location of an object, which helped me remember the object itself. So that’s when I decided to find an official table of kana to memorize. Lucky for me, it works!
As you can see, I have had prior experience with kana before using this technique, so for a complete beginner, I don’t think we can expect they are able to write all the kana from memory after just a couple days (actually a few hours – I didn’t study all day), but I still think it will be a pretty fast and effective way for anyone to learn and memorize kana.