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3 Tips for Learning Kanji

What do we do when we want to turn speech, an auditory and transient phenomenon, into something both visible and permanent? We write it, of course. However, how we go about writing it is hugely dependent on the language, and not because there are many different systems of writing. The underpinnings of writing systems themselves vary hugely.

Types of Writing Systems

  • Syllaberies (Kana [Japanese], Cherokee) – Each whole sound gets its own symbol. Generally only seen in languages with a small number of total possible sounds in one syllable
  • Abujibas (Thai, Devanagari [Hindi, Nepali, etc.]) – Character primarily represent consonant sounds, and notation shows you what vowel to read
  • Alphabets (Cyrillic [Russian, etc.], Hangul [Korean]) – Both vowels and consonants are represented separately and equally
  • Abjabs (Hebrew, Arabic) – Only consonants sounds are written, and readers figure out vowels by context
  • Logographies (Chinese,Kanji [Japanese]) – Written characters primarily represent ideas, with phonetic information figured out by memorization or association

When a person first starts studying written Japanese, they’ll usually learn the kana: hiragana and katakana. Derived from kanji, the kana are syllaberies and thus are overall fairly easy systems to learn. Yet studying kanji, you enter into another world entirely. Korean’s Hangul can be learned in an afternoon, and Thai writing over a few full weeks, but it is no accident that Japanese children have not studied even half the joyo kanji (everyday use kanji, as determined by the Ministry of Education) when they leave their 6th year of compulsory education at 12.

However, you are not an elementary school student: you are an adult, and can approach the study of kanji in a systematic, effective manner, equipped with the most appropriate tools as well as passion and interest to match even the keenest of apple-polishers.

Tip #1: Have Clear Goals

Why exactly is it that you’re learning kanji? How you answer will shape the course of your studies. To make a metaphor of exercise, there will be considerable differences between the workouts of a person who wants to compete in a local strongman competition versus someone who simply wants to keep healthy.

If you’ve a specific test in mind, like one of the five levels of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), an upcoming university exam, or even the Japan Kanji Aptitude Test (also known as the Kanken, a test of kanji knowledge geared toward Japanese natives), then you’re already set. Even if you have something more abstract in mind, like “Be able to read manga comfortably” or “Get by living in Japan without too much difficulty,” concrete goals will give you something to both aim for and measure your progress by.

Some Common Concrete Goals

  • The Joyo Kanji: With 2,136 characters currently on this everyday usage list, the joyo kanji are a high hurdle, but mastery of this list will bring much closer to Japanese literacy. The five levels of the JLPT are based on the joyo kanji and provide a graduated walk up this somewhat-imposing trail.
  • The Kyoiku (“Education”) Kanji: This list of 1,006 kanji are the ones that elementary school students are expected to know by the time they enter middle school. Broken down into six “years,” one for each year of elementary school in Japan, these provide a more gradual and organic approach to kanji learning. Great for manga enthusiasts as well as people who don’t need to have the more formal kanji of the “adult world” right away.
  • Frequency Lists: These lists are made through statistical analysis of some corpus or body of written language. One famous list looked at the Asahi Shimbun for their most used 1,000 kanji, which compose over 90% of all the kanji they used. There are also more recent ones created through Google n-grams. This is a good approach for people who will be doing business in Japan and for university students, too.
  • Pick-as-you-go: If you are patient and your interest is a little more specialized, your best bet might be to learn a good method for looking up kanji and simply creating your own list as you progress through your chosen medium. Though painstaking, this may be the way to go for those who need to feel their studies tie concretely to what they want to learn.

Tip #2: Know Thy Enemy

Let’s talk a little bit about what kanji actually are. You may have already heard that kanji can generally be broken into four categories: pictograms, which are (often quite stylized) pictures of what they represent; ideograms, which symbolically indicate an abstract idea; logical aggregates, which combine together members of the first two to make a complex idea; and photo-sematic (sound-meaning) compounds, which have one part used for its meaning and the other used for its classical Chinese sound.

Simple Examples of Kanji Formation

  • Pictograms – 山(yama, mountain); 木, (ki, tree); 鳥 (tori, bird)
  • Ideograms – 上(ue, up); 下(shita, down)
  • Aggregates – 山+上+下=峠 (toge, mountain pass);木+木+木= 森 (mori, forest)
  • Compounds -山 (meaning) + 鳥 (sound [Chinese to]) = 嶋 (shima, island [Chinese to])

Most kanji are made up of the last category, and keeping that in mind can be very helpful. For example, look at this collection of this kanji: 清 精 晴. All of them have 青 (ao, blue [Chinese sei]) on the left, and it just so happens that all of them can be pronounced sei in Chinese compounds as well. The parts on the right are called bushu (radicals), and are an important part of how kanji are grouped in dictionaries.

Tip #3: Use Technology

For the language learner, the blessings of the Internet era cannot be overstated. This goes doubly for the person who’s decided to challenge the Japanese kanji. One of the greatest things to come out the “electronification” of learning is spaced repetition flash card programs.

The basic idea of spaced repetition is that the best way to learn something is to have your exposure to it contingent on how well you remember it. Let’s say you’re trying to learn a certain kanji. Studying it every day for weeks on end would be inefficient, but seeing it only once would not help your remember it at all. With the gradually-increasing intervals of spaced repetition, you might study it on the first, second, fifth, tenth, and twentieth day after you see it for the first time.

With flash card programs, you’re spared the grunt-work of penning out and organizing a paper deck of study cards. The program automates both what cards you see for the first time and when you’ll review them. Most programs will also make adjustments for how well you remember your cards during your review. If you forget what a card means, it can be pushed up to near the front of the queue for you to review the day after, instead of two weeks later.

Other Advantages to Computer Use for Kanji Learning

  • Animated kanji stroke order diagrams
  • Online dictionaries to check kanji readings, meanings, common words, and origins
  • Input devices that allow you to draw or scan a kanji whose reading you don’t know
  • A community of fellow learners across the globe

Undertaking a study of the kanji is not for the faint of heart. The hours you’ll invest will number in the hundreds, perhaps even the thousands, but the sense of mastery and accomplishment you’ll gain as you meet your goals is unrivalled. As with all long journeys, preparation is key, but perhaps even more important than preparation is taking that first step, however shaky. So if you find yourself hesitating on the sidelines, just leap in: better to make an awkward start than no start at all!