Alternate Title: The Secret to Learning Kanji: Don’t Learn kanji.
The great thing about the kanji is that there are a lot of them. However, this may or may not in fact be a good thing depending on your point of view. The Dai Kan-Wa jiten apparently contains over 50,000 kanji, although it is generally recognized that the some 2000 Joyo Kanji are what is necessary for basic reading fluency in Japanese. Furthermore, because each kanji can take on more than one reading depending on the word, the task before the Japanese learner seems rather arduous.
But not to fear, right? After all, the most common 1000 kanji covers 93% of what you should expect to read. Except that this statistic—and I’ve heard it from Japanese teachers as well—is rather misleading. First, even if you did understand 93% of the kanji being used in an article, that’s still an unknown kanji to look up every 10 or so words—not exactly reading fluency by any means.
Furthermore, even if you recognize a Kanji, it might be used in a word that contains unknown kanji as well, making the word incomprehensible without decent guessing skills, and making your 1000 kanji knowledge base not as useful as you may have hoped.
So what do we do?
The most common kanji learning methods
There’s no reason to go over these in detail since they’ve been discussed ad nauseum:
1. Study just a few kanji by rote a day—if you studied just 3 kanji a day for two years, you would have studied 2190 kanji, a bit more than the entire joyo kanji list! Problem: sticking to a daily schedule for two entire years is easier said than done, not to mention the necessary need to review what you’ve learned already. Plus, what does “3 kanji” even mean? Just writing the kanji? Writing and all of its readings? Just recognizing it and its rough english meanings? There’s more here than meets the eye.
2. Use RTK (as I discussed briefly before along with AJATT) as a way to internalize kanji meanings to aid in the learning and writing of vocabulary words. Problem: and as I said before, I’m not the biggest fan of RTK. It advocates a piece-wise learning process that is not as useful as it seems. It’s possible to pick up kanji meanings without needing to study them explicitly first through rote-memorization.
3. Play/read/watch X game/manga/anime in Japanese to pick up kanji naturally. Problem: non-textbook style materials are very helpful, but they can lead to input overload when it comes to kanji—more on that below—and so students should exercise discipline when using this route.
All of these are useful ways of learning Kanji, but they each have flaws as well—as any learning method will likely have. Nonetheless, I have one more of my own to propose.
Learn Kanji by Not Learning Kanji
The problem I see with a lot of Kanji learning material is that you go one character at a time, treating the kanji as a sort of separate entity from the rest of your Japanese learning. This may be perfectly effective, but I feel that it’s actually more efficient rather than less to study kanji through the study of vocabulary.
That’s right—don’t study the Kanji; study words.
But why? Isn’t studying words long and tedious? Shouldn’t I learn the alphabet first?
Kanji is not phonetic like English or the Kana; as a result, trying to learn it like an alphabet may actually be inefficient. I’m not going to flat out say it is inefficient, but I think there are better methods.
So how do I go about learning word-by-word?
One thing you may notice about Japanese is that even when a kanji is used in multiple words, these words tend to take on similar meanings. This may not always be the case, but it’s a good general rule. For example, I have a list of JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) words that I can sort by Kanji:
Even if we don’t explicitly study the meaning of 「予」we can get the sense of what meaning we should expect if we see this Kanji in a word. And by studying words, we ultimately assimilate both this meaning and the meaning of a real Japanese word as well—a two for one deal.
However, what I am not suggesting is to simply study lists of words rather than Kanji. Studying words by themselves is ineffective because we won’t know when to use them in real conversations or contexts. Four of the words on the list above have the listed meaning “forecast,” but only one of them would be used in the common construction, “weather forecast,” in Japanese:
- 「天気予報」＝ 51,600,000 Google hits.
- 「天気予想」＝ 154,000 Google hits
- 「天気予期」＝ 123 Google hits
- 「天気予測」＝ 108,000 Google hits
Despite the similar meanings, the winner here is pretty clear. We need to study words in context—more specifically, we need to study sentences.
Where do I get sentences to study?
Not all sentences are created equal—some can be too long or too complex, something we want to avoid when studying. Generally, your sentences should contain no more than a handful of unknown words, and you should be able to easily guess at the meaning of the sentence without too much difficulty without those words. That way, you won’t overload yourself.
Grabbing haphazardly from newspapers or tv shows—that while filled with useful Japanese—will likely result in having sentences with too much content for a reasonable human to study at one time: that’s input overload. You can take from a newspaper, book, or tv show if you feel you’re at that level, but keep the sentences very short while still retaining some semblance of context. Taking or transcribing sentences from tv shows in particular may be useful, since you’ll remember the context of when the words were used and thus remember both the meaning and when to use the word more easily.
But for the beginner, the following would probably be more useful:
Taken from the beginner-level shadowing book I mentioned previously.
An easy-to-understand exchange about going to the convenience store to purchase lunch gives the beginner the chance to practice 「弁当」and 「買」while giving some context as to when to use these words as well.
After reviewing the sentence, one should practice writing it by hand—using fill-in-the-blank with the kanji—to review. By going over short sentences, we avoid input overload, study both kanji and words simultaneously without doing too much of either at one time, and study grammar and natural Japanese constructions as well.
In a future post, I’ll go over where to find good sentences to practice, and how to incorporate more fun things like anime into serious study.