Kanji is one of the hardest parts of learning Japanese. This is especially so for those coming from an English-speaking background. Whilst there are only 46 hiragana and katakana characters, there are over 2000 kanji prescribed for everyday use, which balloons to well over 10,000 when considering all the uncommon and rare kanji. Despite the difficulty of remembering the kanji, one cannot really be fluent in Japanese unless they learn at least the 2000 everyday kanji.
In my experience, endlessly writing the kanji out stroke-by-stroke is inefficient and will only lead to frustration as you struggle to remember thousands of seemingly random characters. The truth is, there is a method to the apparently random collection of strokes that make up kanji, and with the following tips, kanji will not be the burden it is commonly made out to be.
Kanji should really be studied as soon as hiragana and katakana are understood. The sooner you get it out of the way, the sooner you will stop seeing it as an insurmountable obstacle to Japanese fluency.
Firstly, kanji is made up of small ‘building blocks’ known as radicals.
These are combined in different combinations to produce different kanji. Because these ‘building blocks’ have their own individual meanings, it’s possible to work out the meaning of more complex kanji just by looking at the radicals inside it.
There are many radicals, but certain ones will come up more often and you will learn to recognise them. The important thing is to see kanji as a combination of smaller, logical parts that come together to make a larger character.
A good source for learning the radicals and the basic kanji, upon which most other kanji are built on, is the book Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig. The book goes through ways of memorising the kanji by imagining and associating visual stories with them. This leaves a greater impression on the mind than rote-learning through stroke repetition.
Heisig believes that learners should first memorise the writing of each kanji, and then learn the readings afterwards.
Not everyone recommends Heisig’s book, but I personally found it helpful.
In conjunction with this book, I used a flash card app called Anki everyday to really reinforce what I was learning. Anki is a really useful app because it delays showing you the same card again for a predetermined amount of time based on how quickly you answer.
So for the cards you know really well, it won’t show you them again for some time, but the cards you struggle with will appear more frequently. I used to do my daily Anki cards on the train to university and before long I could easily recognise the kanji I had learned by reciting the little pneumonic in my head whenever I came across them.
I highly recommend the Anki app to supplement kanji learning.
Once you’ve understood the method of writing each kanji, then you can begin to learn the readings. In my experience following Heisig’s book, I found this infinitely easier than trying to learn the readings at the same time as I learnt the writings. Another positive is that even if you don’t know the reading for a particular kanji, you can get an idea of what it means based on the pneumonic you’ve given it.
For example, the kanji 器, might be unrecognisable to you, but upon further inspection you can see that it is made up of two smaller elements, which Heisig helps you remember as 口 (mouth) and 大 (large dog). Knowing these two smaller elements, Heisig then describes the kanji 器 as “utensil”, with the way of picturing it as being ‘four mouths waiting for utensils to eat the large dog’.
It might seem crazy but outlandish stories really help to cement the kanji in your head. Whenever you want to write that kanji from now on, or encounter it in the real word, you can think of the story and remember what it looks like through that, rather than trying to remember an arbitrary series of strokes.
The confusing thing is that there can be many readings for each character.
Kanji, having originated in China, will have a Chinese reading (onyomi) as well as a Japanese reading (kunyomi). Within each of these can be multiple readings and pronunciations. A great article explaining the differences and history of onyomi and kunyomi is available over at Tofugu: Onyomi vs. Kunyomi: What’s the Difference?
The more you read and are exposed to kanji in everyday settings, the more you will come to learn which reading is applicable to each situation.
Owing to this plethora of potential readings, I recommend that new learners begin by focusing on the form of the kanji, and then add the readings in afterwards. Kanji needn’t be the mountain it is commonly portrayed to be, as long as you approach it with the right tools and practice.
For more language learning tips check out the following articles:
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