Learning Kanji Tips Part 1
Kanji photos by Fabian Reus
Struggling with learning kanji? You're not alone. Remembering kanji is universally difficult not only for Japanese language learners but also native Japanese too.
This is part 1 of an ongoing series focused on kanji learning. Make them part of your routine and you'll find yourself tackling kanji with greater efficiency and retaining them better than ever before. To get the ball rolling, here are 4 techniques that can enhance your studies.
The right mindset
The first technique isn't even a technique at all. It's more about going into learning kanji with the right mindset. If you don't have it then you're going to run out of steam eventually.
How can someone sit there and tell you that kanji is not hard? It’s simple: You have been reading “kanji” your whole life without even realizing it. The concept of kanji is not foreign to the western world. In fact, if you read everything in this post up to this point, you already read a couple some “kanji”. What do I mean by that? Here, let’s have a look at how kanji work and you'll see what I mean.
First of all, a kanji is a character. Let’s take 人 for example. This character has a meaning (human, person) and a reading ひと (hito). Yes, there are other readings too, but that's beyond the scope of this article. For now, let’s pretend there is only one reading.
Long story short: A kanji is a character that has a meaning and a reading.
Think about the symbol for money “$”. I’m sure you have seen it before and know its meaning. It's the dollar sign. Even though it doesn’t consist of letters, you also know its reading. It can be read as dollar or dollars.
“$” is a character that has a meaning and a reading. Kanji is exactly this.
See? You are just as capable of reading kanji as Japanese speakers! The concept of a character that everybody understands even when it’s not written using the alphabet is not foreign to the western world.
Examples in Western society
There are quite a few symbols that can mean the same thing to many people and they aren't even kanji, but they operate in a similar fashion. Take a look at these symbols and see what they mean to you:
Apple, one of the most famous personal electronics companies in the world. Most people will immediately see this bitten apple and know what it represents. No words or extra explanation is needed.
Nike, just do it! Who would have thought that a simple checkmark could represent an athletic company? It's an effective symbol that is instantly recognizable no matter where you go.
The Twitter bird. This is a fairly recent logo and may not have the recognition that other long-time ones do, but most young people will see a bird icon with this color and immediately make the connection with the popular social networking site.
There are more examples in our daily lives that have nothing to do with companies. Think about how you use your computer. Have you ever stopped to consider the meaning of all those icons you're clicking on a bajillion times a day?
The save icon, originally modeled after floppy disks, a storage technology that is no longer relevant. Younger generations may not understand what the icon actually is, but they do understand that it means and reads as "save".
The help icon, universally recognizable due to the simple use of the question mark, it can be read as "help" or mean guidance.
Maybe you're thinking to yourself, “Ok, nice example there. But there are only so many of these characters in English. Japanese has thousands of them!” That's right, but my point is this: It's all about how your learning approach.
I see many people who want to learn Japanese (and kanji), but never start or immediately give up because they think it’s too overwhelming and something completely new to them, when in fact it's not that foreign of a concept at all.
Treat kanji as something you already know. Change your mindset from “learning kanji is hard” to “learning kanji will take time, but I can do it” and you will get there eventually. With that out of the way, let's move on to steps you can actually take to help with learning.
Practice writing them on paper
People use computers and smartphones on a daily basis, so it's not unfathomable to forget about the existence of pen and paper. Don’t get me wrong, digital learning can be beneficial and convenient for those that use it. Having said that, consider this: Did you know that writing things down on paper helps you remember what you learned? I'm sure you already knew that, but you're probably not in the habit of physically writing.
Let's be honest, for those that don't enjoy writing with "pens" and "pencils" it can be hard to find the motivation to do it. Keep this in mind: You learned your ABCs and how to write on paper, right? You should do the same thing when learning kanji because it will give you the base you need further down the road. If you don’t want to spend too much time writing kanji down, reduce the amount of kanji per sitting. Even if it’s just 2 or 3 kanji a day, that’s still enough. Even if it’s just one: Write it down on a piece of paper.
Learn to love flash cards
This is not revolutionary. Many people have used and are still using flashcards to learn kanji. It's worth mentioning because there are people that aren't using this method for studying.
If you're going the physical route, I'd like to add that White Rabbit Japan has produced some of the highest quality kanji cards on the market. Each card is full of essential info you'll want to know when studying. They're also great because they you can't be tempted with distractions like you can with smartphones and tablets.
However, if you're not interested in physical cards, there are plenty of digital options. One that has become popular in recent years is Memrise, a community driven site with pre-made decks/courses of anything you'd ever want to study, including kanji! They also have an app for iOS and Android devices which means you can study wherever you are as long as you have your phone with you.
You don't have to be strictly all-digital or physical either. There's no harm in using both you help you.
Learn Japanese, not kanji
Many people confuse learning Japanese with learning kanji, or think that they are one and the same, when in reality they are not. Even if you know all the kanji in the world, it won't help you if you're not knowledgeable in other areas such as vocabulary and grammar. You'll also get bored of drilling kanji with no context.
When you encounter a new kanji in a textbook, article, or in the wild, take note of the context in which it's being used. If it's used in a word or a sentence, write it down on some paper or on your smartphone. You'll be able to remember the kanji much easier when you have context and a memory of where you first learned it.
How about you?
What are some of the ways that you have learned kanji? Everyone has a different learning style so there are various methods people can use. What worked for you? What didn't work? What are some of your goals by learning kanji? Let us know in the comments and we'll be sure to include your tips in future posts!
- Bryan Kuro