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How do I learn Kanji

Since I picked up my Japanese studies again I feel the need to talk about my Kanji experiences, in the past as well as present.
When I was in Japan I had, as some might remember, two Language courses in the university, and with it quiet some Kanji practise! Every week there were two tests! So you should think I learned many Kanji right?
WRONG! Even while learning them in Japan I would for get them, in fact the Kanji courses were my worst and also my most depressing ones!
So how did learning them work back then? „Easy“ you get a sheet with a fewKanji, let’s say 日 is the first. Then you get the stroke order, the Onyomi and Kunyomi (which I always mix up..) he for example にち (nichi)、じつ (jitsu) for Onyomi and ひ(hi)、か(ka) for kunyomi and then you‘
d get 2-4 words that have the kanji in them like 月曜日(getsuyoubi = Monday)、毎日(mainichi= every day) and 日本 (nihon= Japan). The would be some squares after the Kanji for practise, of course not nearly enough to actually learn it.
So then each week I’d get some papers, I think it was like 5 or so per course, with 3-4 Kanji per page + the words that have the Kanji in it and have to drill it into my skull by pure repetition.
Now I’m not much of a visual learner, nor is my memory exceptionally well or anything so you can imagine how hard it was to learn them for the tests. I got really depressed because I seemingly could not get them at all! It was not the first time this happened either, after all I tried teaching Japanese myself before with little success in the Kanji (except for a few very easy ones). Since I seemed to always for get the Kanji and feel more and more depressed at some point I just gave up, thinking I would never be able to learn this.

So what changed, you might ask?
Well I found a new method, a method introduced by James W. Heisig, a professor at some university in Nagoya who developed a very different learning method for Kanji.
In the preface of his book „Remembering Kanji I“ he explains (and I won’t quote because it’s a long passage you have to deal with me paraphrasing it) that we usually learn a writing system by linking a sound to a character, but with Kanji it is different. As I showed above one Kanji has clearly more than one reading.Yet, Heisig explains, traditional methods (as described above) are used to teach and learn Kanji by drilling their appearance into our mind. But the more efficient method is not linking the Kanji to a sound, but to a picture or story of some sort, since it is the nature of the Kanji (after all it originates from pictures!).
He gives a nice metaphor to explain exactly what happened to me:

„Picture yourself holding a kaleidoscope up to the light as still as possible, trying to fix in memory the particular pattern (…). Chances are you have such an untrained memory for such things that it will take some time; but let us suppose that you succeed after then or fifteen minutes. You close your eyes, trace the pattern in you head, an then check you image against the original pattern until you are sure you have it remembered. Then someone passes by and jars your elbow. The pattern is lost, and in its place a new jumble appears. Immediately you memory begins to scramble. You set the Kaleidoscope aside, sit down, and try to draw what you had just memorized, but no avail. There is simply nothing left in memory to grab hold of. The Kanji are like that. One can sit on one’s desk and drill half dozen Characters for an hour or two, only to discover on the morrow that when something similar is seen, the former memory is erased or hopelessly confused with the new information“

This is EXACTLY how I felt learning Kanji!
There was just no system for learning it. Although of course after a while you realize some parts reappear in different Kanji, the way and order you learn them in doesn’t help you to work with it, then you need to memorize words with Kanji you don’t even know yet and how to pronounce all that.
Of course if you exercise a lot, read a lot in Japanese at some point you might get accustomed to it, after all: All Japanese students (I mean Students in Japan as well as those who learn Japanese) are taught like this. But many, like me fairly horribly at this and just get too depressed to study on.
So what Heisig suggests is a totally different learning method, one actually many Japanese students might know already to some extent: Using the repeating parts of Kanji and get a bridge to remember it. But often Students will think this a silly way of learning and not admit it, also its only at a few instances they might get the idea to associate certain picture or story with a character and there is no real system behind this.
This is what Heisig does. He went through many Kanji and filtered out certain „primitives“, components that keep reappearing. Sometimes they themselves are Kanji (like the one for sun I showed before) sometimes they only appear within a Kanji (like little dots on the side, or one stroke down) which he also gives a meaning. This way you can create stories to remember Kanji for example: 兄 (あに = ani) which means „big brother“. It consists of the primitive for mouth (the square at the top) and human legs. The „story“ is that the older brother always is a loud-mouth, commanding his smaller siblings, you you can picture him as a mouth on legs.
This, I can guarantee, although it feels very weird and odd at the beginning, helps not only to memorize Kanji and their meaning, but makes you see clear patterns in Kanji, which is especially helpful as you learn more and more complicated Kanji.
What this method also does, in contrast to traditional ones, is dividing the job: You learn one Kanji and one core meaning. Not many different meanings (日 for example can mean sun as well as day) not pronunciations (they are left out for the time being) nor words that have one Kanji as compound.
This gives your brain the advantage to having to deal with only two things at a time, which simplifys thing a LOT!Of course it also mean learning the 2000ich Kanji from the book one is far from actually reading Kanji, but at least a core understanding is possible at least and if one just reads enough with Furigana and learns Vocabulary, you will automatically learn the different meanings and pronunciations of the Kanji in question naturally, without as much drilling or anything.
Personally I use „Anki“ together with the book and at the moment make a deck with Japanese sentences using Kanji as much as possible to be later able to learn meanings and pronunciations from it.
I can warmly recommend this this book to anyone who feels as frustrated with Kanji as I was! Although some stories seem weird it doesn’t really matter, after all you can just change the story to your liking! It rather gives you a tool for learning then a fixed story you have to use 😉 I would also recommend looking at this blog of someone who clearly has more experience with this and gives really great tips! So you want to give Kanji another try this is somewhere to start.


Kommentare zu: "How do I learn Kanji" (1)

  1. Interesting. Elements of that method did appear in my kanji classes in Sendai, but it was never introduced to me as a method, it was just „the teachers have some funny mnemonics for a few kanji“, and I’ve learned most kanji by memorizing their assembly from radicals (which works fairly well because I have a very visual way of thinking).

    The first such story from my classes in Sendai that came to mind was the one for 脱ぐ, „to take off (clothes)“: Since the kanji for month (月) and big brother (兄) appear in it, the teacher explained that one as „My big brother changes his clothes once per month.“ :mrgreen:

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