Strategies for mastering kanji (for beginners)

Take it slowly and enjoy the language.

This article is for anyone who has been learning Japanese as a beginner. As you would have found out by now, Japanese has three writing systems: two alphabets called hiragana and katakana (about 50 letters each) and thousands of Chinese characters (called kanji). Once you’ve learned the hiragana and katakana (which doesn’t take as long as total beginners might expect), you need to choose a strategy for learning kanji. Actually, this is done for you in beginner textbooks, but eventually you’ll have to take up the responsibility for mastering kanji yourself (unless you’ve chosen to avoid them completely and stick to conversation skills only).

Because kanji are used both for native Japanese words and for borrowed Chinese “words,” the characters have multiple pronunciations and sometimes multiple meanings. In my experience, it’s almost impossible to memorize all of those pronunciations and meanings at the same time, so I end up learning each character multiple times before I feel that I really know it.

Actually, I consider these various pronunciations and meanings to be merely intellectual constructs–that is, they exist in scholarly studies of the language, but not in real life. What exists in real life is words. Sometimes, one kanji can be used by itself to represent one word. Sometimes, it’s combined with hiragana to form a word. But usually, two or more kanji are combined to make a word. A kanji’s pronunciation varies depending on which word it’s in. In reading and writing, people don’t read and write kanji, they read and write words. So, my strategy is to memorize words.

Specifically, I memorize from one to three example words that contain the kanji I want to learn. I can always come back and memorize more words later in order to learn additional pronunciations that I didn’t learn the first time. Fortunately, as I’ve said, both the kanji to learn and the example words have been chosen for you in beginning textbooks and readers. You ought to learn how to read and write (or at least, read and type) individual characters, but then if you’re going to memorize anything, memorize the vocabulary in your textbook, and you’ll automatically start getting used to the kanji in words.

Learning to write (not just type) is helpful in preparation for reading handwritten Japanese, which often looks very different from typed Japanese. It also helps you to get used to recognizing character parts, so that complicated characters look less complicated.

There is something more important than kanji, and that’s grammar. Even if you set aside a year and memorize 2000 kanji–enough to read a newspaper–Japanese will still be gibberish to you unless you also know the grammar. So that’s where I prioritize my studies: grammar first, then kanji. Grammar is essential for conversation skills, too. You can’t say or understand much without grammar. In fact, in Japanese, sometimes a sentence will seem to say the exact opposite of what it means until you understand the grammar.

My advice, then, for beginners, is to buy a two-volume beginning textbook series, such as Genki, Yookoso, or Elementary Japanese (my personal favorite). These all teach about 300 kanji–but more importantly, grammar. There’s still a lot more grammar to learn after you finish these books, but they’ll give you a good foundation. In fact, I would start with the Michel Thomas series first, as it breaks down the grammar into small pieces and forces you to make sentences aloud. If you can’t afford Michel Thomas, Duolingo will do, as long as you also make up your own sentences in Japanese using the grammar which Duolingo teaches you. Then buy one of these textbook series and continue your studies.

If you would like additional help with kanji, many people have found success in a series of textbooks called Remembering the Kanji by James W. Heisig. Nobody recommended that series to me until recently, and I already know around 600 kanji. By now, I’m familiar with the character parts introduced in Heisig’s books, so I don’t need the books. But other people swear by them.

What helped me was Reading Japanese by Eleanor Harz Jorden and Hamako Ito Chaplin. This university textbook introduces only one kanji at a time, 25 per chapter (425 total) and then gives a lot of reading practice with it, while reviewing earlier kanji at the same time. Each chapter ends with more reading practice, so that each kanji is reviewed multiple times. When I studied that book, I never needed to memorize anything. It also provides a little practice at reading handwritten Japanese, a skill rarely taught elsewhere.

For beginners, strategizing learning kanji is simple: Select your textbooks and readers. It’s only when you finish those textbooks and readers and ask yourself, “now what?”, that you’ll need to take the initiative in your kanji learning. Focus on grammar first, then kanji. Learn conversation and practice listening, as with any other language. Mastering Japanese requires patience and persistence. There’s no need to rush and fret. Take it slowly and enjoy the language.

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