Best Way to Learn Kanji? Avoid these Common Pitfalls!

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Learning Japanese characters, commonly known as kanji, is certainly not impossible, but it will be even more difficult if you start off on the wrong foot. Take the following six “don’ts” written in this kanji study guide to heart and you will be on your way to a better kanji learning experience. Good luck!

#1: DON’T try to Digest Kanji Whole!

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You may think that the best way to learn kanji is simply to dive right in, trying to digest the meaning and stroke order of each individual Kanji as a whole when writing it. But there are literally thousands of kanji! If your brain is big enough to memorize and store them all without confusion, and you have lots of time on your hands, then more power to you. But for the rest of us, I would recommend a more structured approach: Learn your radicals! Radicals are the simple component parts of more complex Kanji. When not stuck onto a given character, some radicals become kanji unto themselves; others exist only as parts of other kanji, but help give that kanji its meaning. 

There are only 250 radicals in all. It will take some time to learn them, mostly by writing them over and over, but once you do, you can begin to decode the meaning of a whole kanji simply based on its radicals, even if you have never seen it before! In short, you can guess the whole by its part.  This will save up brain power for that all-important keigo test you have coming up, so it’s definitely the mother of all kanji learning tips.   

#2: DON’T focus on Meaning

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Japanese schoolchildren learn Kanji based on the increasing complexity of its meaning, so that simple meanings come first and more difficult ones come last. This sounds logical—until you realize that Kanji conveying very simple meanings are often the most difficult to write and vice-versa! Based on that approach, we would be forced to write kanji with many radicals and strokes near the beginning, writing less and less as our instruction went on. This approach simply doesn’t make sense in terms of motor and visual memory. 

It’s also strange cognitively, since adults already have a strong grasp of meaning in their own language. Quite simply, it really doesn’t matter what a given Kanji means at first. The important thing is to start with characters that have the fewest number of radicals and strokes and work your way up gradually from there. Your brain—not to mention your hand—will thank  you.      

#3:DON’T focus on Stroke Order

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Practicing correct stroke order may help increase your motor memory in terms of how to write kanji; as millions of shuji (Japanese calligraphy) practitioners can attest, it also produces aesthetically pleasing results!

But learning stroke order is also incredibly time consuming—beyond 20 strokes,  I simply get lost, and that’s not how I personally want to spend my valuable study time! One good question to ask yourself is this:  “Are there many situations where I will need to physically write kanji even while I’m living in Japan?” E-mail obviously requires no knowledge of stroke order—just type the word you need in hiragana and a handy-dandy kanji guide comes up, so the most you would have to do is look up which one to use in that particular situation. Also, although hand-written resumes are still used and expected in very limited situations, I have never once had to create one. You may assume that this is because I am a foreigner, but please look around: Use of smartphones and other technology has rendered kanji stroke order moot even for most native Japanese! Technology has changed the game.  In the long run, reading comprehension will be much more important during your stay. 

If you do decide to tackle stroke order, do so in a targeted manner. There will be certain kanji that you will be called to write over and over—your address in Japan, for example. Memorizing the stroke order of such practical and specific information will allow you to increase the speed at which you write but also do it in a way that is easily understandable to the native Japanese who will have to read document X for whatever purpose. 

#4: Don’t Be A Kanji Master  

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Photo by A.Davey on flickr

Studying and mastering kanji is a totally worthwhile goal—but don’t overdue it, as it may actually hinder your ability to speak and comprehend spoken Japanese!  Yes, there are some bloggers who have attested to this totally counter-intuitive notion, but I’ve got my own story about that. When I first came to Japan 16 years ago, there were only three foreigners in my town including me, and one of us was a kanji master who had studied in college. She could read signs and symbols like magic, totally impressing this newbie—at first. 

A year later, while she was still silently deciphering the menu, I was ordering what I wanted—in conversational Japanese!  My friend continued to learn, but her journey focused only on obscure expressions from anime and manga that she couldn’t use to communicate. She went home quite frustrated with her progress—but I never left! You will be happier with your studies and your experience in general if you find a balance among reading, writing and speaking while you are here. 

#5: Don’t Settle for Textbooks

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Let’s face it, there are many tools out there for learning kanji—every Tom, Dick and Suzuki has published books on how to “master” it, and students continue using these tomes to try—but many of them simply give up. While the kanji master I talked about above may have been going to extremes with her kanji-manga connection,  she did get one thing right: The use of “living tools” to make her study come alive. 

These can be anything outside of textbooks expressly designed for learning: manga, pictures of amusing street signs that you’ve captured on your smartphone and you want to decode, even the  ingredients on the back of a soup can. If you’re a writer, imagine stories where you can incorporate the kanji you are learning (yes, there are books for this). If you’re a reader, pick up a children’s book and dive in—you’ll be reading detective noir in no time. The point is, if you are living in Japan there are no shortage of natural kanji around for you to practice with.  It would be a shame not to use them. 

#6: Don’t Rush

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Clearly, acquisitioning kanji is a process with many components: Learning radicals, building from simple characters to more complicated ones, practicing over and over without worrying too much about stroke order, and trying to remember everything naturally by connecting the kanji to some important aspect of your life (reading, writing and photography, three examples mentioned above). 

The more you can begin to think about your kanji learning process as full of stops and starts,  bound to have good days and bad days, and no matter what happens, essentially unfinished   forever, the more relaxed you will become. Take heart in knowing that you do not have to memorize every single known kanji in order to understand written Japanese—as you become more proficient, you will be able to guess the meanings of unknown kanji by putting them in context, something you already do when you come across an English word or phrase that you  don’t understand. 

And finally, remember that even Japanese people are powerless to read and write every single kanji! There is no need for you to be at the front of a long battle that not even they are winning. In short, don’t rush. Your kanji study—not to mention your peace of mind—will be better for it.