Japanese kanji are one of those things that beginners of Japanese often become enamored with in one way or another. Kanji are the key to reading Japanese and are also a nice way to show off to your non-Japanese speaking friends. From tattoos to scribbling down characters on a piece of paper, kanji are visually appealing and fun to write.
Unfortunately, Japanese kanji can be a nightmare for learners, especially beginners. Learning 1,945 distinct characters is no easy task. 1,945 is, of course, the number of joyo kanji which are the kanji recognized by the government and used in everyday use. To read a newspaper, one would need to know most of these 1,945 kanji.
Additionally, the characters often have multiple readings depending on the context and the way they are used. This can cause even further headaches for beginners since often times, the character they come across when reading will have a different reading from what they originally learned!
Despite these problems, Japanese kanji are necessary in order to read and write Japanese. Before I tell you what I have found to be the best way to learn kanji, let me tell you about some of the ways I tried that did not work.
Originally, when I was first starting out kanji, I tried learning the kanji the same way that Japanese children do. That is, I learned all the kanji that Japanese 1st graders learn and then I moved on to the kanji that 2nd graders learn and so on. The problem with this is that as a foreigner learning Japanese, the vocabulary I know is much different from a Japanese child. For that reason, some of the kanji I was learning were simple to write but not very applicable to my studies or the kind of Japanese I was using in class. To be honest, it is more beneficial to learn slightly more complicated kanji as long as you are using them often in class or somewhere else.
Another failed attempt was when I tried to learn kanji before I actually knew the vocabulary that the kanji was associated with. While this actual act isn’t that bad, the problem comes during review. If I don’t know the Japanese word already, the chances that I’m going to be using it later are very small so I never get to review the kanji or use it. For that reason, I got few reviews in of the kanji and I soon forgot it. Essentially, the time I spent learning it was wasted.
Another note I should make before I move on to some tips is that if you’re a beginner in Japanese, you shouldn’t worry too much about kanji too soon. In real life situations, you will most likely be using a computer or a cell phone to type out Japanese and in those cases, all you need to do is enter in the pronounciation of the words and recognize the kanji. Being able to recognize the kanji is a lot easier than being able to write it from memory. For this reason, you should be able to recognize a lot of kanji just by reading and studying. Even though you won’t be able to write them from memory, you will still be able to communicate as long as you have a computer or a cell phone which will be almost always.
In any case, there may be some times where you have to write out kanji (most likely for your class tests). The best advice I can give for learning kanji is to break down the kanji into their components and make up a story. Basically, you’ll notice that all kanji are made up of smaller parts called radicals. If you take these radicals and make up an image or word to represent them, you can then make up a small story combining all the radicals. This image will stick in your head and make it easier for you to remember the kanji in the future. If you have to learn the word or pronounciation of the kanji, as well, you can also add that into your story and thus knock down all the pins at once!
In any case, you’ll notice that the more complex kanji are actually made up of simpler kanji. So, as you create these stories, it will become easier and easier to learn the more complex kanji. The best thing to do is just to relax and slowly learn the kanji as your Japanese studies progress. In this way, your brain will become more familiar with the way the kanji look and you will find that you are able to pick up new kanji with ease. Eventually you won’t even need to make up stories to remember the kanji, you will just remember them naturally.
Thanks for reading!
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