Ways to learn and memorize Kanji

As a long-time student of Japanese one ever present aspect of my study is that of kanji.  For my generation the word kanji is fairly well known, for older generations it means Chinese character or glyph.  Though called Chinese characters the word kanji is Japanese.  The reason for this is that the Japanese language adopted the Chinese writing system some centuries ago.  They have diverged some but remain similar and continue to share some characters without change.  Literally the word kanji can be broken down into two parts kan (漢) and ji (字).  The prior meaning Chinese or “sino” and the latter meaning letter or character.

Now, onto the learning, or rather the learning about learning.

For westerners it’s difficult to grasp the concept of kanji.  They are a shared writing set between two (or more) languages but the usage differs by language.  For both Chinese and Japanese however the characters primary function is to present meaning rather than to represent sound.  This is fundamentally different from western alphabets like the Latin characters we use, the Greek alphabet, the syllabaries used in Korea and Thailand, and even the abjads used with Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi.  All of these other writing systems are designed to represent sounds first, and the meaning is derived from the phonologically represented words.

This is a little hard to understand so I’ll try to use an example.  In Japanese the word for “to live” is pronounced ikiru (ee-kee-ru) it is written in kanji as 生きる。The word for draught, as in draught (draft) beer is pronounced nama (nah-mah), it is written in kanji as 生.  You’ll notice that the same kanji is used for both words, but the readings and meanings are completely different.  This is an extreme example, as the kanji 生 represents a vast number of meanings as well as sounds, though most have something to do with the concept of “life” or “living”.

For the casual Japanese speaker, traveler, or student the primary focus in study of kanji should be on reading and recognition.  Of those three types of learners only the student will need to write kanji by hand, and then typically only for tests and papers to be submitted.  Some of those even can be typed on a computer.

The reason why writing isn’t important for many people is that when composing in Japanese, computers, phones, and other technology allow the user to input characters by typing their phonetic reading with Latin characters and then convert into the desired kanji.

Study Method A

Thus, the important aspects of kanji for these people are learning to read and recognize the kanji, and of course to know their meanings.  The quickest way to learn a large number of kanji in a short amount of time is by using spaced repetition practice.  I recommend using software like Anki or other virtual flashcard programs to facilitate this practice.

On the front of the flashcard the kanji should be written, unaccompanied, or used in context (preferably with separate cards for both).  On the back should be written the reading(s) and meaning, and possibly an example word, compound, or sentence.

Most kanji will appear in compounds, a few can be used on their own.  The readings are typically different for compounds and individual kanji that stand on their own, even for the same character.  If it is difficult to memorize all the readings then the most common reading may suffice for the first card, and other readings be added later for future study sets.

Study Method B

The method above is very useful and makes use of our minds’ ability to associate meaning to shapes.  We will find however that when trying to recall the kanji when prompted we are completely incapable of writing it.  This is because we haven’t actually memorized the strokes used to form the kanji, only its overall shape.

This is not a problem for the types of people mentioned above.  However, for the long term student of Japanese, the permanent resident of Japan, Japanese teachers, and those who might be working in a Japanese environment, the ability to recall kanji for writing purposes may be quite relevant.

For these people I recommend a multi-pronged approach.  Use spaced repetition practice and flash cards, create visual mnemonics based on the kanji’s strokes, and learn the radicals that constitute the characters.  Most characters are constructed from a combination of about 200 common radicals.  These radicals each have names like ninben (人偏) for the left part of characters like 休、信、伝 and sanzui for the left part of characters like 海、泣、河, or shinnyou for the similar part of characters like 込、送、追.  There are unfortunately characters that deviate only slightly from the normal radical, and some radicals which only have one common kanji associated with them rendering them essentially unique.  For the most part though learning the radicals as well as their meaning will greatly benefit your understanding and ability to recall and write kanji.

Thus to offer some concrete study advice, after reviewing the flashcards as described in Study Method A, add extra cards.  For these the front of the card should be the meaning of the character and its reading and the back should be the kanji itself.  When testing, don’t just flip the card and check the answer if you remember the shape, instead mentally draw the radicals used in the kanji.  When you check the kanji, observe the radicals, and double check that they are formed the standard way and not without some minor deviation or simplification.

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