Friday, June 11, 2010

My take on learning Kanji

If you’ve kept up with this blog (or if you follow me on Twitter), you probably know that I use Heisig’s method of learning kanji depicted in his book, Remembering the Kanji.

If you don’t know about this book, I strongly recommend for you to check it out, as I think it’s an ingenious method. In a nutshell, you break the kanji down into basic primitives that each have their own individual meanings and are oftentimes fairly pictographic, and then you combine these parts into more and more complicated kanji, creating vivid stories that brings all the elements together. Here’s an example of combining the kanji for sun (日) and moon (月):

This system really works for so many people, myself included. It’s definitely a book worth checking out.

An additional growingly popular tool that you can use to facilitate learning these thousands of kanji is a spaced repetition system (SRS). Again, if you aren’t familiar with this, I strongly recommend for you to check it out. An SRS is essentially a flashcard system that measures how well you know each individual card, and it shows you that card right when you need to see it. Instead of going over a card twenty times in a day, and then you completely forget it a week later, you would see the card a day later, then three days later, then a week later, then up to months and years later. There’s scientific research behind this that analyzes how your brain remembers things and how the SRS system takes advantage of your natural learning abilities. Thus you can make your kanji studies – or almost any studies, really – much more efficient. The system that I personally use is Anki.

So. Those are all awesome tools that have really been working for me. But there’s a huge point I’d like to make here. If you follow something like AJATT’s method, you probably have the idea of learning all the kanji first, and then moving on to sentences in your SRS. I think that’s totally fine, and once I get through all my kanji flashcards, that’s what I plan to do as well. However… I don’t think you should necessarily limit yourself to just learning kanji for that bit of time. I have heard about many situations where people were almost afraid to learn anything else about Japanese other than kanji because they think they won’t get the same benefit until they learn the kanji. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best tactic.

Now, if you can bang out all the kanji very quickly and are able to focus on nothing but that without any problems, more power to you. But most of us need a little break sometimes. I really enjoy doing my kanji reps, but after a while I do get sick of it and need to stop – while I try to do them often, my kanji sessions don’t last for hours, and in fact they sometimes just last a few minutes. But while I’m not always studying kanji, I don’t necessarily need to stop the Japanese learning – I just switch to something else.

Simple immersion (watching Japanese videos, listening to Japanese music, etc) is a common, easy learning method that most people have no qualms with. You don’t even need to be paying strict attention, just have it playing in the background and get used to the sound of it. But at the same time – it’s okay to pay attention. It’s okay to learn new vocabulary, new grammar points, etc. Sure, you might still be in the “kanji stage”, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn other things too. Try to pick up as much as you can! Also, when you read manga or webpages, don’t only look at the kanji you’ve learned and completely ignore the rest. It’s okay to look at unfamiliar kanji, especially if they pop up often. If you’ve already seen it before, when you actually get to that kanji in your SRS, it will be that much easier learning it – you’ve already been exposed to it.

One last specific example. There are some points where I couldn’t do my kanji reps if I wanted to. I carry my computer around with me a lot, but it’s not with me 24/7, and I also much prefer sitting down with paper and writing utensils to properly practice physically writing out the kanji. Kanji reps can just be really inconvenient at times. However, unlike my computer, I almost always have my phone on me. This allows me to access other study methods – namely, the app for the iPhone. I follow several lists of vocab on, and can easily access and practice them at almost any time (some moments I’ve used it: waiting in line for a movie, waiting for class to start – or sometimes even during class… eheh…). Most of these are simple vocab that I already know pretty well, but I make sure that the kanji setting is on. I’ve been using this app for a couple of months now, and I love using it because I get to see a lot of the kanji I’ve already learned in action. It’s like “oohhhh, that’s how you use that kanji!” Sure, I didn’t plan on learning this yet – I haven’t started studying sentences. But this way I feel like I’m getting a head start on the next step, and whenever that kanji pops up in my SRS deck again, I have an even easier time remembering it.

The point is, while my main focus is studying kanji, I’m studying a lot of stuff on the side, which reinforces my kanji studies and helps it go faster. And I’m getting a head start on learning how to read, write, listen, and speak as well.

So don’t be scared of learning anything and everything that excites you! Don’t keep your studies too structured! That way you’ll have a lot more fun and learn a lot faster. That’s my 2 cents at least (^-^)

(By the way, just a quick disclaimer, I’m trying out the new “Amazon Associates” feature for blogger, which is how I added that Remembering the Kanji book link. I do earn a small commission if any of you decide to buy the book through Amazon. Not trying to pressure anyone, of course, I’m just letting you guys know! ^-^)

1 comment:

  1. Hi Delphine, I've never tried RTK, so I'm not really qualified to comment. If you are interested however in the storytelling aspect of RTK there is another book called Kanji Kanji published in 1972 by the editorial staff of the East magazine. It goes in to the history, development and use of kanji from an etymological perspective. A little dated now but still really interesting.