How To Learn Japanese Kanji Better, For Real

Substance, Not Fluff

So, I was trying to catch up on reading the Gakuranman blog (I finally got around to putting it in my blogroll section here, which I have been neglecting for too long) and I see a site called Skitter being reviewed. It’s another one of these sites for learning Chinese and/ or Japanese kanji. Except it seems to require credit card info for a free trial. So, I’m not going to be touching the nuts and bolts of it.

Having said that…

This entire topic rather annoys me.

Part of this site’s attraction is the idea of using a mouse, or more effectively, a tablet, to draw kanji on a computer screen as a method for learning them. If you’re wondering what advantage this would have over doing this with a brush, ink and paper, there isn’t any advantage. You can stop wondering now.

More importantly, either you’re going to be physically drawing kanji, or not. If you’re not, the only reason to practice the stroke order is to force yourself to look at the kanji, stare at them, think about them, and use that as a way to memorize more.

Having said that, this isn’t like wood carving. Your brain isn’t going to remember kanji by feel alone. There’s too many of them, and that’s not really how this process works.

Kanji Are Concepts

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: Kanji are concepts in image form. That’s where they come from, and that’s what they all function as, on some level.

I’ve read the introduction to Remembering the Kanji where the author writes about the ridiculousness of trying to associate the sun to the kanji for sun. (日) Well it’s more that you associate the kanji with the sun, not the other way around. The kanji represents the concept; the concept does not represent the kanji.

So that’s one thing.

Using Kanji Yourself

I never made more e-books like the one below due to a catastrophic lack of feedback, but never mind that. The point of what is below is really simple: use it and you won’t lose it. It is using kanji yourself to form intelligent, complete sentences (starting with short ones) that makes you literate and fluent in Japanese.

The whole problem with flash cards and these methods is that they teach you how to remember this kanji or that kanji, but you’re not creatively employing them. Writing individual kanji by stroke pales in comparison with dynamically using the ideas advanced by the kanji, and the words they are used to form, in actual, living Japanese.

The Good Path

Instead of following the Path of Shura and going through hell, and instead of trying to pick the easy path that appears to be a shortcut, I urge all those seeking to learn kanji to follow the good path, and learn kanji not for a test, not for an exam, but for life.

You do that by making kanji a part of real language. Real language that you yourself are using.

Granted, when I thought this up, it was in the context of my providing the kind of strong feedback required to really pull this off well. My kanji presentations might be big and good looking, but ultimately it’s what the learner does with them that defines the quality of the learning.

The point is, I can sit across the table and listen to someone speak and say, yes, that’s good. Or, if need be, I can say, good but, you could have put it like this. Or, no, a word was mispronounced, let’s work on that and try again.

Using kanji creatively, building sentences around them, making the concepts work together in different ways… it’s building something that’s tangible in the mind of the learner. It leads to a real sense of accomplishment. It leads to permanent knowledge and knowing how to build even higher on a firm, rock solid foundation, rather than on a house of flash cards.

It just pains me to see this or that shortcut come along. It’s not a numbers game. It’s about building a core around which peripheral aspects of the language can be built. That’s when the process of discovery is simply pure fun again.

Anyway, that concludes that.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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3 Responses to How To Learn Japanese Kanji Better, For Real

  1. “…follow the good path, and learn kanji not for a test, not for an exam, but for life.”

    This is exactly the problem of taking Japanese classes: you study and cram in order to pass exams and not fail, not in order to truly learn.

    Also, while there are methods that help to retain and get used to the kanji (like Remembering The Kanji), only doing stuff in the language and eventually using each kanji will ensure that one truly becomes “one with the kanji”!

  2. J Sensei J Sensei says:

    Yeah, that’s exactly why I promote surer methods for the longer term, and personal tutoring, but I’ve been sidetracked and I never managed to make a viable business of it.