So the other day I wrote something about the poodle’s core and methodology when learning kanji. Now to continue on that topic, in more practical terms. I wouldn’t really call it advice, because it’s not like I’m trying to tell you how to do it, but rather me taking some notes on how I was, am, and am planning to improve my kanji skills. My kanji skills are pretty good, but there’s still a lot more to go…
So to reiterate the main point of my previous post on this subject: focus on pronunciation – i.e. mapping the graphical form of a character to its pronunciation. Ok, unfortunately – due to the complexity of kanji – I guess we have to make that pronunciations. But I think it’s best to focus on one main pronunciation. Usually that’s an on pronunciation, but it can sometimes be a kun one as well for some characters. The important thing is that you choose one as the main one, but also try to remember the other ones as well. Now, I’d like to present three simple tricks for learning kanji:
This seems easy when you say it, but it is also easy to do, if you just do it. First of all get some books. Any book with kanji is pretty fine actually, but as I wrote in my previous post, I like “A Guide To Remembering Japanese Characters” by Kenneth G. Henshall. Get a Japanese dictionary, and flip through it as much as possible. One of my personal favorites on the toilet. Before going to sleep, during lunch, on the train, when there’s nothing fun on the tv, basically just spend some time with your books that contain kanji, any chance you have.
I’ll leave the topic of how to most efficiently gain knowledge from books for later – the most important thing is that you just open and read your book. If your Japanese skill is good enough to read (even haltingly) real Japanese literature, then that’s so much better, because I for one prefer reading real books over “textbooks” etc. Anyway, as long as it contains real Japanese (i.e. hardcore kanji).
The Japanese Wikipedia is a superb source of reading material! It is very hardcore both when it comes to kanji and formal grammar/vocabulary (relevant for JLPT1!), and since cross-referencing is central to the idea of a wiki, you can just keep reading and looking up concepts that you don’t understand. In fact, I strongly recommend reading the Japanese Wikipedia for improving any aspect of your Japanese – not to mention general knowledge. And you can read it at work while your code is compiling!
There are a few gazillion permutations of the order in which you can study kanji. Like they do in Japanese elementary school, the order they appear on increasing levels of the JLPT tests, any kind of arbitrary order, or – the gods forbid – Remembering the Kanji order. Anyway that doesn’t matter much. What I think does matter is that you study “series” of characters that you think have something in common. The number of characters in a series can be basically whatever is suits you, but for me it’s usually between a quarter of a dozen to one and a half dozen characters.
When I say “series”, I mean something like this: 激撤徹微徴懲 – these characters used to look very similar to me and when I saw one of them I used to go like “oh, one of those characters”. 哀衰衷褒喪畏 would be another example. Or maybe they don’t look similar, but their meanings/usages conceptually overlap, like 悼慨恨悔 vs 愉悦 etc.
Whatever trick you use to remember these is mostly up to you I think. For me they just seem to stick after a while. But the important thing is to make sure you don’t forget them and can still distinguish between them. I print them out (I suppose you can write them by hand too if that’s your thing) and put them on the partitions (walls are equally usable if you are lucky enough to have that) at my office desk, and on my iGoogle sticky note, and in text files on my computer, etc. Anywhere where you’re bound to see them a lot. That way you’ll immediately notice if when you see the note, you can no longer recall the details about a character. That’s when it’s time review.
I’ve seen it recommended on forums, web sites, and even books (do I even need to mention my arch nemesis any more?): learn the kanji then learn Japanese, or learn the meanings of kanji then learn vocabulary, or learn stupid keywords for all the kanji then learn their pronunciations (remember that pronunciation is the very core of each character!).
First of all: that to me that would be really boring. Don’t encourage yourself to give up – have fun! Secondly: as I mentioned in the previous entry: kanji is the character set used to write Japanese. So don’t study kanji without studying Japanese, and vice versa!
When I say “read a lot of kanji” and “practice series of kanji” above I don’t mean just learn the pronunciation and meaning of each kanji and remember that like some damn parrot. What I’m talking about is to learn not only pronunciation(s) and meaning(s), but also words the kanji is used in – at least one, possibly many – the history/evolution of that character (if it’s interesting, and it often is), and try to read texts containing that character (often you’d go from finding a character frequently used in a text to actively studying that character; I don’t mean you have to find texts that match every character you want to study). Associate that character to other similar characters through “series” of characters.
Here again finding good reading material is essential. Besides Wikipedia, newspapers (i.e. news websites) are extremely good. The kanji in newspapers are definitely hardcore. A nice trick is to try and read the same kind of articles every day. Say you’re interested – or just pretend you’re interested – in economy – the stock markets, even. Then read some stock market articles every day. The first few days you’ll find that the kanji and words used are extremely hard. But after a week or two you’ll find that the same kanji and even the same words reoccur all the time. That’s when you know which kanji you have to learn, and you’ve already got a great source of texts for putting them in context. I’d arbitrarily recommend Asahi Shimbun for a dose of daily reading practice.
Lastly I’ve been recommended and lately seen a lot of recommendations on forums etc on using software/services for studying kanji. Programs such as Anki and Mnemosyne come to mind. I even saw some dude recommend using something called a “kanji box” or something for you Facebook. Now, I don’t have a Facebook account, but I don’t think being logged in to Facebook is going to do any good at all for your kanji studies, even with your fancy kanji box on your profile page. You’re much more likely to spend hours randomly clicking around and not doing much intellectually challenging activities at all.
Color me old-fashioned, but if anything I’d recommend ordinary paper flash cards. But it’s really boring to construct those… so I just keep my kanji and vocabulary in text files on the computer and print them out every once in a while and review those lists a few times. And since I’m surrounding myself with study material – always keeping a book within arm’s reach, a kanji series on the wall, a computer that runs in Japanese, an rss feed with news in Japanese, etc – there’s constant repetition, all the time. If you know you need to learn a certain kanji character, you’ll active take notice every time it pops up. Just make sure to you maximize the chances of it popping up!