One of the toughest parts of learning Japanese for students of the language is the thousands of essential kanji, their various readings and meanings. That’s why I want to share these 5 easy ways to learn new kanji.
Generally speaking, people use all these different methods at different times during their studies, but usually there is one method out of the five that ends up being their favorite.
Take a look at each one with their strengths and weaknesses and see if threre’s any you’d like to try out yourself.
The most common method that is employed in the educational system is what is known as Rote Memorization. This is really just a fancy word for brute repetition.
The basic idea is that you learn the kanji initially, and then you lock it in by repeated it over and over again until it sticks in your memory.
This can be done by writing the kanji down multiple times, using flash cards every day, or any other method that forces you to see and recall the kanji multiple times per session.
The advantage to this method is that, generally speaking, the more time you spend interacting with new information, the better you will be able to remember it long term.
The downside is that is usually takes a considerable amount of time per kanji. This wouldn’t be so bad if you only had to learn a few hundred kanji in total.
But seeing as how there are literally thousands that you’ll need to know in order to be literate, this method usually take people several years to use from beginning to end.
There’s been a lot of study into how memory works over the last couple of decades, and one of the more useful things that was discovered is that your memory for any given piece of information has a lifespan.
This means that if you don’t re-encounter a particular kanji within a certain time frame, the memory of it fades away.
However, if you do see the kanji before you lose the memory, it actually gets strengthened and the time between required reviews gets extended.
So on Day-1 you learn the new information. Then on Day-2 you review it for the first time. Then the next review section isn’t required until around Day-5. Then the next one at Day-14.
This pattern keeps expanding until you only need to see it once every couple of years in order to retain the memory indefinitely.
This is essentially the perfect answer to the problem of Rote Memorization. Namely, you only spend your time going back over the particular kanji that need it the most.
This means that the several hundred (or thousand) kanji that your memory is still strong on, don’t need your attention quite as often.
The are really only two bad things about spaced repetition:
- It’s a rather complicated system to implement.
- It’s only useful for review, not the initial encoding of the new information.
As for Problem #1, a good spaced repetition system software can do all the heavy lifting for you, like how to know when a kanji needs to be reviewed and such.
As for Problem #2, one of the following three methods can be utilized in order to learn the kanji initially, and then you can put the new kanji into this system in order to review it periodically and remember it forever.
Once you’ve reached a level of fluency with Japanese, you’ll probably want to use it all the time for things such as reading.
Even though you only need around 5,000 words to attain fluency with Japanese, most native adults know anywhere from 20,000 – 35,000 words in the language.
How did they learn so many new words, even though they are not used all that often in a person’s regular, day to day life?
The answer is though extensive reading.
This simply means reading lots and interesting and enjoyable materials. If you like to read science fiction or fantasy, there are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of words that appear quite often in those kinds of books.
There is also a lot of vocabulary that is only used in police or detective type novels.
And of course there’s historical texts that use lots of words you don’t hear everyday as well.
What’s my point?
When reading these kinds of materials, you’re bound to encounter new kanji. When you do, you’ll look up the meaning (if the context doesn’t give it away) and you’ll learn the new information within the context of the book and what is happening in the story.
This means that there is a lot of meaning and sometimes emotion associated with the new kanji that you learn. It’s a powerful way to imprint the new information into your memory, and depending on just how powerful the encoding is, you might not even need to review it at all.
For example, when I started reading Humanity Has Declined, I read the title of the story which is 人類は衰退しました. I thought that it was such as interesting title, and it makes perfect sense when you read the story, that I learned both:
- 人類 (じんるい) = humanity
- 衰退 (すいたい) = decline
Now every time I see either of those two words, I know exactly what they mean. I’ve never needed to review them because I saw them enough when I read the story, and it made such an impression on my memory, that I’ve always been able to recognize them.
This is essentially the best part of learning new kanji through the context of the story and it is the true essence of what is known as extensive reading.
The downside to this method is that you typically need to already have reached a certain level and mastery of Japanese since you’ll need to understand the words around the new kanji in order to comprehend the full meaning of the entire sentence.
This method is typically what people use naturally to learn thousands of new words and kanji once they’ve reached an advanced level with the language.
The word etymology means “the study of the origin of words.” This means that when you learn new kanji through etymology, you are going all the way back to when they were first created.
One of the things that is really cool about kanji is that each one represents a thing, or an idea. Sometimes this is obvious, like the kanji for tree which looks like an actual tree:
- 木 = tree
Other times it’s a little more vague since things like anger don’t actually have a physical form that you can see with your eyes.
- 怒 = anger
But putting all that aside, this technique of learning new kanji simply means that you learn the history of the kanji by seeing how it was originally written, learning about the logic behind it, and then seeing how the kanji looks now, and memorizing it.
For example, here is how the kanji 月 for moon was originally created, and changed throughout time:
| Image credit: Chanueting |
As you can see, people first looked at a crescent moon in the sky, partially covered by clouds, and they drew a shape of it that was close.
Then as time went by and the rules of writing changed, the shaped also changed until it reached its current form which is used today.
The advantage of learning kanji this way is that, there are a fair amount of them that make perfect sense when you learn them like this. It makes them really easy to learn, and you end up not needing to review them hardly at all, if ever.
But there are two major disadvantages to this method:
- The current forms rarely look like their original forms.
- Most kanji represent ideas, which can be hard to derive from the way they look.
The history and reasons why kanji have been “squared off” and rarely look like their original forms is a long one that we don’t have time to go into now.
I’ll just say that trying to remember kanji from just the way it looks (known as your visual memory) is actually a lot harder in practice than you would think it is initially.
And the fact that most kanji don’t really look like the things they represent, since a lot of concepts are abstract, just adds to the problems of this method.
That being said, I think that you should absolutely use this method for a few kanji when it is super easy to do so, but maybe you don’t rely solely on it for all 3,000+ kanji that most adult natives know.
I’ll talk more about this in the final section, right after this next one.
One of the popular words that gets used a lot in the language learning community is mnemonics.
A mnemonic, is simple a tool for remember something.
For example, singing the alphabet so that you can remember the correct order of the letter is a mnemonic.
Or when you take both of your hands, touch your thumbs together, and point both of your index fingers forward, the left-hand makes an “L” shape, which helps you to remember which side it Left.
Essentially, any little “trick” you utilize is considered a mnemonic.
However, when it comes to learning kanji, people usually use the word mnemonic when they create a crazy, silly, or outrageous story about a kanji in order to remember it.
This is what’s actually known as using your imaginative memory.
You imagine something that is so impressionable based off of the kanji in question, that you easily remember the kanji from then on.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
First of all, for this particular example, let’s say that you already know that the kanji 木 means “tree” and the kanji 黄 means “yellow”.
This is important, because when we encounter the new kanji of 横 which means “sideways” and is comprised of the two earlier kanji that you already know, what we do is make a memorable story based off of what you already know, in order to learn and remember the new information.
So here is the story, it’s important that you visualize it and see it in you mind for this to work:
Imagine that you are in a big forest with lots and lots of trees. There are all kinds of trees surrounding you, but you notice sometime peculiar.
In this forest there are some trees (木) that you see which are yellow (黄) in color. Not only are all of the leaves yellow, but the trunk is also yellow.
But that’s not the weirdest thing about them. The strangest thing is that all of the tree trunks of these yellow trees grow vertically, like the normal tress, about two feet above ground, and then all of them make a 90 degree turn and grow SIDEWAYS for the next 30 feet!
With this crazy story in your mind, every time you see the kanji 横 you will first see that the left half of it is the kanji for tree (木) and the right half is the kanji for yellow (黄) and then you will remember the story about the yellow trees in the forest that all grow SIDEWAYS, which is what this kanji (横) means.
That, in a nutshell, is how you use your imaginative memory to learn new kanji.
The advantage of this method is that, when don’t correctly, the initial memory is incredibly strong and you tend to remember them for a long, long time.
The downside is that, crafting really great stories is somewhat of a skill, so you have to work at it for a little until you get pretty good at it.
A Blend of Them All
What I think you’ll find is that all five methods are useful at different points in your studies, and for different kanji that you encounter.
For example, when you learn kanji that are super simple in design, such as 山 for mountain, it makes sense to learn it through etymology since the kanji still looks like the thing it represents.
But when you want to learn the kanji 岩 for boulder it makes more sense to make a story using your imaginative memory out of the pieces of the kanji 岩 (which are 山 for mountain and 石 for stone) somewhat along the lines of “the stones that fall off of mountains are so huge, that they are called BOULDERS!
But even when the initial memory is strong, it will still tend to fade with time if you don’t naturally encounter it somewhere in the future through extensive reading. That means that putting it into a spaced repetition system so that you can review it a couple times throughout the year is a smart way to make sure you never forget it.
And when all else seems to fail, you might fall back on writing it out several times per day with rote memorization to burn it deep into your brain.
In other words, there’s value to be found in all five methods taught in this lesson, but sometimes you’ll one to use one over the other depending on the situation you find yourself in.
Have you used any of these methods before to learn new kanji? What was your experience with it?
Let me know with a comment below!