When it comes to learning kanji, the two most important parts are the meanings and the readings. Each one is such a large topic that I thought I would handle them separately. Today I want to cover how to learn kanji readings.
There are a couple of normal methods that almost all books teach, but I personally found them to be of limited effect.
On the other hand, people have come up with some creative systems that you can use to memorize the correct pronunciation of both individual kanji, and also compound words.
Some of these inventive methods are pretty useful, while others left me shaking my head before I abandoned them all together.
All that being said, there is one method that I stumbled upon on my own that I have found to be far more effective than the rest, and I’ll explain exactly what that is, as well as give you several different ways to use it depending on how you like to learn new words.
Before we begin, let me just say that even though a kanji’s “reading” isn’t 100% the same as its “pronunciation” (because of pitch accent) I will be using those two words interchangeably throughout this article.
A Short Talk About Readings
If you’ve been learning Japanese for a while now, then you can probably skip this section. But if you’re just getting started, then you will definitely want to read through it.
Each kanji in Japanese has at least one reading, but most of them have multiple readings, and it all depends on how they are used in the context that they appear in.
Even though there are several different ways to pronounce most kanji, all of them fall into one of several groups, which not only tells you a little bit about them, but also helps you to learn them.
The three groups of readings are as follows:
- kun’yomi – (訓読み) = The native Japanese reading of the kanji.
- on’yomi – (音読み) = The imported Chinese reading of the kanji.
- nanori – (名乗り) = Special readings when kanji are used in a person’s name.
The rule of thumb is that when a kanji appears by itself it will use the kun’yomi like in the word 新しい (atarashii) for “new,” and it will use the on’yomi when kanji are used in compound words like 新聞 (shinbun) for “newspaper.”
And of course, when it is used in a person’s name it will use the nanori reading, such as the name Akira 新 (akira).
Keep in mind that this is just a “rule” and not an iron law of the universe! There will be instances where the above rules are broken, and it’s something that I’ll talk about dealing with later in this post.
To highlight the readings for the kanji 新 let’s take a look at the possibilities below. You will see that there are several kun’yomi readings (shown in hiragana) and one on’yomi reading (shown in katakana).
| Source: Jisho.org |
The nanori are left off of this list (and most others) since they aren’t something that most people study extensively when learning Japanese.
Usually you just ask someone how they spell their name, and then they say something like, “It’s with the 「新」 kanji.”
Alright, now that you know about the different kanji readings, let’s move on to the usual ways people learn them.
How Most People Learn Kanji
When a person begins to study kanji, they usually do so through a course or a book that is designed to take them through several hundred or thousand, starting with simple ones first and then progressively becoming more complicated.
The student has to learn a lot of information all at once, but for now let’s just focus on how they learn the readings.
Usually, it is through brute force repetition!
They look at the new kanji, then they look at the different readings and any example words that are provided, they say them out loud a couple of times, and then they move on to the next kanji.
Hopefully the learner has some sort of review process that they use each day as well, so that they can continue to practice the readings of old kanji they learned earlier again, before it slips out of their brains into forgotten land.
Personally, I feel like this isn’t a method for learning new readings at all. I’ve used it myself, and not only was it really hard to do, but it took a lot of time re-learning them.
The problem I believe is that there just isn’t enough meaningful context to help you remember how to say each kanji.
I mean, at least the meaning can be tied into the way a kanji looks (visual memory)!
But unless you already know the Japanese word phonetically like Japanese children do when they begin to learn kanji, you as a foreigner have to learn multiple readings of a new kanji, most of which you will forget immediately.
Let’s now talk about the second way that most people work on this problem: testing!
If your book or course has a section after each lesson dedicated to answering questions, then you will no doubt have to choose the correct reading for a kanji out of multiple options (recognition), or even provide it yourself from memory (recall).
These methods are better than the first one because they force you to become involved with the language and start using it.
As a quick note on testing methods, methods that have you recognize an answer are almost always easier for the student to do. A good example is multiple choice questions.
I like this method for beginners, and mostly because it can be combined with context like the example sentences in the above picture.
However, the other method that appears in tests is one that forces the student to recall the information, such as a “fill in the blank” type of question.
This second way is much harder to do since you’re not given any hints like in the recognition method, but it is also more powerful since it reflects how the language actually appears in materials aimed at adults in the real world.
If you’ve ever used programs such as WaniKani to learn kanji, then you will have no doubt practiced by seeing the kanji and then having to type in its reading in hiragana.
The method that I use (don’t worry, we’ll get to it in a minute) is one that also relies on recall, which I believe is a superior way to learn when compared to recognition.
However, the way I use it is both faster and easier than the normal recognition methods. Crazy, right?
Let’s take a look at the some of the inventive ways people have learned kanji readings in this next part, and then we’ll get to my personal method.
Language Learning Hacks
How many of you have tried “hacks” when it comes to learning Japanese?
It may sound a little cheesy when phrased that way, so let’s use the word “shortcut” instead, since that’s basically what it is.
When it comes to memorizing a kanji’s pronunciation, there is a popular method called “mnemonics” that can be used to quickly learn dozen’s of new kanji per day.
How it works is you take the reading of the kanji and you find a way to link it to how the kanji looks. In order to do this effectively, it helps to know the meaning of the kanji, since you can use that as your link too.
Let me give you an example to show what I mean.
The kanji 木 means “tree” and it also looks like a tree. Its reading is き (ki) which happens to rhyme with tree. So the mnemonic here is that:
- 木 looks like a tree, and tree rhymes with き (ki) which is the correct reading.
We can continue to use this method with the kanji 林 which means “woods” and it read はやし (hayashi).
- 林 has two trees, one of them is a higher tree, higher tree rhymes with はやし (hayashi).
I’m sure you get the general idea of this method from just those two examples, but if not, then let me know with a comment and I will elaborate on it.
This method is nice because it can really help you to learn the new reading quickly, but it has two major flaws that prevent it from being great (in my mind).
The first is that it doesn’t work with all kanji. The examples above are pretty easy, but how the heck would you use this technique with 誰 (dare) which means “who” in Japanese?
Considering that you need to know at least the 2,136 Daily Use Kanji in order to read most publications, a method that will only work on a few hundred kanji isn’t what I would call ideal.
The second problem is that it relies too much on the way English words sound, and it then tries to match those English sounds to the Japanese sounds for the kanji.
Even though some of the sounds found in English are the same in Japanese, there are a many sounds that only appear in Japanese, which have no English equivalent.
There are also sounds that are close to an English sound, but again, they are different.
So I feel that relying too heavily on this method promotes bad pronunciation habits, much in the same way as romaji does if you stick with it for too long.
Now, there is one more shortcut that I think is pretty useful that I’d like to cover.
Complicated kanji are composed of multiple radicals (parts). Some of these radicals get used over and over again in many different kanji.
Generally speaking, but not always, when a radical is on the right-hand side of the kanji, it uses the same on’yomi regardless of the other radicals.
Let’s take a look at this now.
As you can see in the above picture, all three kanji on the far left of the picture share a common radical on their respective right sides.
If you then look at the example words on the right of the picture, you can see that even though these three kanji look different and have different meanings, they are all pronounced 「せい」 (sei) each time.
This can be incredibly helpful when you run into compound words and you’re not sure how to say them, but you know that most of the time 「せい」is correct when 「生」 appears as a radical on the right side of the kanji.
This can then help you to remember what the word is through your phonetic memory if you’ve learned it before, or it can be used to help you look it up in an online dictionary if it’s the first time you’ve ever seen it.
How I Learn New Readings (And You Can Too)
Let me just state for the record that I did not invent this method, I just stumbled upon it myself while using Anki.
I am sure other people have used it before me and came to the same conclusions I did, but I’ve never heard anyone else talk about it specifically, so now I’m going to.
It can be used effectively with:
- Flash cards such as Anki
- Manga with furigana
- Online reading (LingQ is perfect for this)
Here’s the basic structure:
- Learn the word’s reading one time.
- Test your ability to recall the reading in context at a later time.
- Whether you got it right or wrong, move on to new material.
- Repeat steps 2&3 until you get the reading right.
This may seem super simple, but that’s the beautify of it. Let me show you step by step to show you how it works. I will also talk a little bit about why I believe it’s so effective.
Let’s say you want to learn the reading for 危険 (danger) and let’s also say we’re using a flash card program to learn new words.
Step 1 is to learn it’s reading: 「きけん」 (kiken).
Step 2 is to find some sentences that use this word. They could come from the textbook you’re using or native material. The front of the card has the sentence, and when you see it you have to say it out loud.
Here’s what your flashcard might look like.
Your job is to say all of it out loud so you can practice recalling the readings.
If you can’t think of it after a short time (about 5 seconds) then go ahead and flip the card to the back and see what it is.
Then you should practice saying the entire sentence a couple of times to input the information into your brain again. Then it’s OK to move on.
Step 3 is to simply move on to new information that is not specifically about 危険 any longer, with the intention that you will eventually see this word again and then practice at that later time.
The SRS in flashcard programs like Anki will make sure that this happens.
And if you’re reading Japanese online or in a manga (instead of using flash cards) then the world will naturally appear again depending on how common it is.
What this is going to do is lay new and different information on top of the older information in your brain, and then the next time you come across 危険 you can try to read it again.
After doing two or three times, the chances of you correctly recalling the reading of 危険 is actually pretty high.
As it turns out, this sort of learning is called “interleaved learning” and is more effective than “block learning” where you spend a lot of concentrated time on one thing, and only move on once you’ve mastered a word.
I first heard about this kind of learning from Steve Kaufmann in his video below.
Step 4 is to simply repeat Steps 2&3 until the word’s reading finally sticks in your mind.
What will happen is that one day the word will pop up, and you will just know how to say it.
Some readings will stick after a one or two attempts, and others will take longer. I advise that you add more sentences to your deck if you find one that gives you extra trouble.
- 危険から身を守る。You protect yourself from the danger.
- 危険な動物はいなかった。There were no dangerous animals.
- 患者は危険な状態だ。The patient is in a critical condition.
This is a fast method, because it only takes a few seconds to practice recalling a word’s reading.
It’s also an easy method, because if you can’t think of the correct answer right away, you simply see the correct reading, practice a few times, and then move on to new information knowing that eventually you will see the word again.
It is also an effective method because you practice words as they appear in real sentences. And since full sentences carry more meaning than individual words, it actually becomes easier to remember.
And finally, it is a versatile method for learning kanji readings because you can use it across many different mediums. The only conditions you need are the kanji themselves (appearing in some sort of context) and a quick ability to check their correct readings.
If you use flash cards, put the reading on the back. If you’re reading online, have a browser extension that shows the pronunciation easily (or just use LingQ). And if you’re reading manga with furigana, just be sure to cover it up until after you’ve attempted to read the kanji raw.
Putting yourself in lots of different situations where you attempt to read the kanji correctly, and then verifying your results in a matter of seconds is the key to learning a lot of kanji readings quickly and easily.
In This Situation, The Ends Justify The Means
Today I’ve talked about a lot of different methods that you can use in order to learn the correct reading of any new kanji you come across.
Some of these methods you’ve probably already used, but hopefully there were some new ones too.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which method you use. What really matters is that you learn the kanji readings.
I’ve talked about the method that I believe is the most effective, and I encourage you to try it out for at least a month and see how quickly you progress.
If I didn’t clearly explain it, or if you have any questions or tips on learning kanji readings, let me know with a comment!
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6 thoughts on “How To Learn Kanji Readings – Here’s What Actually Works”
I have been following your training carefully on how to learn Kanji reading on your Japanese Tactic website. Your training looks great. I personally love to learn about languages. But this time, it looks like my brain is tired and can no longer concentrate. I’m trying to comprehend your tricks on learning this reading but I’m still struggling.
So, I have Bookmarked your article for reference later on this evening when I’m alone and can concentrate very well, i will come back to your website to go over the entire article again, I’m sure at that time, i will be able to benefit myself much and fully and understand this article.
Thanks for being generous and helping us on how to learn the Kanji Reading. i will surely check back for more information.
Hey Stephen, saving the information until a later time when you can focus better is probably the right move.
There’s no rush to learn, as this training will stay up for the foreseeable future.
Learning kanji and their readings is a pretty big task, and one that takes a lot of work and a long time. So please feel free to come back whenever you’re ready and try out some of the techniques.
What an interesting topic – learning Japanese.
One of my children was just in China in the Peace Corps for over two years and has become facile with Mandarin Chinese, and another child is learning Japanese with “memrise” to try to learn vocabulary.
I can’t imagine knowing 15 languages – I am just family with French and a little Spanish.
Of course, they both use the same alphabet, so learning another language that uses an entirely different writing system would seem to be very difficult.
My son lives in Tennessee and takes Chinese lessons with a native in China over Skype.
I wonder what your opinion of conventional learning programs such as Rosetta Stone is, and how important it is to learn from a native speaker?
Thanks for your expertise.
Yeah, I think there’s been a growing interest in learning foreign languages these last couple of years. That combined with the huge availability of learning materials and courses has really allowed people to check out many different languages and learn the ones that interest them the most.
I think Rosetta Stone is probably OK if you’re totally new to the language, but they aren’t my favorite resource due to the slow speed at which they teach, and their over-reliance on immersion without any explanations in English.
I think interacting with natives is an invaluable part of learning any language, but you probably don’t need to hire one as a tutor or conversation partner until you’re at an early intermediate level and can start conversing in the new language.
Japanese is such a beautiful language. It seem that every word is a work of art. My problem is that I am 51 years old and it seems I have no time. I tried learning French and that didnt go over so well. Could you tell me in comparison to another language on a scale how hard would it be to learn Japanese?
Yeah, the difficulty scale depends on a couple of different factors, but it is generally agreed upon that Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn for English natives.
According to The Foreign Service Institute language difficulty rankings, Japanese is in group level 5 (1 being the easiest) and it takes about 88 weeks (2200 hours) to learn it.
So, it definitely takes a lot of work, and a lot of passion to start learning Japanese and following them all the way through.