Tactics

Is “Writing It Down” The Best Way To Learn Kanji?

If you’re studying Japanese, then there’s never been a better time to learn all of the 2,136 daily-use kanji, known as the jōyō kanji (常用漢字), that are needed to achieve literacy in the language. The classic method used for learning it is repeated writing, but is writing it down the best way to learn kanji?

We know that it works because people having been using it successfully for hundreds of years now. Not to mention that it’s still the method used in Japanese schools for kids in grade school and above.

But how effective is it when compared to the newer strategies for memorizing kanji like mnemonics, or SRS flash cards?

Let’s take a look at some of the unique benefits of learning kanji through writing it down. I’ll even show you a way to turbo charge this classic method!

What is the Connection Between the Hand and the Brain?

Memory is all about creating neural connections within the brain. The more you practice and use new kanji, the more connections are laid out within your neural pathways and the stronger they become. That means that each time you use a kanji, your memory for it becomes stronger and faster!

If you’re not writing down kanji, then the only new connections that get created are the ones that occur when you see kanji in a book, on your computer, or on your phone.

But when you take the time to actually write kanji on paper with a pen or pencil, not only do you get that same connection as before, but you also create some new additional connections as well because you involve the motor skills located in your hand.

You might ask, “well can I just type the kanji out on my computer?”

But unfortunately you cannot. You actually have to write the kanji with your hand, on a piece of paper.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D. talks about this in an article she wrote for Psychology Today about the differences in brain development when people physically write things out, as opposed to simply typing them on an electronic device. She said that:

“Brain scans show that more of the areas of the brain associated with memory formation are activated when writing than when typing.” [source]

I’m sure you’ve experienced this in school when it was easier for you to recall the things you wrote down while taking notes.

Getting “the slides” after the professor’s presentation is easier, but you don’t imprint the information as deeply.

The simple rule is that “the more involved you are with the language, the better you learn it.” And writing kanji is one of the most involved methods that there is.

But I don’t propose that you simply write out each new kanji and then leave it at that. I actually think that you should speak while you write too!

There’s a specific technique that I’ll teach you in the last section that incorporates both, but before I get to that, let me explain the reason why you want to speak and write at the same time. It’s because of something that is known as “multi-sensory learning.”

What is Multi-Sensory Learning?

When you learn a new kanji by looking at it, you only engage one of you five senses: sight. But what studies have shown is that people learn new information through all five of their senses!

Think about the chef who uses his taste and smell to learn a new recipe. Or think about the guitar player who uses not only the sounds of her instrument’s strings, but also the feel of them to memorize a new song.

People can certainly take in new information by using only one sense (known as uni-sensory learning), but is that really the best way to go about it?

There was a study done by Ladan Shams and Aaron Seitz where they compared the differences between each method (learning with only one sense or multiple senses) and the results were quite interesting.

Which form of learning do you think came out on top? They said that:

Memory research shows that multisensory exposure can result in superior recognition of objects compared to unisensory exposure. [source]

This means that when you involve several senses at the same time while you take in new information, it then becomes much easier to later recall and use that same information, as compared to if you had only used a single sense during the learning process.

Again, the deeper the encoding of the information at the time of inception, the stronger the memory is formed.

Now I don’t really know how you can use taste or smell to learn a new kanji, but I do know how you can see, hear, and feel while you learn. It’s called The Scriptorium Technique!

What is The Scriptorium Technique?

I first learned about The Scriptorium Technique from a video by Alexander Argüelles. It is an excellent way for anyone to take an active role in their studies of Japanese. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Read a sentence aloud.
  2. Say each word aloud again as you write it down.
  3. Read the sentence aloud as you have written it.

The point of this technique is to help you focus on the language, the grammatical structure of the sentence, and how to properly write out each kanji and kana.

I recommend that when you learn a new kanji, you find a sentence that you can put it into that makes sense, and then use The Scriptorium Technique on all of it to lock it into your memory.

Learning kanji and new words within the context of a real life phrase gives it more meaning and helps it to stick in your brain. And it’s a great way to expand your conversational skills at the same time!

Not only that, but The Scriptorium Technique makes use of the hand-brain connection, and multi-sensory learning which both build additional neural connections in your brain while you learn Japanese kanji.

So to wrap it up, while there are lots of great ways to learn kanji these days, there are some unique benefits to using the classic method of writing them down on a piece of paper.

The next time you start studying kanji, you just might want to put down the smart phone, and pick up your pencil instead!

What do you guys think?

Have you learned any kanji by writing them down? Have you ever used The Scriptorium Technique to learn Japanese before?

Share your opinion on the matter by leaving a comment below!

2 Comments

  • Win Bill

    The things you mentioned is definitely spot on. I am Chinese so since I was little, my family teaches me to chinese way of learning things, especially a foreign language. The old saying is that when you learn a language, speaking it out loud while writing it is the way to go. It goes to show that hand, eye, and mind coordination is fairly important. Now that you mentioned using all five senses, then its probably even better and more efficient. I have not studied Japanese for a long time. However, what you mentioned got me fired up again. I already know a little kanji since I am chinese, but I would catch up with my hiragana and katakana also. Thank you very much. What is your native language by the way?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey man, my native language is English. I was born and raised in America, so I was pretty much monolingual for most of my life. 

      When I was a kid I actually started learning German from a “see it, say it” type of book that was pretty popular back in the day. But I could never really get past learning a few nouns in it.

      I started learning Japanese near the end of my time at University and have really loved the language ever since. In the last couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of research on “how people learn” when it comes to all sorts of different types of information.

      So combining those two things, I’ve created this site and continue to write about different tactics that people can use to learn Japanese. 

      Hopefully you find a thing or two that you like!!!

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