What is the hardest part of learning Japanese? Most people would agree that it is remembering the Kanji. I know that is certainly true for me and many of the people I’ve talked with.
Did you know that there are over 50,000 different Kanji? That’s insane! I don’t even know that many words in English!
Thankfully you only have to learn about 2,000 to be considered literate in Japanese. I know, I know, only…
Japanese people study them in while they are in school. So they spend many years learning them and writing them down. Not only that, but being in Japan they see them everywhere which helps.
You’re Unfair Advantage
Earlier I talked about the 80/20 rule when learning Japanese (and Kanji) and how you should use it in your studies. Click below to read that article.
How it relates is that only 200 Kanji account for 50% of all the Japanese Kanji on Wikipedia. And just under 500 of them account for 75% of it. So if you learn those particular ones first, you should have a major advantage since they are the ones that get used the most often.
However, I’d like to show you how I learn new Kanji and how you can too. I am of course talking about using mnemonics .
Mnemonics – A Weird Word, But Very Useful
First, let’s read the definition of mnemonics so that we can all agree on what they are. Here is the Definition on Google:
Pretty simple. It is a memory device. So let’s use it right now to see how it works.
Tree – Woods – Forest
First let’s learn the Kanji for tree. Here it is:
Now the first thing you want to do is to understand the meaning. You have to somehow attach that particular meaning to what the Kanji looks like so that you will recognize it when you see it. I chose this one because it is an easy one and does a really good job of demonstrating how this process works.
The Kanji for tree looks like a picture of a tree. Easy.
So now you know that 木 is the Kanji for tree. The first part is done. But now you have to learn how to say the Japanese word for tree. The pronunciation is き (ki).
The Kanji 木 looks like a tree and is pounced き (ki) which rhymes with tree. So the key to remembering 木 is that it looks like and rhymes with tree!
Using What You Know to Build and Grow
So now that you have one Kanji down, you should use that information that you already have to help you learn more. Here is the next one for you:
Now isn’t that interesting? This Kanji is two 木 Kanji put side by side. So if you had to guess, what would you say that this Kanji means?
If you said Woods, then you are right! Pretty cool! Now it’s not always this easy for every Kanji, but you can start to see how using mnemonics to create a scenario or story in your mind can be a big help in learning.
So how do you remember how to pronounce this one? Well the word for woods is はやし (hayashi). Here’s a way for you to link this Kanji with はやし (hayashi):
There are two trees right next to each other. Therefore one tree must be higher than the other tree.
See how that works? Two trees side by side 林, therefore one must be the higher tree, and higher tree rhymes with hayashi はやし.
What If We Add One More?
For our final Kanji today let learn this one:
Now we have added a third tree on top. Do you have an idea what this one means?
If you said Forest, than you’re right!
Now the word for forest is もり(mori). So let’s think about this Kanji and come up with a way to remember how to say it.
First we had one tree 木. Then we added a second higher tree and got woods 林. Now we added one more tree and got forest 森. We added one more tree.
Boom! mori もり rhymes with more tree. And that’s how you can remember it.
By the way, how do you remember which one it woods and which one is forest? The English word woods has a total of five letters in in. The English word forest has a total of six letters in it. Therefore you can see that forest has one more letter in it than woods.
森 (mori) also has one more 木 (ki) in it than 林 (hayashi).
Do You Always Have to Make Up a Story?
You don’t absolutely have to make up a story to remember both the meaning of a new Kanji and it’s pronunciation, but I find that it helps a lot.
The reason is that if you see a Kanji and have trouble remembering what it means, you can break it down into its individual parts and remember what they each mean separately. Then you can reconstruct the story you made for all of them being together.
When you see and use a Kanji all the time, you will eventually stop using the stories naturally as your brain will instantly know the meaning and pronunciation. But when you are just starting out, it is a life saver!
Now I want to hear from you! How do you remember the meaning of a new Kanji? Have you used mnemonics before to help remember something? Let us know in the comments below!