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Learning Kanji Doesn’t Have To Kill You

After studying Japanese on and off for over 10 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s entirely possible to learn to read the basics in short order. Hiragana and katakana can be learned with proficiency over a two-month period.

I taught it to myself over the summer of 1998 and never looked back. Besides, there area ton of games that can help your recognition. There’s nothing like learning to write it for yourself, particularly as it’s the easiest of the written skills to learn. Kanji, however, is a different matter that requiresa little bit of strategy to pull together. A very popular way to learn kanji is by using the Heisig method that first teaches you the meaning of the kanji through the proved of breaking down the components (or radicals) into a memorable story. This also helps you remember how to write it.

For example, the kanji for sand is 砂. The breakdown of the parts are “stone” and “small”, so you make the connection of a stone being crushed into very small pieces… And you get sand. Makes sense? Some things are obviously not as straightforward, but it is along the same vein. Next step in the process is learning how to read it. This means you go through all kanji at least twice and by all, I mean all. It takes the over 2000 常用漢字 (jouyou kanji – commonly used characters) and makes it somewhat palatable to learn.

Here’s the catch though: you have to be dedicated to this learning process. It must be an immersion experience in order for these characters to be retained. Anything less will have you fall short in this learning process, but that’s typical of learning languages after all. It can be done, as one of my friends clearly evidenced (living in Japan helps too). I’ve heard numerous stories of people that took on this task by fully enveloping themselves, from what they watch to what they read. If you’re going to watch TV, make sure it’s Japanese television; if you’re going to read, make it Japanese. Challenge yourself by reading gradually more difficult stuff to learn the key vocabulary needed to make the language less book-ish and more like real people speech.

Tricky stuff.  I have spurts of immersion and I learn a lot during each spurt, but it has to be consistent for it to stick. If you’re learning Japanese — or any other foreign language — good luck in your endeavors! You can do it!