Aug. 24th, 2010

j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
Kanji are the bane of the Japanese student. Countless books, games, and flashcards are sold on the (largely spurious) claim that they can make kanji learning easy and fast. Countless students give up learning Japanese when these materials fail them. Textbooks are evaluated on the basis of how well they cover characters. Manga are chosen by whether they have furigana. The whole of the Japanese learning industry from books to classes to websites fixates on and obsesses over kanji, kanji, kanji.

Honestly, a lot of the stress and freaking out would be avoided if most books covered kanji in a logical fashion and if most students had realistic goals and a general knowledge of how to attain them.

The first thing most Japanese learners ask is how many kanji they need to know. Then, they set out to make that number of flashcards or buy a book that covers that many. The usual number cited is 2,000. This is bull. An educated adult native speaker knows at least 3,000 kanji pretty well; they may have some knowledge of several thousand others. No single course for non-native speakers (including most undergraduate majors) manages even 3k, let alone more.

The standard ways of learning kanji don't work. They might be ok for the first 500 or even the first 2,000, but at some point, you're going to hit a wall. The way to get around it is to keep the following in mind:

1. Kanji are not random: Kanji are made up of smaller units. Learn those units, and giant, complicated, "impossible" kanji will suddenly be much easier.
2. Learn words, not kanji: If a particular kanji only occurs in compound words, learn one of those words, not the kanji in isolation. Real words are more immediately useful, and useful things are easier to remember.
3. Kanji represent Japanese: If you don't know any vocabulary or grammar, you still won't be able to read anything no matter how many kanji you've memorized. Stick to kanji that you'll have a use for; the more you use them, the more you'll remember them. Save the super advanced kanji for when your other skills are similarly advanced.

Keep It Practical
If you're taking Japanese in school or you need to pass a particular level of the JLPT for a study abroad program or anything like that, then flashcards and studying for tests make sense. If your goal is real world language skills, most of your practice should be geared towards real world applications: this means reading for fun, reading for fun, and more reading for fun. This is how you learned most of your vocabulary in English, and it's how most Japanese people learn most of the vocabulary and kanji they know.

Sometimes, a little rote memorization is necessary when you're learning a foreign language, but keep it to a minimum. Your short-term goals should look a lot more like "read 1 chapter of ___ this week" and a lot less like "memorize 30 kanji by Friday". Which kanji you should study also depends on what you want to read. If you're a fan of CLAMP or you're getting all of your reading in by playing RPGs, you'll have a lot more use for 巫 ("kannagi" or the first half of "miko") than for anything on a standard kanji list.

The only way to know for sure what parts of a language are useful to you is to go ahead and use it!

It's hard to read much or understand much of what you hear when you're first starting out, but it's worth it to try. The more real world exposure you have, even if it's just reading the instructions on your package of instant ramen, the better you'll remember Japanese and the easier it will be to study without getting discouraged and losing motivation.

Kanji Structure
Ok, so I've made the case for learning practical vocabulary above. Now I'm going to make the case for learning impractical things... kind of. One of the biggest problems with kanji learning is that most textbooks try to teach grammar, vocabulary, and kanji at exactly the same time. When you're selecting words to study based on a manga you're reading, this is a great idea. If you've never seen a kanji before in your life and you're trying to figure out how anybody can tell the difference between all those different dark blotches in the 1mm high fine print, it works much less well.

Sadly, many simple words are written with complicated kanji. Many of those kanji are made up of easier kanji, but those easier kanji are used to write very unusual, difficult words. Deciding what to study first is, to be blunt, a giant pain in the ass. The standard textbook approach has you start with complicated kanji that are used for simple words. Methods like Kanji Damage start with the simple kanji and work towards the complicated ones. You're probably best off doing a little of each. (I know, I know: very clear and helpful advice there!) However, you can't go wrong with a bit of background on basic character layout,stroke order, and radicals.

Basic Character Layout
Think of characters as square boxes divided into four equal parts. This is how calligraphers think of them, and it's the key to getting a balanced character and having pretty handwriting. It's also helpful for understanding the layout of the component parts ("radicals"--see below). Wikipedia shows some possible configurations.

Basic Stroke Order and Direction
This is complicated to explain in text, but basically, stroke order goes from the top left corner of the character to the bottom right. Most strokes go from left to right or from top to bottom. Certain strokes, like the top stroke in 手 and the three strokes on the right in 杉 go right to left, but they still slant downward. Each section of the character is completed before moving on to the next. If a radical starts in the top left corner, you write that whole radical first. Then, generally, you move on to the radical to the right of it. Then radicals below it. The stroke order and direction within a particular radical does not change; it will be the same in every other character you ever see that radical in.

You don't need to try to memorize all of this instantly; just keep in mind that stroke order is quite consistent across all characters, and you can learn to figure out what it is even when you're looking at teeny, weeny fine print blobs. This page has a more complete explanation with pictures. Wikipedia also lists some rules and shows animations.

Why is stroke order important? One, because it makes your handwriting prettier. Two, because it makes it easier to write Japanese without getting a hand cramp (seriously!). And three, because the really nice electronic dictionaries designed for native speakers often have handwriting recognition functions, but they will not recognize a character written in the wrong order or direction! Trust me, this is one thing you want to learn correctly the first time. It will pay off a lot over the years.

Radicals
What are "radicals"? Essentially, they're the component parts of Chinese characters. When people use the word ‘radical', they mean one of three things:

1. The main radical that the character would be listed under in a dictionary (this is a system Japanese inherited from Chinese).
2. Any piece of a character that is one of those dictionary radicals (even if it's no the main radical in that character).
3. Any piece of a character that also appears in lots of other characters.

The things in #3 can have other names as well ("components", "primitives", etc.). These names and exactly what pieces count depends on which textbook or dictionary you're looking at. (Most only add a few things to the traditional list covered in 1 and 2.)

Radicals have names: Some textbooks translate these into English ("water radical"), some leave them in Japanese ("sanzui"), and most leave them out entirely. The Japanese names usually indicate not just which radical something is but also what form it takes because...

Radicals have multiple forms: Radicals can appear in different parts of a character (right, left, top, bottom, and sometimes others). Sometimes, they look a little bit different in different places. A handful of them look so different you wouldn't know they're the "same" radical.

Why should you care about radicals? They help with handwriting and stroke order and all of that, but they're most important for two reasons:

1. Having a good grasp of radicals allows you to look characters up even when you don't know the pronunciation and you don't have access to handwriting recognition software.

2. They let you break big, messy, "impossible" characters into small, easy to memorize parts--parts they have in common with lots of other big, messy characters.

Which is easier: learning a few hundred kanji components or learning a few thousand kanji? Yeah, that's what I thought. That's why you should care about radicals.

Lists of Radicals
There are various lists of radicals. The traditional set of 214 comes from Chinese dictionaries and was developed in the 17thC.

Modern methods like Kanji Damage expand on that list and include 500 or more.

About.com discusses a few dozen of the most common ones. This is a great place to start.

Text Fugu, a textbook produced by the (excellent) blog Tofugu also has an introduction to radicals.

Dictionaries
Before all of this newfangled handwriting input stuff, if you didn't know how to pronounce a kanji, you had to look it up the old fashioned way: by radical. This is less true now, but it's still often necessary if you don't have access to an expensive electronic dictionary or if your handwriting is too awful or if whatever input program you're using doesn't recognize more unusual kanji. Using radical lookup is also a great way to practice even if it seems more tedious.

The fastest, least painful way to do this is to use the multi-radical lookup on WWWJDIC. The next best option is to use a paper dictionary like the New Nelson that has "universal radical" lookup. (Surprisingly, some of the larger paper dictionaries will list variant kanji online ones are missing. Even if your dictionary of choice is massive and excellent, there will always be something it's missing, so it's good to have other options.)

One feature of WWWJDIC to keep in mind is that it has reverse radical lookup: that is, if you can copy and paste a character in, the dictionary can tell you what component radicals it contains. I use this feature on any characters I've had a lot of trouble looking up so I'll know what their radicals are next time.

How to Learn Kanji
So given all that stuff about radicals, how should you go about learning kanji? First, I would take a little bit of time to read over information in English. I've linked to a number of good sites. It's easier to absorb this kind of information in a language you already speak, and it's easier to absorb unfamiliar Japanese once you have a conceptual framework to put it in.

Next, I would try multiple methods. I don't generally advocate studying kanji directly (as opposed to studying vocabulary words), but Kanji Damage or one of the other kanji learning sites might be exactly what you need.

Third, I would find an easy manga or something equivalently simple and study based on that. (Manga tend to repeat the same words over and over, which makes them an ideal study tool for beginners even if the Japanese sometimes sounds weird.) Read through chapter 1, marking down any words you don't know. Keep track of the ones written in kanji. (Note: many words will list kanji in the dictionary. This does not always mean they are normally written in kanji.) If those kanji are fairly simple, add them to your list. If they're complicated, look up their component parts. If those are independent kanji or you find some related, useful kanji, add those to your list too. After you've done a little memorization, read chapter 2.

If you're a little more ambitious, try a manga with no furigana and use the WWWJDIC radical lookup to find characters you don't know. Again, read a chapter, compile a vocab list, study, and go back to reading.

Going back and forth between reading/practical applications and flashcard style learning will be much more effective than flashcards alone. Attacking the kanji problem both from the vocabulary direction (basic words and words you use a lot first) and from the kanji structure direction (simple kanji with few radicals first) will be more effective than doing either alone.

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