Japanese is unique in that it uses 4 different writing systems. 3 systems that represent just sounds (hiragana, katakana, and romaji) and one that represents both meanings and sounds (kanji). Japanese is the only language that has that and so when you first start learning the language you are faced with a problem that is uniquely Japanese.
So, how should you go about studying them? Should you study them each individually? Or study them in compounds and words that you learn?
Learning them individually is actually how a lot of kanji learning systems are setup. Remember the Kanji, aka the Heisig method, walks you through each kanji individually. Kanjidamage.com is designed in roughly the same way. Even my old friend Memrise has plenty of Japanese Kanji courses to choose from.
This all gives you the impression that studying the kanji individually is a good choice. I mean its similar to how you learned your first language. And everybody is doing it, so why not?
Of course it is not that simple.
To be considered fluent, you need to learn all of the jouyou kanji (common use kanji). There are 2136 according to the last specification. Most of those kanji have one or more on’yomi (Chinese reading) and one or more kun’yomi (Japanese reading), although some kanji don’t have kun’yomi, every kanji has at least an on’yomi. So let’s say, on average, you need to learn about 3 different pronunciations per kanji.
That’s around 6408 sounds you need to memorize.
Then, there are the meanings. And if you really force it, you could probably narrow it down to the point that each kanji has one meaning, but that’s a little difficult to do. So let’s say you need to know about two meanings per kanji. So, about 4272 meanings.
Keep in mind that to be conversational in any language, the general rule of thumb is for you to know the 2000 most commonly used words. To be fluent on the other hand, a general rule of thumb is around 20,000 words, but that is highly debatable to be honest and depends on your conversation skills.
So, 6408 sounds and 4272 meanings to memorize is a lot of work. And incredibly hard to do without context. So, you can’t obviously expect to learn all the kanji first and then set about learning the language. That’s not to say it can’t be done. I’m sure some people have done it this way, and some people will do it this way in the future, but it isn’t the most common thing to do.
In conclusion, purely learning all the kanji individually in a vacuum is next to impossible.
If you are going to learn kanji individually, you need to do it with at least some exposure to the real language and how it is used.
What I learned from Studying Kanji individually
Up until around N3 level, I actually didn’t bother to learn kanji individually at all. I simply learned kanji along with the words I learned. This system worked fairly well actually and I generally scored pretty well on the kanji section of the JLPT.
Things started to change when I started working with more native materials and gearing up for the harder levels of the test. I started studying kanji individually because it helped me to guess new vocabulary when I saw it for the first time. In this way, I could learn more vocabulary ‘naturally’ instead of drilling and drilling.
At the beginning of this year, I set about finishing off all the N1 and N2 kanji. I learned about 550 kanji in a little over 3 months. It was pretty hard work, but it was great to have it all done.
I learned a few things along the way. First, as you move up in the levels of kanji you need to learn, they get more and more useless. I would say you need N5 through N2 kanji to be able to read most of the material you’ll see in Japan. There is some useful N1 kanji of course, but by the time you get to this level, you will have learned all the most useful ones from just regular reading (or at least I did).
The N1 kanji that remain are rarely used to be honest. And it isn’t all that useful to study. Learning new kanji at this level though is pretty easy. You are probably use to recognizing radicals and building mnemonics, so you can learn more kanji faster than you did at lower levels.
By the way, if you want to see a brilliant visual representation of how to really lock in kanji, check out this recent TED talk by Chineasy founder ShaoLan Hsueh:
These are, of course, Chinese characters used in native Chinese, but a lot of them overlap with Japanese kanji.
What Studying Kanji Individually does
If you study kanji individually along side learning words with their native kanji, you will be able to guess words more accurately. This comes in handy, when, at about the N3 level, you start to really dive into native materials and do a lot of reading. Also, with newspapers and some other difficult texts, there will be words that aren’t in your dictionary, or even in a Japanese to Japanese dictionary. These words are newly minted by smashing together several kanji to create a new term.
Another advantage is if you know how to pronounce a kanji, it will be a lot easier for you to look up words that contain that kanji, but you don’t know how to properly pronounce. You can type in each individual kanji with say the kun’yomi and still look up a word that is pronounced using the on’yomi.
What Studying Kanji Individually doesn’t do
It doesn’t allow you to read anything and everything without difficulties. It will make it a lot easier to read something because you are more familiar with the kanji, but you will still need to take a break every once in awhile and look something up for clarification.
What’s your Thoughts?
How do you study kanji? Separately or with new words? Let me know in the comments.