Japanese is a very unique language for several reasons. It has a different sentence order (subject object verb) than most other major languages. It has several dialects, some of which, don’t even sound like Japanese. And, oh yeah, it has three different writing systems, too – hirgana, katakana, and everyone’s favorite kanji. (Some people even say Japanese has 5 writing systems if you include romaji and kaomoji [Japanese emoticons])
For some people, kanji is fun, I mean who doesn’t like 2000+ symbols to memorize just to read a language? But, seriously, they can be fun to learn, read, and write them. Some people even like to tattoo funny ones on their bodies.
Or for other people they are a necessary evil that must be dealt with in order to progress in the language. Much like when you were younger and your mother made you eat your peas before you could go play Super Nintendo.
Whether you are in love with kanji, hate kanji, or are in a complicated relationship with kanji, here are some tips on making the whole Japanese kanji learning thing that much more easier.
#1 Learn the Ways of the 部首(ぶしゅ)
Kanji can be pretty formidable beasts if you try to take them down all at once, but if you break them down into smaller pieces they are a lot easier to learn. A lot of kanji (but not all kanji) can be broken down into smaller pieces called kanji radicals or 部首(ぶしゅ) in Japanese. Textfugu.com has an excellent kanji radical cheat sheet to help you recognize the different radicals. You can also check out my article on Learning Japanese Kanji with Radicals as well.
#2 Learn Kanji in Compounds
It is a lot easier for you to internalize a kanji’s meaning if you learn it through compounds (two or more kanji used together to form a word). This way it will give you a general feeling of how that kanji is used. This is especially true for more complicated (N3+) kanji that have more abstract meanings. Hopefully though, you are already doing this with a service like Anki, Memrise.com, or Readthekanji.com right?
#3 Learn Kanji Separately
Huh? Wait you just told me to learn them in compounds. Yes, I did, but taking a little bit of time to learn them separately and study their general meanings can also be beneficial. This is because it will help you be able to recognize words that you haven’t learned yet in the reading sections of the test.
New words that you have never seen before are very common on N2 and above. These words are typically glossed with a definition in Japanese, but it will be quicker and easier if you can glance at them and give a best guess. Time is really important in the reading sections of the higher tests, so any time you can shave off some time, it will pay huge dividends.
#4 Practice Calligraphy or Simply just Writing Kanji
This technique is not for everyone. There are a lot of people that pick up kanji relatively well and have little need for writing the kanji because they will be using a computer or cell phone to write Japanese most of the time. It really has the biggest benefit for those who want to be able to write Japanese as well as read.
Having said that though, it can be beneficial in that it will help you see the difference between similar looking kanji or 似ている漢字, which you’ll be tested over in the second kanji section of the test.
You can go to a real Japanese calligraphy class if you happen to be in Japan. Or if you are outside of Japan, you can go to Skritter.com, which is an online resource for practicing how to write kanji (Japanese or Chinese). There is also Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-kun for DS (for any region) that does something similar for all 2000ish of the joyo (common use) kanji.
#5 Get a Kanji Poster
Recently, I became the proud owner of a kanji poster. I bought mine from kanjiposter.com and it has all 2000+ joyo kanji on it. I like this particular poster because it is laminated so that I can write on it with a white board marker. This makes it useful to make notes on.
An alternative to the Kanjiposter.com poster is the White Rabbit Press Kanji Poster. I almost bought this one because all the different levels of the kanji are color coded. Also it has all the pronunciations on another poster, so that you can quiz yourself by looking away. It’s only drawback is that you can’t write on it, but that’s not really that big of a deal.
If I were to buy another poster, I would probably most likely pick up the White Rabbit Press one instead because it seems more useful.
You might be wondering, why in the world would I want a giant poster with just a bunch of kanji on it? But these posters do come in handy. They can be used as a quick reference or simply just something to take a peek at every once in awhile so that you get familiar with the different characters.
How about you?
That’s it for the first part of this series. Next week I’ll be going over some other ways to study kanji. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. How do you study kanji? Can you recommend any other ways to practice kanji?
P.S. If you are a big bad kanji learning machine, great! Sign up for the newsletter to get more awesome tips like this sent directly to you along with exclusive discounts, sneak peeks, and some overall cool stuff.