JLPT BC 60 | The Japanese Writing System and its Pitfalls

Japanese Writing SystemI’m still tearing my way through my conversation tips book. It is a great read full of a few challenging but rather short passages. It is incredibly easy to whip through. I think after I am finished I’ll write up a post about some of the tips I learned from the book.

Other than that, I am doing some work with the N2 course over at memrise.com. If you haven’t been over there in awhile, you might want to take a look. They are doing some great work, and it looks like it is really going to come together for the Japanese courses in 2012.

Another habit I’ve gotten myself into is exploring a few multilingual kids books on my iPhone. I’ve started a small collection of them and I’ve found them to be pretty useful for language learning. The only problem is, you do have to look out for bad translations. It seems like a handful of them were translated by non-natives which makes them sound a little funny to say the least.

The Japanese Writing System

Japanese is highly unique in the fact that it doesn’t just use one alphabet, but actually 3 alphabets, kanji, hiragana, and katakana. As a matter of fact, you can in theory represent any word in the language in all 3 alphabets, some words would be a bit hard to understand, but it is possible.

Now granted, you probably learned all that stuff on day one of learning Japanese. I actually distinctly remember my Japanese prof mentioning this fact to support his ‘Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn’ theory. This is something he trotted out to scare away the un-devoted on the first day of class.

Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn because of the 3 alphabets. However, this unique quality of Japanese is the cause of a few problems and pitfalls for learners, and knowing what to look out for can help aid your comprehension.

Japanese Writing Style

When I first started studying Japanese vocabulary, I always practiced the kanji of the word and I focused on that. Maybe it is because I’m more visual than most or I just had a knack for kanji, but I was able to pick up kanji pretty easily. Or at least I was able to easily attach a meaning to a kanji.

I studied this way because I assumed that in native writing, natives always used the kanji for a word if there was kanji for it and it was commonly used (not overly complex or rare). So, I was perfect at reading words writing in kanji, but not all Japanese writing works that way.

In reality, a lot of kanji in a passage looks too overly formal. If you take a look at any kind of formal notice that you get about, say, a planned water outage in your area for example, you’ll see that it is practically exploding with kanji. They use kanji in every possible nook and cranny on that thing just to drive home the fact that it is a formal notice.

This isn’t the case though for more casual writing. Why? You might ask. Because kanji is a little difficult to read quickly, especially if you are not familiar with some of the kanji. I’ve also heard it just makes people’s eyes/heads hurt with too much kanji. So, writers will actually switch some of the words that are normally written in kanji to kana, just to make the passage easier to read.

So, you need to be careful. That word written in kana that you don’t know, might actually be a word in your vocabulary that you do know, but you don’t recognize it because you are used to reading it in kanji.

How the Test is Organized

Another thing to consider when doing reading is that the tests are organized into 5 separate levels. Each level has a certain amount of kanji assigned to it. For example, for N5 there is 100 kanji. For N4, there is 300 kanji. For N3, there is about 650 kanji. For N2, there is about 1000 kanji. And for N1, there is about 2020 kanji.

Kanji that is from a higher level will not be used at the lower level. Instead of using the kanji for a word, they will use the kana only. This is something that is suppose to help you because you don’t have to study as much kanji. But, this also causes problems.

Why is it a problem? Well, if you studied the vocabulary with only the kanji or the kanji prominently displayed on your flashcard, your brain will only be able to recognize the word in kanji not in kana. This will slow down your reading speed or worse yet, cause you to not recognize the word at all.

It sounds strange, but I’ve had it happen to me a few times. It is actually a bit difficult for me to read N5 and N4 tests because I’m so used to seeing more kanji. This is unfortunately a necessary evil for the test, so be careful and study accordingly.

How can you get both kanji and kana practice?

The moral of the story here is that when you learn and review vocabulary words, you are going to have to not only practice the kanji for a word, but also the kana. A lot of flashcards and learning systems have both of course, but it is easy to fall into a habit of focusing on just the kanji because that can be tricky to remember.

So, you need to pay more attention to the hiragana of a word as well as the kanji. This way you will be able to recognize either when you are reading through the test. There are two tools out there that actually do this automatically when you practice vocab, memrise.com and readthekanji.com. I’ve already mentioned memrise.com a few times on this blog, but readthekanji.com is an alternative that is specifically designed for kanji reading practice. It’s a pay service for the higher levels, but might be worth it if you have a weakness with kanji and kana.

Have you Made Mistake Reading Kanji?

Have you ever had trouble reading a word that is normally written in kanji, but was written in kana (or vice versa). Did it trip you up? Let me know in the comments below.

P.S.  Do you have problems reading Japanese? Then, you should join my newsletter!

P.P.S. Do you wake up in the middle of the night with cold chills because you had a bad dream about kanji?  Really, me too! You should leave me a comment on iTunes and leave me a review.  If you have comments or suggestions for the podcast, by all means let me know in the comments below or contact me and let me know what I can do to improve the show.  Thanks!

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Music by Kevin MacLeod

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Tim January 1, 2012, 2:10 pm

    Yeah, some good points, but we all work differently when it comes to memorising kanji! I noticed that sometimes it slows my reading down if EVERYTHING is written in kana, rather than kanji where a word would normally be written so. But you can – and as you said, should – get used to both. After all, all kanji combinations have readings, and if you know what they are, then seeing stuff written in kana won’t be such a problem (except you have to tell your brain that it is a word with meaning, not just a string of hiragana, haha).

    I use memrise.com and renshuu.org for vocab. They are both good for practising reading kanji and getting used to pronunciation (in hiragana, of course).

    One good point to note is that if you are unsure whether something is commonly written in kanji (for example, animal names), go to Denshi Jisho (jisho.org). It will tell you if any given word is commonly written using kana instead.

    Also, make sure to practise kanji together with other words, as kanji pairs and groups, or with various stems for alternative readings. In context, things start to fall into place better. After all, when you read anything, it’s not just a jumble of random words sitting all by themself (unless it’s a vocab list).

    Now to dedicate some time to reading kids’ books. 😉

    • Mac January 6, 2012, 3:10 pm

      That’s an excellent point about context. That’s why I like to do a lot of reading, so I can see how the kanji is used and the meaning of the word. There are a lot of things that are used a little differently than you think they would be, and you can only learn that from looking at it in context.

  • Joe4TheRecord January 21, 2012, 3:39 am

    It’s so true! I have a lot of trouble reading in all Hiragana. It just looks like a string of meaningless sounds. For some reason I never wanted to study in Hiragana since it somehow felt like a step backward, but now I’m basically Hiragana illiterate. I have to sound out every word and then I still might not realize what the word is supposed to be.

    If you are in Japan you might know about the 100yen store called Daiso. They have children’s books written in all Hiragana. I’ve been meaning to pick some up. A lot of the books are Japanese folklore so not only would you be getting Hiragana reading practice but also learning stories that every Japanese person knows.

    • Mac January 22, 2012, 5:06 am

      Yeah, 100Yen stores are a great source for stuff like that. Or cruising by a second hand bookstore and picking up an anthology of kids books or something for almost the same price. I always gravitated toward kanji because I liked the fact that the characters symbolized a meaning, which to me seems pretty cool, because you can kind of guess at a meaning of a word before you actually know the definition. Or simply learn a word by seeing it in context.

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