The adoption in around the 6th century CE of kanji by the Japanese from Chinese emissaries was a blessing for the Japanese language since it was the first time the language appeared in written form. At the same time, the act was destined to seem like a curse for the thousands of non-native Japanese speakers who have tried their hand at learning kanji. Simply put: mastering kanji is hard!
To the brain of the typical Westerner who has been raised on an alphabet-based Indo-European language like English, Spanish, or German, the prospect of learning and mastering kanji presents a special challenge. Each kanji is a pictograph, ideograph or phono-semiotic (ouch!) character and can consist of up to twenty individual strokes which need to be drawn in a particular order. Most kanji have three or more possible pronunciations and must be used in combination with one or more other kanji just to form a single word.
So, where does one start on the road toward mastery? Rather than repeat for you the conventional wisdom about mastering kanji, I will share with you seven tactics I learned as a veteran kanji studier.
In my case, I needed all the help I could get: after four years of university study of Japanese, I was still a kanji novice. The secrets I share with you here are the hard-won knowledge that helped me to pass Level 1 (most difficult) of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) after just 15 months of self-study while working a full time job. And, the beauty of it is: you can use them right where you are RIGHT NOW to master kanji.
Tactic #1: Ignore the conventional study order:
Sure, start with the first 100 to 200 of the 1945 jouyou (common use) kanji until you get your feet wet. But then, dive right into the hard ones whenever you come across them, no matter how unfamiliar. This may seem like a harder road to tread initially, but the time you save in not having to distinguish between the kanji on your study list and those you are saving for later means more time and energy you can devote to studying.
Tactic #2: Parts is parts:
Learn first the meaning of 20 or 30 of the most commonly-occurring of the 214 radicals (i.e., basic building blocks of kanji) found on the front, inside cover of any kanji dictionary to become familiar with the majority of the kanji you encounter. Once you do, you will reap the rewards as you start to see each new kanji as a puzzle to be deciphered. You will recognize the individual components of the new kanji right away. This process is called “chunking” and goes like this: learning three, five-stroke components of a kanji is much easier than trying to remember fifteen individual strokes. Know the parts and the rest will be just a matter of putting the pieces together.
Tactic #3: Jump right into the hard stuff:
This refers specifically to the study of the written word rather than individual kanji. Even if you are a beginner, go ahead and read a bit of advanced text every day (newspapers, books, etc. ). This method is great for becoming familiar with the most common kanji combinations as they occur in their natural environments. By doing this, each seemingly foreign configuration of strokes will quickly become second-nature to you.
Tactic #4: Read aloud:
There are three major aspects to mastering a kanji: recognizing its structure/shape, knowing what it means, and being able to pronounce it correctly. A hugely efficient way of studying is to read aloud whenever possible. Reading kanji aloud is a great way to kill three birds (learning structure/shape, meaning, and sound) with one, big, noisy stone.
Tactic #5: Take your time in choosing your favorite learning materials:
One or more of any number of characteristics of a given kanji dictionary or study guide (e.g., font type/size, look-and-feel of the binding, cover design, paper quality: even the author photo or the smell of the ink) can affect whether you want to read more or just put it down and watch the Discovery Channel instead. Pay attention to your first impressions: if a book was recommended by a friend as “the best ever” but you just do not seem to click with it, boldly cast it aside and move on. You will be rewarded by much better retention if you study using the materials with which you feel most comfortable.
Tactic #6: Utilize multiple sources of the written word:
Science tells us that our brains are “plastic” in that the connections between our brain cells actually become stronger and more plentiful when we are exposed to new stimuli. Thus, be sure to expose yourself to the countless ways that kanji are represented in written form: books, newspapers, magazines, manga, street signs, legal texts, your sewage bill (if you live in Japan), cereal boxes – you name it! You will be rewarded with a quick advance in the rate of your kanji retention.
Tactic #7: Avoid getting hung up on the stubborn ones:
Set aside as special cases those kanji that you just cannot seem to make stick in your mind rather than keeping them as a part of your regular study routine. Doing so yields two powerful benefits. First, you can start feeling good again about the kanji you are learning just fine (thank you very much) and thereby maintain a steady pace as you review them in groups. Second, by singling out the troublemakers you make a special point to study them on their own terms and for what they are, thereby actually increasing your speed of mastery.
So, buck convention and get on the road to becoming a kanji master!