5 min read

How ( & When) To Learn Kanji Pronunciation

Published on
August 30, 2015
Contributors
Niko

If you don't already know, this site has an incredibly detailed guide to learning the meanings of the roughly 2,200 general-use kanji characters.

Note: You should read my guide to learning the kanji before reading this post, as this post is largely just to clear up some question that readers following that system have had.

As I've mentioned in numerous places, it is a proven-effective system, and I get emails from readers that have completed it pretty much every week.That said, what works for Person A may not work for Person B, and I occasionally get emails from readers that are concerned about one particularly controversial piece of advice:

My kanji guide recommends spending the first 3 months of kanji studies looking at only the meanings of kanji, but not the pronunciations of the kanji.

I get multiple emails per week about this issue, so rather than continue to write all of those long and detailed email responses, I've decided to just go ahead and address everything in a single post (which you are now reading).

The Best Way to Learn the Pronunciation of the Kanji

That title is a bit misleading, because "the best" is subjective. I'll mostly be exploring a number of questions that I get about studying the kanji and the relevant answers thereof.Here we go...

Shouldn't I learn kanji's meaning and pronunciation at the same time?

Yikes. Uh, this is a tricky question.

The simple answer is no.The complicated answer is... well, complicated.

If you look at my kanji learning system, it's asking that you use extremely organized flashcards, coupled with boss-status mnemonics, in order to learn 22 kanji per day for 97 days.I think that a lot of readers underestimate what a huge feat that is. Most of the emails I get asking this question are still in the beginning stages of the kanji challenge. Their energetic. Excited. Motivated.There's a negative way to phrase that, too. These motivated students often haven't hit the wall yet.If you are studying multiple hours every single day for three months, I can almost guarantee you that one of those days is going to be torture.Even if you're fast learning the meanings of individual kanji, it's probably taking you at least 3 minutes per new kanji.

3 minutes to learn 1 kanji.2,136 kanji.That's 106.8 hours. 66 minutes per day every single day.

Have you ever tried exercising one hour per day every day for three months? It's not easy.The thing with kanji is that you have to get in every kanji eventually. So missing one day means that now you're looking at 98 days. Missing ten days means 107 days. And the longer it takes you to get through the meaning of all of the kanji, the more likely you are to give up and quit before making it all the way.What does this have to do with learning pronunciation?Well, if you're trying to learn the pronunciation and meaning at the same time, then it's not going to take you 3 minutes to learn a kanji. It's going to take you much longer.Learning "pronunciation" actually means learning vocabulary. If we imagined that there were only two readings per kanji (On'Yomi and Kun'Yomi), then you'd be learning 2 words per kanji.This means 2,136 kanji, plus 4,272 vocabulary words.If you're still just studying 66 minutes per day, you're now looking at 291 days. So now you're studying kanji for almost a year. And until you get through all of the general-use kanji characters, learning those vocabulary is going to take longer, be less enjoyable, etc.In other words, you're more likely to get frustrated and quit this way.

Still, I feel like I should learn the pronunciation of each kanji, shouldn't I?

This is really hard to explain, but there is actually no such thing as "the pronunciation of [insert kanji]."If you look in a dictionary, they'll have lists of the pronunciations of kanji. Specifically, they'll have On'yomi readings, which come from Chinese and Kun'yomi readings which come from Japanese, like this:[caption id="attachment_2087" align="alignnone" width="1026"]

Screenshot is from Jisho.org.[/caption]If you want to learn the readings of the kanji as you are simultaneously learning the meanings, then you'll need to learn them in context. In other words, you'll need to learn vocabulary words that contain the kanji.There are two problems with this, though:

  1. Those vocabulary will often have multiple kanji, and you won't know the meaning (let alone the readings) of the other kanji, but trying to learn that kanji at this stage will make your kanji learning less efficient if you're using a system like mine.
  2. Sometimes the On'Yomi or Kun'Yomi are not commonly used.

I think it's much easier to pick up the readings of kanji, through high-context vocabulary studies after having plowed through the meanings of the kanji in the beginning stages of studying.I'm not saying that you need to do this, but it worked for me, and it works for a lot of my readers.

I had learned the meanings of all of the general-use kanji, and multiple vocabulary words for 99% of them before I even knew the difference between On'Yomi and Kun'Yomi.I could never remember which was which.

Here's the thing. As soon as I tell readers that kanji should always be learned through learning vocab, this is question often follows:

I still want to learn vocabulary along with kanji. Any advice on how I should proceed?

Why, I thought you'd never ask.So if you look at the screenshot below, I have two different Anki decks:

  1. The Nihongo Shark Kanji Deck (edited slightly while writing this post about writing mnemonics... which you might want to read before reading this article, actually).
  2. The Nihongo Shark Blank Vocabulary Deck

I don't have any flashcards in the "My Vocabulary" deck, which is why I don't have any number under "New."The number 20, which shows for my kanji deck, is the number of new kanji that I'm trying to learn per day in this example. Again, I'm learning these kanji following this method, making mnemonics like these.So let's say that I study for an hour or so, and I learn all 20 new kanji for today.Now my decks have nothing for me to study:

As you can see in that screenshot, Anki tells me that I do have the option of learning more new kanji, but if I do this too often, I might be overwhelmed by an obscene amount of review cards that are due in the future.

This is when it is okay to learn vocabulary.That is, this is when it is not a problem learning the pronunciation of recently learned kanji through high-context vocab acquisition.

Your Anki priorities, should always look like this:

  1. Kanji Review Cards
  2. New Kanji Cards
  3. Vocabulary Review Cards (that you created personally)
  4. Vocabulary Review Cards (that were auto-generated, such as this JLPT N4 Deck, or this JLPT N5 Deck)
  5. New Vocabulary Cards (that you created personally)
  6. New Vocabulary Cards (that were auto-generated)

Okay, that's really confusing, but it just means that this is the order you should study your Anki flashcards in each day. Always do all of your kanji review cards before you start worrying about new kanji cards. Always learn your self-assigned number of new kanji per day before trying to learn or review vocabulary words.When we get through all of our New Kanji Cards (#2) for a given day, then it is okay to move onto #3-6.If you look again at the two flashcard decks I have right now, there are no vocabulary cards due for review, so I can go past #3 and #4:

This means that I can move onto #5, which is learning new vocab... which is learning "the pronunciation" of kanji.You're even free to focus on the kanji that you learned today, which is what I'll show you how to do now...

How To Learn Vocab for Individual Kanji

Note: I know I've already said this repeatedly, but these are not strict guidelines. I have a lot of readers that never make their own personal vocabulary cards. A lot of my readers only study on their phones, for example, which makes custom flashcards kind of a nightmare... so they opt for pre-loaded vocabulary decks they've downloaded from Anki's Shared Flashcard database or elsewhere.

Let's imagine that I want to learn vocabulary for the three kanji that I walked through in this post on using memory palaces for learning the meaning of kanji:

Here are screenshots of the kanji flashcards that I made for memorizing the meanings of these kanji:

Here are my criteria for learning sample vocabulary for target kanji:

  • If possible, I want to learn multiple readings of each kanji.
  • Vocabulary learned should be limited to useful, high-frequency words.
  • Vocabulary flashcards should include one or more natural example sentences written by a native speaker.

Let's start with the kanji 里. I'll look this kanji up on two different websites in order to get started:

I'll start with Jisho.org, where I enter the target kanji into a search. Once the results come up, I want to look at the Kanji Details page:

As soon as the next page loads, we're going to leave it by clicking the "Words Containing" link:

This will take me to a list of different vocabulary in which this kanji appear. The more common words tend to be at the top, whereas more obscure words tend to be down towards the bottom, which you can kind of see by looking at this very long screenshot:

img_55e2601bc6c30

You'll notice that a lot of these words do not have the target kanji in them. Rather, it is showing up in alternative vocabulary words written below the definitions.We want to scroll down until we find our target kanji written in one of the words on the left.As we come across these words, we want to copy them, then paste them into Weblio's example sentence database:

We then want to check the number of example sentences that this produces.This particular word has 114:

114 result isn't horrible, but any commonly used word is going to have at least a thousand results. So let's try some of the other words that appeared in our search results on Jisho.org:

Eventually we'll get a word that has a ton of results:

The problem with this one is that it's only a single kanji. So Weblio is also including results where it is simply part of a word, but not the word itself. In other words, I have no way of knowing if this is actually a commonly used word.[NEW CONTENT GOES HERE]

Finding the Correct Readings of Words

Earlier, the word 故郷 (kokyou) showed up at the top of the list for words that include 里:

img_55e26047016a9

I think that this is a good example to use for trying to find out the correct pronunciation of various kanji and words, because this is a word that is very easy to learn incorrectly as a non-native speaker studying on their own.Let's take that word and then paste it into Weblio:

This will take me to the dictionary entry for this word in Weblio. Upon doing so, we can have our first panic attack, because Weblio will show us two possible readings for this word:

It doesn't help that Jisho.org is showing two possible readings for this word on their page:

The easiest way to figure out the proper reading is to ask a native Japanese speaker. But ain't nobody got time for that. So we are left with two options.First, we can just go with Weblio, because I trust an all-Japanese website a little bit more.Second, (for higher level students) we can go to Google.co.jp and type in 「故郷 読み方」, which is how you look up the reading of a word (because 読み方 / yomikata means "reading"):

For super high-level students, you could look at that second page, which is an explanation of the difference between ふるさと (furusato) and こきょう (kokyou).Us lazy kids can just click on that last page in the list, because it says that the site's name is Yomikatawa.com (which I just discovered and is really useful).That takes us to this page, which gives us a very simple answer:

So let's go with こきょう (kokyou).Now I go to Anki and open up the My Vocabulary deck:

Then I click "Add," because I want to add a new flashcard:

Agh, the flashcard type is set to Basic! Gross!So click "Basic" in order to change it:

Let's choose "My Vocabulary" card types:

Now we have this beautiful list of flashcard fields:

Let's enter 故郷 for the Target Japanese Word, then こきょう for the Target Word Reading:

You won't need to do this once you reach a higher level, because it starts to become very obvious, but you can also put a little period between the different kanji's readings (because こ / ko is for 故 and きょう / kyou is for 郷).I then find an example sentence that I like (ideally from a reputable dictionary) on Weblio:

I enter it into my flashcard:

Now I go back to the dictionary entry in Weblio:

I choose one or more definitions that appear to be appropriate:

Then I enter them into my flashcard:

I click "Add," and then I have a nice, beautiful flashcard.Here's the front side:

Here's the backside:

If you don't know the pronunciation of the other words, you can then make flashcards for those by using branching... but that's really a topic for another article.

If you don't already know, this site has an incredibly detailed guide to learning the meanings of the roughly 2,200 general-use kanji characters.

Note: You should read my guide to learning the kanji before reading this post, as this post is largely just to clear up some question that readers following that system have had.

As I've mentioned in numerous places, it is a proven-effective system, and I get emails from readers that have completed it pretty much every week.That said, what works for Person A may not work for Person B, and I occasionally get emails from readers that are concerned about one particularly controversial piece of advice:

My kanji guide recommends spending the first 3 months of kanji studies looking at only the meanings of kanji, but not the pronunciations of the kanji.

I get multiple emails per week about this issue, so rather than continue to write all of those long and detailed email responses, I've decided to just go ahead and address everything in a single post (which you are now reading).

The Best Way to Learn the Pronunciation of the Kanji

That title is a bit misleading, because "the best" is subjective. I'll mostly be exploring a number of questions that I get about studying the kanji and the relevant answers thereof.Here we go...

Shouldn't I learn kanji's meaning and pronunciation at the same time?

Yikes. Uh, this is a tricky question.

The simple answer is no.The complicated answer is... well, complicated.

If you look at my kanji learning system, it's asking that you use extremely organized flashcards, coupled with boss-status mnemonics, in order to learn 22 kanji per day for 97 days.I think that a lot of readers underestimate what a huge feat that is. Most of the emails I get asking this question are still in the beginning stages of the kanji challenge. Their energetic. Excited. Motivated.There's a negative way to phrase that, too. These motivated students often haven't hit the wall yet.If you are studying multiple hours every single day for three months, I can almost guarantee you that one of those days is going to be torture.Even if you're fast learning the meanings of individual kanji, it's probably taking you at least 3 minutes per new kanji.

3 minutes to learn 1 kanji.2,136 kanji.That's 106.8 hours. 66 minutes per day every single day.

Have you ever tried exercising one hour per day every day for three months? It's not easy.The thing with kanji is that you have to get in every kanji eventually. So missing one day means that now you're looking at 98 days. Missing ten days means 107 days. And the longer it takes you to get through the meaning of all of the kanji, the more likely you are to give up and quit before making it all the way.What does this have to do with learning pronunciation?Well, if you're trying to learn the pronunciation and meaning at the same time, then it's not going to take you 3 minutes to learn a kanji. It's going to take you much longer.Learning "pronunciation" actually means learning vocabulary. If we imagined that there were only two readings per kanji (On'Yomi and Kun'Yomi), then you'd be learning 2 words per kanji.This means 2,136 kanji, plus 4,272 vocabulary words.If you're still just studying 66 minutes per day, you're now looking at 291 days. So now you're studying kanji for almost a year. And until you get through all of the general-use kanji characters, learning those vocabulary is going to take longer, be less enjoyable, etc.In other words, you're more likely to get frustrated and quit this way.

Still, I feel like I should learn the pronunciation of each kanji, shouldn't I?

This is really hard to explain, but there is actually no such thing as "the pronunciation of [insert kanji]."If you look in a dictionary, they'll have lists of the pronunciations of kanji. Specifically, they'll have On'yomi readings, which come from Chinese and Kun'yomi readings which come from Japanese, like this:[caption id="attachment_2087" align="alignnone" width="1026"]

Screenshot is from Jisho.org.[/caption]If you want to learn the readings of the kanji as you are simultaneously learning the meanings, then you'll need to learn them in context. In other words, you'll need to learn vocabulary words that contain the kanji.There are two problems with this, though:

  1. Those vocabulary will often have multiple kanji, and you won't know the meaning (let alone the readings) of the other kanji, but trying to learn that kanji at this stage will make your kanji learning less efficient if you're using a system like mine.
  2. Sometimes the On'Yomi or Kun'Yomi are not commonly used.

I think it's much easier to pick up the readings of kanji, through high-context vocabulary studies after having plowed through the meanings of the kanji in the beginning stages of studying.I'm not saying that you need to do this, but it worked for me, and it works for a lot of my readers.

I had learned the meanings of all of the general-use kanji, and multiple vocabulary words for 99% of them before I even knew the difference between On'Yomi and Kun'Yomi.I could never remember which was which.

Here's the thing. As soon as I tell readers that kanji should always be learned through learning vocab, this is question often follows:

I still want to learn vocabulary along with kanji. Any advice on how I should proceed?

Why, I thought you'd never ask.So if you look at the screenshot below, I have two different Anki decks:

  1. The Nihongo Shark Kanji Deck (edited slightly while writing this post about writing mnemonics... which you might want to read before reading this article, actually).
  2. The Nihongo Shark Blank Vocabulary Deck

I don't have any flashcards in the "My Vocabulary" deck, which is why I don't have any number under "New."The number 20, which shows for my kanji deck, is the number of new kanji that I'm trying to learn per day in this example. Again, I'm learning these kanji following this method, making mnemonics like these.So let's say that I study for an hour or so, and I learn all 20 new kanji for today.Now my decks have nothing for me to study:

As you can see in that screenshot, Anki tells me that I do have the option of learning more new kanji, but if I do this too often, I might be overwhelmed by an obscene amount of review cards that are due in the future.

This is when it is okay to learn vocabulary.That is, this is when it is not a problem learning the pronunciation of recently learned kanji through high-context vocab acquisition.

Your Anki priorities, should always look like this:

  1. Kanji Review Cards
  2. New Kanji Cards
  3. Vocabulary Review Cards (that you created personally)
  4. Vocabulary Review Cards (that were auto-generated, such as this JLPT N4 Deck, or this JLPT N5 Deck)
  5. New Vocabulary Cards (that you created personally)
  6. New Vocabulary Cards (that were auto-generated)

Okay, that's really confusing, but it just means that this is the order you should study your Anki flashcards in each day. Always do all of your kanji review cards before you start worrying about new kanji cards. Always learn your self-assigned number of new kanji per day before trying to learn or review vocabulary words.When we get through all of our New Kanji Cards (#2) for a given day, then it is okay to move onto #3-6.If you look again at the two flashcard decks I have right now, there are no vocabulary cards due for review, so I can go past #3 and #4:

This means that I can move onto #5, which is learning new vocab... which is learning "the pronunciation" of kanji.You're even free to focus on the kanji that you learned today, which is what I'll show you how to do now...

How To Learn Vocab for Individual Kanji

Note: I know I've already said this repeatedly, but these are not strict guidelines. I have a lot of readers that never make their own personal vocabulary cards. A lot of my readers only study on their phones, for example, which makes custom flashcards kind of a nightmare... so they opt for pre-loaded vocabulary decks they've downloaded from Anki's Shared Flashcard database or elsewhere.

Let's imagine that I want to learn vocabulary for the three kanji that I walked through in this post on using memory palaces for learning the meaning of kanji:

Here are screenshots of the kanji flashcards that I made for memorizing the meanings of these kanji:

Here are my criteria for learning sample vocabulary for target kanji:

  • If possible, I want to learn multiple readings of each kanji.
  • Vocabulary learned should be limited to useful, high-frequency words.
  • Vocabulary flashcards should include one or more natural example sentences written by a native speaker.

Let's start with the kanji 里. I'll look this kanji up on two different websites in order to get started:

I'll start with Jisho.org, where I enter the target kanji into a search. Once the results come up, I want to look at the Kanji Details page:

As soon as the next page loads, we're going to leave it by clicking the "Words Containing" link:

This will take me to a list of different vocabulary in which this kanji appear. The more common words tend to be at the top, whereas more obscure words tend to be down towards the bottom, which you can kind of see by looking at this very long screenshot:

img_55e2601bc6c30

You'll notice that a lot of these words do not have the target kanji in them. Rather, it is showing up in alternative vocabulary words written below the definitions.We want to scroll down until we find our target kanji written in one of the words on the left.As we come across these words, we want to copy them, then paste them into Weblio's example sentence database:

We then want to check the number of example sentences that this produces.This particular word has 114:

114 result isn't horrible, but any commonly used word is going to have at least a thousand results. So let's try some of the other words that appeared in our search results on Jisho.org:

Eventually we'll get a word that has a ton of results:

The problem with this one is that it's only a single kanji. So Weblio is also including results where it is simply part of a word, but not the word itself. In other words, I have no way of knowing if this is actually a commonly used word.[NEW CONTENT GOES HERE]

Finding the Correct Readings of Words

Earlier, the word 故郷 (kokyou) showed up at the top of the list for words that include 里:

img_55e26047016a9

I think that this is a good example to use for trying to find out the correct pronunciation of various kanji and words, because this is a word that is very easy to learn incorrectly as a non-native speaker studying on their own.Let's take that word and then paste it into Weblio:

This will take me to the dictionary entry for this word in Weblio. Upon doing so, we can have our first panic attack, because Weblio will show us two possible readings for this word:

It doesn't help that Jisho.org is showing two possible readings for this word on their page:

The easiest way to figure out the proper reading is to ask a native Japanese speaker. But ain't nobody got time for that. So we are left with two options.First, we can just go with Weblio, because I trust an all-Japanese website a little bit more.Second, (for higher level students) we can go to Google.co.jp and type in 「故郷 読み方」, which is how you look up the reading of a word (because 読み方 / yomikata means "reading"):

For super high-level students, you could look at that second page, which is an explanation of the difference between ふるさと (furusato) and こきょう (kokyou).Us lazy kids can just click on that last page in the list, because it says that the site's name is Yomikatawa.com (which I just discovered and is really useful).That takes us to this page, which gives us a very simple answer:

So let's go with こきょう (kokyou).Now I go to Anki and open up the My Vocabulary deck:

Then I click "Add," because I want to add a new flashcard:

Agh, the flashcard type is set to Basic! Gross!So click "Basic" in order to change it:

Let's choose "My Vocabulary" card types:

Now we have this beautiful list of flashcard fields:

Let's enter 故郷 for the Target Japanese Word, then こきょう for the Target Word Reading:

You won't need to do this once you reach a higher level, because it starts to become very obvious, but you can also put a little period between the different kanji's readings (because こ / ko is for 故 and きょう / kyou is for 郷).I then find an example sentence that I like (ideally from a reputable dictionary) on Weblio:

I enter it into my flashcard:

Now I go back to the dictionary entry in Weblio:

I choose one or more definitions that appear to be appropriate:

Then I enter them into my flashcard:

I click "Add," and then I have a nice, beautiful flashcard.Here's the front side:

Here's the backside:

If you don't know the pronunciation of the other words, you can then make flashcards for those by using branching... but that's really a topic for another article.

Contributors
Niko
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