Why Are Kanji So Difficult?

Published on
August 13, 2018
Contributors
Niko

People may not like my opinion on this... but I think kanji are pretty easy.

Yeah, on this site I talk about accelerated methods for learning kanji, such as the 97-Day Kanji Challenge, or making sweet kanji memory palaces.

These aren't solutions, though. They're placeholders. Actually I might go so far as to say the following:

All language mnemonics are placeholders.

I'll explain with an example.

In that article on using memory palaces for kanji, I walk students through memorizing the kanji 墨, which Heisig lists as meaning "black ink:"

img_55e213cd328f2

In that article, I talk a lot about how making memory palaces is all about creating artificial, spatial memories.

What I don't mention is this:

An artificial memory is only a placeholder for a real memory.

So maybe I learn that 墨 means "black ink."

Then, later, when I'm learning vocabulary, I learn that the word for "black ink" is 墨 (sumi).

When I'm reading my second-ever novel in Japanese--the Japanese version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone--I come across this sentence:

を流したような夜空の下で、通りはどこまでも静かで整然としていた。
sumi wo nagashita you na yozora no shita de, toori wa doko mademo shizuka de seizen to shite ita.
A
breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Chapter 01

I enter that into my Japanese flashcards, maybe right alongside the native audio, which I pulled from the audiobook version using Audacity (I didn't actually do this... but I could, theoretically).

Maybe I come across the term 入れ墨 (irezumi), literally "insert ink," which is the word for (usually, Japanese-style) "tattoos". Maybe I saw it at an onsen (=Japanese hot spring), where tattoos are not allowed.

In other words, over time this kanji becomes a part of my real spatial memory, a part of many memories. And when this happens, I don't need the kanji story anymore. It was just a crutch to begin with. But now I can walk.

How All Truly Fluent Students See Kanji

I have never heard a person who passed JLPT N1 complain about kanji.

The reason is not that kanji are easy.

Rather, they are no longer a problem for such people.

They have been exposed to the characters so much that they're not an issue anymore.

I don't need my kanji flashcards anymore, because I know--can read and recall--multiple vocabulary words that contain 99% of the general-use kanji characters.

What's even more interesting is that quite a few of them have become "Sight Words."

The Concept of Sight Words

To rip off my good friend and mentor, Wikipedia...

Sight words, often also called high frequency sight words, are commonly used words that young children are encouraged to memorize as a whole by sight, so that they can automatically recognize these words in print without having to use any strategies to decode. - "Sight word," Wikipedia

Basically, when a native, adult speaker sees words like these, they don't read them:

  • the
  • could
  • should
  • might
  • was
  • did
  • how
  • when
  • went
  • fast

You've seen those words so many times, that the entire word is an image in your mind.

This is different than words like this, which are less common:

  • insurmountable
  • nonconstructive
  • infallibility
  • respite

You're more likely to recognize these words after you have assembled all of the letters in your mind.

If you read them enough times, though, they do become images in your mind. That is, they become part of your sight vocabulary, which is the number of words you recognize instantly by sight.

Developing Your Kanji Sight Vocabulary

In the Japanese education system, they don't use placeholders like mnemonics, memory palaces, etc.

Instead, they just make students drill each and every kanji, writing it thousands of times, in the hopes that it will eventually become a "sight kanji," so to speak. It would be much more efficient to just have them read actual words containing kanji, as these are richer in context and therefore more likely to be integrated into the student's sight vocabulary. Luckily this happens in everything else they do inside and outside of the classroom.

For an adult to be considered fully literate in Japanese, (virtually) every general-use kanji character should be integrated into their "(kanji) sight vocabulary."

This happens for students of Japanese, too... but it takes a lot of time.

My progress went something like this:

  1. Could understand NO kanji
  2. Learned to recall kanji using mnemonics
  3. Learned to instantly recognize most kanji characters as they were entered into my "(kanji) sight vocabulary."

Step #1 is what it's like when you're just studying Japanese.

Step #2 is what it feels like after you've finished, for example, the 97-day kanji challenge.

Step #3 is what happens gradually over the course of a few years (of high levels of focused, level-appropriate language exposure).

If I were starting over in my studies of Japanese, I would actually skip Step #2, as it's main benefit is just to give you psychological comfort regarding your ability to recognize characters. But it can be useful for people who are prone to stressing about their ability to learn kanji.

Once you get to Step #3, you know all of these kanji, for example, the very moment you see them:

You also know that, in some cases, all of these kanji are pronounced kyuu. And you know multiple words for each of them.

For example, without consulting a dictionary, I can say that...

  • 急 is the kyuu in 急に (kyuu ni), "suddenly."
    It is the kyuu in 急行 (kyuukou), "express (train)."
  • 級 is the kyuu in 高級 (koukyuu), "high-grade."
    It is the kyuu in 初級者 (shokyuusha), "beginner."
  • 球 is the kyuu in 気球 (kikyuu), "hot-air balloon."
    It is the kyuu in... uh, I can't think of a second word T_T
  • 休 is the kyuu in 休憩 (kyuukei), "a rest; a break."
    It is the kyuu in 有給休暇 (yuukyuu kyuuka), "paid holiday," a word I forgot over and over again, because I was able to take such a pitifully small number of paid holidays when working in Japan!
  • 給 is the kyuu in 給料 (kyuryou), "salary."
    Also, we just now saw it in 有給休暇 (yuukyuu kyuuka), "paid holiday."

It takes a long time to learn that volume of information for all 2,000+ joyo kanji.

But that doesn't make it "difficult". It's a natural consequence of consistently studying over a long period of time using proven-effective study methods.

Update: A student told me that he saw this list of readings and that it caused him to lose a lot of motivation.... as a result, I feel that maybe I didn't explain the cool part about all of this well enough.

When I was learning the kanji, the thought of learning all of these readings was so intimidating to me. I just didn't believe that I could do it, and seeing a list like this would have caused me to lose motivation, too, now that I think about it.

But learning the pronunciation of the kanji is nothing like learning the meaning of the kanji. You don't have to sit down and follow a schedule for learning one or two words for every single kanji. Rather, you can just interact with this language and pick these up naturally (while still studying, of course).

Most importantly: the more vocab you learn, the easier it gets to learn new vocab. If I tried, I'm pretty confident that I could learn 100 new vocab per day in Japanese (maybe I should try a language challenge ^_^), because I've built up a huge foundation of words over time.

Learning these words that I've listed above was fun, because I learned them while studying fun materials that I enjoy. I learned them while I was drinking with friends in Shibuya. I learned them while listening to hilarious podcasts. While listening to my co-workers complain about their jobs. While listening to Japanese pop songs from the 1960's. While reading manga and novels. Watching weird anime robots with magic powers.

Learning a language is not about completing checklists and putting books in your head. It's about... well, I don't know *_*. Being human? Communicating with awesome people from faraway lands? Learning about different cultures, viewpoints, and experiences? It's about more things than I can count.

That's why we call it a journey.

This Should Not Be Intimidating

You might be reading this article and thinking, Yeah, forget this. I'm just gonna quit.

And I get why you might think that. But the transition to Step #3 is AWESOME. You start to just "get" kanji. You see them on signs, and you know it before you recall your mnemonic, before your brain does anything, really.

There is one caveat, though: Time Commitment.

The only way that something like this possible is through thousands of hours of language exposure.

Luckily, it's pretty easy to get thousands of hours of language exposure once you reach "true-intermediate" level Japanese (think high JLPT N2). You're past Step #2, shown above, and (rapidly) on your way to Step #3--the light at the end of the tunnel.

You start to enjoy shows with no subtitles.

You start to breeze through reading.

You start to relax while listening to all-Japanese podcasts on the train, in the car, on walks, etc.

Study Options

If you're reading this and thinking, I gotta study!, then you should head over to NativShark, which makes learning Japanese simple.

Good luck with your studies everyone!

Keep swimming, yeah?

Niko

People may not like my opinion on this... but I think kanji are pretty easy.

Yeah, on this site I talk about accelerated methods for learning kanji, such as the 97-Day Kanji Challenge, or making sweet kanji memory palaces.

These aren't solutions, though. They're placeholders. Actually I might go so far as to say the following:

All language mnemonics are placeholders.

I'll explain with an example.

In that article on using memory palaces for kanji, I walk students through memorizing the kanji 墨, which Heisig lists as meaning "black ink:"

img_55e213cd328f2

In that article, I talk a lot about how making memory palaces is all about creating artificial, spatial memories.

What I don't mention is this:

An artificial memory is only a placeholder for a real memory.

So maybe I learn that 墨 means "black ink."

Then, later, when I'm learning vocabulary, I learn that the word for "black ink" is 墨 (sumi).

When I'm reading my second-ever novel in Japanese--the Japanese version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone--I come across this sentence:

を流したような夜空の下で、通りはどこまでも静かで整然としていた。
sumi wo nagashita you na yozora no shita de, toori wa doko mademo shizuka de seizen to shite ita.
A
breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Chapter 01

I enter that into my Japanese flashcards, maybe right alongside the native audio, which I pulled from the audiobook version using Audacity (I didn't actually do this... but I could, theoretically).

Maybe I come across the term 入れ墨 (irezumi), literally "insert ink," which is the word for (usually, Japanese-style) "tattoos". Maybe I saw it at an onsen (=Japanese hot spring), where tattoos are not allowed.

In other words, over time this kanji becomes a part of my real spatial memory, a part of many memories. And when this happens, I don't need the kanji story anymore. It was just a crutch to begin with. But now I can walk.

How All Truly Fluent Students See Kanji

I have never heard a person who passed JLPT N1 complain about kanji.

The reason is not that kanji are easy.

Rather, they are no longer a problem for such people.

They have been exposed to the characters so much that they're not an issue anymore.

I don't need my kanji flashcards anymore, because I know--can read and recall--multiple vocabulary words that contain 99% of the general-use kanji characters.

What's even more interesting is that quite a few of them have become "Sight Words."

The Concept of Sight Words

To rip off my good friend and mentor, Wikipedia...

Sight words, often also called high frequency sight words, are commonly used words that young children are encouraged to memorize as a whole by sight, so that they can automatically recognize these words in print without having to use any strategies to decode. - "Sight word," Wikipedia

Basically, when a native, adult speaker sees words like these, they don't read them:

  • the
  • could
  • should
  • might
  • was
  • did
  • how
  • when
  • went
  • fast

You've seen those words so many times, that the entire word is an image in your mind.

This is different than words like this, which are less common:

  • insurmountable
  • nonconstructive
  • infallibility
  • respite

You're more likely to recognize these words after you have assembled all of the letters in your mind.

If you read them enough times, though, they do become images in your mind. That is, they become part of your sight vocabulary, which is the number of words you recognize instantly by sight.

Developing Your Kanji Sight Vocabulary

In the Japanese education system, they don't use placeholders like mnemonics, memory palaces, etc.

Instead, they just make students drill each and every kanji, writing it thousands of times, in the hopes that it will eventually become a "sight kanji," so to speak. It would be much more efficient to just have them read actual words containing kanji, as these are richer in context and therefore more likely to be integrated into the student's sight vocabulary. Luckily this happens in everything else they do inside and outside of the classroom.

For an adult to be considered fully literate in Japanese, (virtually) every general-use kanji character should be integrated into their "(kanji) sight vocabulary."

This happens for students of Japanese, too... but it takes a lot of time.

My progress went something like this:

  1. Could understand NO kanji
  2. Learned to recall kanji using mnemonics
  3. Learned to instantly recognize most kanji characters as they were entered into my "(kanji) sight vocabulary."

Step #1 is what it's like when you're just studying Japanese.

Step #2 is what it feels like after you've finished, for example, the 97-day kanji challenge.

Step #3 is what happens gradually over the course of a few years (of high levels of focused, level-appropriate language exposure).

If I were starting over in my studies of Japanese, I would actually skip Step #2, as it's main benefit is just to give you psychological comfort regarding your ability to recognize characters. But it can be useful for people who are prone to stressing about their ability to learn kanji.

Once you get to Step #3, you know all of these kanji, for example, the very moment you see them:

You also know that, in some cases, all of these kanji are pronounced kyuu. And you know multiple words for each of them.

For example, without consulting a dictionary, I can say that...

  • 急 is the kyuu in 急に (kyuu ni), "suddenly."
    It is the kyuu in 急行 (kyuukou), "express (train)."
  • 級 is the kyuu in 高級 (koukyuu), "high-grade."
    It is the kyuu in 初級者 (shokyuusha), "beginner."
  • 球 is the kyuu in 気球 (kikyuu), "hot-air balloon."
    It is the kyuu in... uh, I can't think of a second word T_T
  • 休 is the kyuu in 休憩 (kyuukei), "a rest; a break."
    It is the kyuu in 有給休暇 (yuukyuu kyuuka), "paid holiday," a word I forgot over and over again, because I was able to take such a pitifully small number of paid holidays when working in Japan!
  • 給 is the kyuu in 給料 (kyuryou), "salary."
    Also, we just now saw it in 有給休暇 (yuukyuu kyuuka), "paid holiday."

It takes a long time to learn that volume of information for all 2,000+ joyo kanji.

But that doesn't make it "difficult". It's a natural consequence of consistently studying over a long period of time using proven-effective study methods.

Update: A student told me that he saw this list of readings and that it caused him to lose a lot of motivation.... as a result, I feel that maybe I didn't explain the cool part about all of this well enough.

When I was learning the kanji, the thought of learning all of these readings was so intimidating to me. I just didn't believe that I could do it, and seeing a list like this would have caused me to lose motivation, too, now that I think about it.

But learning the pronunciation of the kanji is nothing like learning the meaning of the kanji. You don't have to sit down and follow a schedule for learning one or two words for every single kanji. Rather, you can just interact with this language and pick these up naturally (while still studying, of course).

Most importantly: the more vocab you learn, the easier it gets to learn new vocab. If I tried, I'm pretty confident that I could learn 100 new vocab per day in Japanese (maybe I should try a language challenge ^_^), because I've built up a huge foundation of words over time.

Learning these words that I've listed above was fun, because I learned them while studying fun materials that I enjoy. I learned them while I was drinking with friends in Shibuya. I learned them while listening to hilarious podcasts. While listening to my co-workers complain about their jobs. While listening to Japanese pop songs from the 1960's. While reading manga and novels. Watching weird anime robots with magic powers.

Learning a language is not about completing checklists and putting books in your head. It's about... well, I don't know *_*. Being human? Communicating with awesome people from faraway lands? Learning about different cultures, viewpoints, and experiences? It's about more things than I can count.

That's why we call it a journey.

This Should Not Be Intimidating

You might be reading this article and thinking, Yeah, forget this. I'm just gonna quit.

And I get why you might think that. But the transition to Step #3 is AWESOME. You start to just "get" kanji. You see them on signs, and you know it before you recall your mnemonic, before your brain does anything, really.

There is one caveat, though: Time Commitment.

The only way that something like this possible is through thousands of hours of language exposure.

Luckily, it's pretty easy to get thousands of hours of language exposure once you reach "true-intermediate" level Japanese (think high JLPT N2). You're past Step #2, shown above, and (rapidly) on your way to Step #3--the light at the end of the tunnel.

You start to enjoy shows with no subtitles.

You start to breeze through reading.

You start to relax while listening to all-Japanese podcasts on the train, in the car, on walks, etc.

Study Options

If you're reading this and thinking, I gotta study!, then you should head over to NativShark, which makes learning Japanese simple.

Good luck with your studies everyone!

Keep swimming, yeah?

Niko

Contributors
Niko
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