Thursday, January 21, 2010

良い感じ - ii Kanji (Good Feeling)

Perhaps the single most difficult adjustment we've had to make in moving to Japan has been learning to read, write and understand kanji, the written Japanese character system. Up to this point we had been struggling to learn 6-10 kanji each week, but all of this changed today when our collective research finally paid off. The way we'd been learning is similar to how a Japanese student learns growing up (vain repetition with no systematic correlation of meaning and strokes). It's like trying to learn an alphabet with 80,000 (literally) different letters where each character has a different meaning. To complicate things further, most kanji have more than one pronunciation depending on context, so things were looking quite grim to ever grasp this form of communication. I'd been wondering how Chinese people could learn Japanese kanji so fast. I came to discover that it is because they already know the "meaning" of the characters because kanji is just Chinese characters with Japanese pronunciation. Chinese students learning Japanese need only worry about learning the pronunciation. Our initial goal should be to learn the meaning of each kanji and then pronunciation. As Westerners, we tend to think linearly and group related things in order to remember them. James W. Heisig developed an optimized system for quickly learning and retaining kanji back in 1977 and published "Remembering The Kanji". His first book contains 2,042 common kanji characters, but what makes it unique is that they are grouped based on 'primitive elements', the various types of strokes that make up each character. By applying meaning to each primitive element, it becomes easier to build a story around each kanji that makes use of the primitives. This in turn makes it possible to build a mnemonic for easier recollection of more complex characters. 目, for example, means eyeball. So any time we see that primitive being used in a compound kanji, we can assume it has something to do with seeing. Japanese people do not learn kanji this way, so it is a radical departure for us to incorporate this style learning into our regimen. Nevertheless, In under two hours, I was able to absorb and correctly recall both the meaning and proper stroke order of seventy kanji. Compared to the fifty or so kanji we had studied and not mastered in the four months we'd been in class, I'd say that is a breakthrough.
We've looked at dozens of books, programs, websites, flashcard sets, and methods of learning kanji, and we think we've finally found what works well for us. A copy of Heisig's Remembering the Kanji is prerequisite. Next is setting up a free account for Reviewing The Kanji. Here you can quiz yourself based on the kanji you've studied so far and practice any that are harder to remember. It has a clean interface and lets you automatically add and remove cards to practice as needed. You can also type in your own stories to help you remember the kanji if Heisig's stories don't sink in. We also use Anki, a free flashcard program designed specifically for mastering kanji. Similar to Reviewing the Kanji website, not only does it already have Heisig's method available as a set for download, but you can also access its online functions allowing you to sync your progress with your computer or iPhone.
Learning the meanings of 2,042 kanji will allow us to read almost any newspaper article and understand what it's about. What we don't have yet is the pronunciation. That is the second step. A free set of Heisig's Remembering the Kanji flashcards to print out is readily available that includes the kanji character on one side, and meaning(s) and pronunciations on the back. Once we've got the meanings memorized, we work on memorizing the various ways of saying each kanji. This has proven invaluable as an offline solution for study.
Combined with our kanji classroom study where we can practice reading and speaking, our prayer is that this enhanced learning method will give our education the boost we've been looking for. Let us know if it helps you.