Thought on learning kanji with Remembering The Kanji

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First of all, I would like to apologize that I haven't updated this blog for a very long time. After I graduated in March, I took a little break and started a full-time job on April. I worked on a lot of interesting projects. I cannot share what I worked on because I feel like it is a company secret. In May, I got a notification of acceptance from the University of Tsukuba as a scholarship research student. Therefore, I quited working on June to prepare studying Japanese.

Everyone who studies Japanese language will know that one of the most troublesome aspect, apart from formality, is Kanji. Kanji is derived from Chinese characters. For more information about the history of Kanji, please visit this blog. The author knows how to make it fun. There are more than 3000 Kanji characters as far as I know. Fortunately, may be, there are 2200 Kanji characters that are considered “Frequently Used Kanji (Jouyou Kanji 常用漢字)” However, Kanji in daily life is going to be lower than that but there is still a lot. There is no wonder why Japanese students spend 12 years in schools to learn all necessary Kanji.

Things you will encounter when you learn Kanji

To me, there are 3 things that you will deal with when you learn Kanji which are:

Reading - Most of the time, there are 2 ways of reading a Kanji. There are Kun-yomi (訓読み) and On-yomi (音読み). Kun-yomi is a Japanese style of reading while On-yomi is a Chinese style of reading. Therefore, in most case, there will be at least 2 sounds that you have to know. The sound may also change according to the surroundings. Some characters have the same reading sound.

Meaning - Each character has its own meaning, at least one. Well, you have to remember them. There is no other way around. Some characters are synonymous and this can be a little confusing.

Writing - This is the most discouraging part. Each Kanji character has its own shape with different numbers of strokes. It is very common to forget how to write. Even native speakers sometimes encounter this problem.

As you can see, Kanji alone has a bunch of things to learn. It is considered difficult in the sense that there is a lot and you have to be consistent in learning and reviewing. Self-disciplining is hard, you know. This brings us the question, how should we learn it?

Traditional way of learning Kanji for foreigners

If you go to a Japanese language school, the order of Kanji that they will teach you is based on the Japanese Proficiency Test (JLPT). In order words, the Kanji is taught based on the frequency and the complexity of the meaning. You are probably be taught how to read including some of its compounds and are assigned to write each Kanji for hundreds times believing that you will be able to remember how to write them.

In addition, some Kanji characters may be taught by pictographs, transform picture to character. Unfortunately, not all Kanji can be learned using pictographs.

This approach is good from a perspective that you will be able to learn what are necessary for real life early. My opinion is that it is good for those who are busy. Teaching based on frequency and meaning complexity allows you to be able to access Japanese literatures faster.

However, as the number of Kanji grows, it is undoubtedly easy to forget the meaning and, especially, the writing. Those who used to study Japanese will be familiar with this kind of experience. This has hindered many Japanese learner greatly. However, I don't think that reading will be a problem. As mentioned earlier, reading of a Kanji is often based on the surroundings. Learners will usually get used to them eventually.

I want to remind that we are unlike the native that they have seen these Kanji characters since they were born and constantly used them. The way the language school teaches is almost identical to how native Japaneses learn in their schools; 12 years remember!.

This probably means that this approach is not efficient for us, foreigners.

Alternative approach

Fortunately, another way to learn Kanji exists. It is called “mnemonic approach”. The fundamental idea of this approach is that it breaks a Kanji character into smaller parts called “primitives” or “radicals” depending on what you prefer (I will go with radical). Those radicals are named and are used to construct a “story” using your imagination to help you remember those Kanji.

I decide to go with this approach using one of the most controversial book, “Remembering the Kanji 1".

Remembering the Kanji (RTK)

“Remembering the Kanji” is a series of 3 books for studying Kanji written by James W. Heisig. The first book is the most popular one. In the 6th edition, it offers 2200 Kanji characters along with learning approach. The second book teaches you how to read those Kanji. The last book offers another additional 965 Kanji characters for advanced learners. This blog post is about “Remembering the Kanji 1 (RTK1)".

Heisig will explain why it is better to use mnemonic approach and his motivation in the introduction part of RTK1. You should not skip this part. Each Kanji will be assigned by with a unique keyword without any pronunciation (you will learn in RTK2). The author believes that it is more efficient to separate writing and meaning from reading and make it easier to study. Heisig organizes the book into 3 parts; stories, plots and elements. The first part will give you radicals, show you how to remember the writing and meaning with those radicals. Noting that a Kanji character itself can also serve as a radical. The purpose of the first part is to train the reader how to create and appreciate the story. The second part will give you only a plot leaving the full story as you exercise. The last part will give you only elements of the Kanji. It is the reader's job to fill up the story.

Thought on Remembering the Kanji 1

TL;DR It really works if you understand the point of the book.

Well, “Remembering the Kanji 1” can be awesome or overpriced worthless book depending on how do you understand the point of the book.

The keywords and the name of radicals can be very difficult especially for non-native English speaker like me. During the study, I always need an English dictionary. It is utterly mysterious how Heisig comes up with those keywords and few keywords are incorrect. If you try to judge the book from these, it is probably worthless for you. However, these are not the main point the book try to teach you.

The point of the book is simply to make you get used to those Kanji and establish a foundation for learning new Kanji in the future. The implication of this is learning Kanji is individual matter. It is very important to understand this. That means you can disagree with him. You can modify the keywords that suits yourself, probably in your own native language. You can group some radicals and name it if you think that it makes your life easier. These are what make this book awesome.

The mnemonic method works for me. Story will guide you how to write including the meaning. There is a certain thing I should emphasize. Heisig wants you to use “imaginative memory”. You are to create stories to “impress” yourself. Impression on the stories will allow you to remember and recall things much easier as it comes out from your imagination. However, you still need a consistent review to. By the time, the story will eventually fade away but you still know how to write those Kanji.

Regarding reviewing, Heisig suggests to review from keywords because you will review both writing and recognizing the Kanji at the same time. To me this is partial true. I sometimes have problem of recalling the meaning because of keywords that I am not familiar with. It may also be may fault that I don't know English vocabularies enough. However, I tend to be able to recall when I encounter them again.

It is not perfect but it works pretty well.

Studying with Remembering the Kanji

It is dangerous to travel alone. Going through RTK1 on your own will pretty tedious. Here are things I recommend:

  • Anki: Anki is a SRS flashcard application. This is the killer application for those who study languages. It will assist you studying and reviewing.

  • RTK1 6th pre-storied deck: The stories are from a community site for RTK named Reviewing the Kanji You will import this deck to your Anki.

Using the pre-storied to study doesn't mean you are going to solely remember those stories. Many of pre-storied in the deck are good enough in my opinion. What you have to do is to read the stories, appreciate them and embrace them with vivid imagination. Don't forget you can disagree with those pre-stories. If you don't like it, just create your own. As mentioned earlier, it is individual business.

Well, what kind of story should you make? I would say any kind as long as you love it. Your stories may be based movies, novels, comics, religions, politics, your own experiences, your friends’ stories, etc. The key is to create stories that you make yourself enjoy learning.

You are going to study every day. I recommend not to study more than 20 Kanji a day. The more you try to study for each day, the longer time you are going to spend on reviewing. Moreover, studying too fast may reduce your recalling ability; this is from my own experience. At this study rate, you should be able to finish RTK1 in 3 months and a half. However, it is recommend you find you own “Minimal Effect Dose (MED)". Find you own study rate such that you feel comfortable. The more you study isn't always better.

My preferred Anki settings for RTK1 is not to introduce new card automatically. I found that reviewing first and then study the new separately is better for me. With this setting, when I don't feel like I am ready to study new Kanji, I can skip the new.

The reason I recommend you to use Anki is that it will schedule the review for you according to your performance. It works flawlessly from my experience. However, you need to be honest during the review. If you completely forget a Kanji, it is good to re-study it again. During the review, it is good to write Kanji characters onto a paper. I know that nowadays we have computers. However, you should prepare for the situation that it does not exist.

Final thought

One thing that you must understand about learning Kanji is that it is going to take a long time. I want you to keep in mind that your Kanji journey is not end yet after you finish the book. There are a lot of things left to learn. RTK1 is just the beginning. The key to success is that you need to be consistent in you study and stayed motivated.

The next question is what to do next after finishing RTK1? For me, I don't plan to continue RTK2 and RTK3 yet. I think that the best way to learn a language is to get used to it. It is better to continue on vocabularies, learn how to pronounce and use them; Kanji will serve as another ABC for them. After this, the more you get yourself in to Japanese, the better you are.

It takes time. Don't worry if you feel exhausted but never give up.