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Some updates are in order… It’s been about nine months since my last posting here, and I wish I could say I accomplished more 😦 A lot of things happened in between: university started up again and finished (I graduated a few weeks ago), the economy went to shit and I’ve been working triple-hard on finding a job, and I’ve had some troubles with my SRS of choice, Anki.

But importantly what hasn’t happened is my finishing of the Jōyō kanji.  It’s embarassing, but the reasons are simple: I simply don’t have the time to find my own way with the method I had been using over summer.  I had been spending about five minutes per kanji researching it’s etemology, looking its components up in paper dicitonaries, finding examples of its use, and finally choosing the right keyword (which was only sometimes better than Heisig’s).  Five minutes isn’t a lot of time, but even at the lax pace of 10 kanji/day, that’s an hour per day commitment, plus review time.

So very quickly I started looking for ways to spend my time that avoided inputting new kanji.  At about frame 500 of Kanji ABC, I started inputting sentences using Japanese Sentence Patterns for Effective Communication (a great book I’ll have to come back to in another post) and only doing kanji as I needed to.  This would work in spurts, but become painfully slow when I encounter kanji I hadn’t learned yet.  But even at its fastest, it wasn’t that fast.  I was still inputting sentences by hand (with text-to-speech and dicitonary lookups and everything).  In a few months time I got a few hundred sentences and a few hundred extra kanji done.  But the pace was disappointingly slow. At this point I got discouraged, and took a break from inputting new facts into Anki (although I kept up with the reviews). Depressed and frustrated at this new lack of progress, I decided to return to kanji with a vengence.  In a few scant weeks I was nearing frame 1000 of Kanji ABC.

But then something happened: Anki broke. Or rather, Anki started crashing on cerain Audio files I was using for my sentence and kana cards.  Not a show stopper, and there were some workarounds.  But it got me worrying about what I’d do if a more serious bug was introduced/discovered in the future. It would not be good to lose faith in the integrity of a program I entrust all of my learning to.

But alas, there’s no better general alternative to Anki at the moment. I have some ideas that I am going to play with, but in the meantime I am refocusing on the Jōyō kanji and continuing my studies.  The goal is to finish by the time I return to Japan in mid-May, which is fast paced but certainly doable.  I’m also working on generating text-to-speech audio for all the sentences of JSPfEC using fluxcapacitor‘s painfully prepared spreadsheet.  Stay tuned for updates on this front.

The introduction to Kanji ABC outlines two methods for using the book: (a) alternate between learning a dozen or so graphemes and then the characters which are made with those elements, or (b) learn all 500 or so graphemes first, then approach the kanji in whatever order you desire. I have tried both of these paths and would like to relate my experiences:

For the first 300 or so kanji I took path (a). I felt that this more closely matched the approach of Heisig, and at the time I didn’t see any reason to deviate from that path. But then I began to get impatient about starting Chinese characters and my 10,000 Japanese sentences, both of which would require learning some of the frequently used, but complex characters found at the end of Kanji ABC [a bad idea, but for reasons I’ll explain some other time]. So I put my Kanji input on hold and started adding just graphemes to my SRS.

This worked… for a while. But the more I advanced in my grapheme-only studies, the more trouble I had learning and retaining that knowledge. By the very end I had come up against a wall. I was forgetting the writing of graphemes just as quickly as I was adding them. In retrospect the reason was clear: unlike kanji, the graphemes have no mnemonic components, so frequent use is the only reliable way to remember them. And by neglecting my kanji studies I was never using the graphemes. In essence I learned the 500 graphemes following the traditional rote method for learning the kanji, in less than a month. That itself is pretty incredible, but hardly efficient (I could have learned twice as many kanji in the same period of time at the rate I was progressing). Taking this approach was extremely aggravating, and probably added 2 weeks to my kanji studies. I would not recommend this approach.

Conclusion: study graphemes and kanji simultaneously. It is more efficient, less frustrating, and will speed you towards your goal of complete mastery of the kanji.

Personal life kept me away from this blog for a few days, but thankfully not away from my studies.  I’m still pushing pack kanji at 50/day, and making a plan of action for tackling Cracking the Chinese Puzzles by T.K. Ann. I have some concrete tips for building a study routine and for kanji-study in particular that have helped me stay organized and on track in the last few weeks. But in the interest of putting my money where my mouth is (and not my foot) I’m going to wait at least until I cross the 1000 kanji mark before stepping on my soapbox. So be patient…

However there is one piece of equipment that has proved its worth and deserves to be talked about: the Kanji Learner’s Dictionary from Kodansha. This compact J-E character dictionary is gold when you’re learning the kanji. It gives you the pen forms for the kanji, their exact meaning alone and in compounds, a short but comprehensive list of vocabulary for each, as well as the totally awesome SKIP method for indexing kanji. (I could do another post on the wonders of the SKIP method alone… once you try it you’ll understand why). Here’s an example page describing the character 水:


As a learner of kanji, the wealth of information here is amazing. I wish I had the time to look up every kanji I learn in the KLD, but unfortunately that’s not possible because of time constraints… why can’t Kodansha make an electronic version of this dictionary? I swear, it would be a hundred times more useful. But I digress.

What I typically do is learn a set of kanji from the primitives and keyword meanings given in Kanji ABC, then consult the KLD for those kanji that I have trouble remembering (about 20%, currently). For these troublesome kanji I see if the ABC keyword matches the large-type keywords from the KLD, and take a quick glance down the list of compounds and native-Japanese words. Usually there’s just enough entries to give me a better sense of the keyword meaning, and to inspire an imaginative story to help me remember it. At a 20% fail rate, there’s a lot of kanji I have trouble remembering. But so far, the KLD has saved my butt every time.


I should mention that I also own a copy of the NTC’s New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, which is like the KLD on steroids (over 8,000 characters!). I find I hardly ever open it up though… If I were doing serious J-E translation work, I imagine it would be incredibly useful. But for someone with the goal of learning Japanese to fluency, the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary is all you need. I know in my case I’ll have made the switch to monodicts long before I’d use the NTC dictionary on a regular basis.

PS: This concludes my line of semi-advertising equipment posts.

I said in my last post that Heisig can lead you astray with his ill-chosen English keywords. To give a concrete example, the one I’ve been having trouble remembering recently is 召. Heisig assigns this kanji the keyword SEDUCE, which given the primitives involved (DAGGER and MOUTH) is an evocative image. I never, ever, had trouble with this kaniji before. Then I found out it was wrong. The keyword given by Kanji ABC is SUMMON, which is a very good word to sum up it’s actual usage (召集する: to call together a meeting, or 召し上がる: send for food/drink, for example). [How do I know? I looked it up in a dictionary. But more on that some other time.] For the life of me I cannot come up with a better image Heisig’s. When I see 召 I think “SEDUCE”, and when I review SUMMON I think “…wtf?” because whatever image I came up to associate 召 with SUMMON lost its battle against Heisig’s champion SEDUCE.

As nice as it may be to use Heisig and not encounter these problems (since 9 times out of 10 the keywords, if they differ from Kanji ABC, are easier to remember), it breaks the cardinal rule AIATT: no mistakes. Every kanji for which you learn a misleading or incorrect keyword you will pay for, with interest, later in your studies. I guarantee it.

So what did I do? …I took a page from Heisig. RtK, unlike Kanji ABC, assigns primitive meanings to many characters used as primitives–images which for whatever reason are easier to remember than the character’s keyword, and are only used when the character is used as a primitive in another kanji. Strangely, your mind (if it works anything like my own) rarely has trouble differentiating between the true meaning of a kanji and its primitive/grapheme meaning, as long as you keep that distinction clear from the start.

My modification to the method is the following: if more than once you completely blank on a grapheme, change it’s meaning (this does not apply to kanji keywords). Be sure to check the index to make sure that you’re not using a meaning that will be introduced later. Also go back and change every card in your SRS that references it. This is easiest if you’re using an SRS like Anki that lets you tag cards (which i use for tagging primitive meanings of components). That said, only do this sparingly, when it’s actually required.

Before I say anything, I want to link to a post I previously made on my personal blog on Kanji-learning methods.

I should say is that this was written before I discovered the All Input, All The Time method, and that my comments at that time only make sense in the context of a traditional classroom learning experience (which as we all know Does Not Work). But even so, the flaws I identified in the Heisig method still need to be addressed. To save you a click, here’s my original list of the Heisig method’s flaws, quoted verbatim:

  1. The meaning of kanji is overly simplified. Heisig insists on finding a single English key word to represent the intrinsic meaning of each kanji. While this works for some, it utterly fails for others (for example, 水 can mean not just WATER, but also WEDNESDAY or HYDROGEN);

  2. The form is disassociated from the pronunciation. Heisig lists this as an advantage, but for me it did nothing more than force me to think in English and hinder my ability to later learn the pronunciations; and

  3. No vocabulary or compounds are used. Studying the meaning of a character without regard to its actual use is of little practical value. Especially since the meaning has been simplified down to a single word (see #1) the ambiguity of English has been combined with the native ambiguity of Japanese, making the need for real examples all the more necessary (e.g., does 開 mean OPEN as in to open a door, to open a business, or as in open source software?).

The last two points are automagically solved by the AIATT method–a further testament to its brilliance. My own discovery is that once you’ve fully learned the meaning of a kanji, to the point where once you see it you think immediately of the concept it represents, not the associated English word, there is no problem with confusing the Japanese and English readings (even if that concept you associate it with originally came from its English keyword). And since all focus during the first phase of learning is on the kanji, without simultaneous learning of the spoken language, there’s never a conflict. Brilliant. As to the third point, proper context is of course the what you get when you learn complete sentences, which is the core concept of All (Japanese), All The Time. Trivially solved.

But what about Heisig’s poorly chosen keywords?

Well, that’s still a problem. You see, Heisig developed his method at a point in his life when he knew NO Japanese whatsoever. His sources for keywords were aging Japanese-English dictionaries and the Japanese people around him (a highly unreliable source). Too many times his choice of keyword is a secondary or tertiary connotation, and at times he frustratingly chose a technically incorrect, but related meaning.

The best solution is to avoid Heisig. There is one clearly superior alternative. The book I use is Kanji ABC by Andreas Foerster and Naoko Tamura. Unlike Heisig (at the point in his life when he wrote RtK) these two authors have between them a thorough understanding of the Japanese language and language instruction. The result is a far more accurate book that follows essentially the same (albeit independently created) method. However “Kanji ABC” has its flaws as well–although a description of those flaws and my solutions to them is deserving of a separate post in and of itself.