The 3 Phases of Learning Kanji

So you’ve set out to master Japanese and decided to learn kanji.  Well, before you march further into the ranks of people who have devoted their lives to learning this arcane form of communication, it might help to step back and take an overview of the entire process.

Phase 1:  Learn the Individual Kanji

Well, there’s only 2,136 joyo kanji, so how hard could it be?  Riiiight.  Over the years, people have proposed lots of different ways of learning them.  Learn only the meanings and forget the readings (Heisig Method).  Learn them in context of words, write them, don’t write them, create mnemonics, make them into funny pictures, dissect them into their component parts.  Somehow you’ll need to find a way to sandwich them into your brain.

Phase 2:  Learn the Compound Kanji and Words

Individual kanji are limited in their usefulness.  It’s only when you start creating words and sentences with them that they start to take on true meaning.  This is also about the time that the Japanese writing system becomes either endlessly fascinating or just plain stupid, depending upon how you look at it.

For example, 天 means “heaven” and 気 means “spirit.”  But when you put them together they mean “weather.”  You’d probably have a hard time guessing that heaven + spirit = weather, but at least you can make some sense out of it once you know, even if it’s a stretch.  Unfortunately, a lot of Japanese isn’t even that clear.  Let’s see how  you do with one more example:  気, meaning “spirit” + 象, meaning “elephant” or “phenomenon.”  So what does 気象 mean?  Hint:  it does not mean the spirit of a dead elephant.

And there’s the problem.  Even if you know all 2,136 kanji perfectly, you still can’t read Japanese.  Because reading Japanese requires not only a knowledge of all the individual kanji, but also a solid understanding of how they are used in combination to form words, and those words number in the tens of thousands.  It is, in other words, a bigger problem than it first appears.

Phase 3:  Reading in Context

Now let me throw one more challenge into the mix.  (Oh, and by the way, 気象 also means “weather.”  Don’t ask why.)  The final challenge is reading kanji in context.  Just as everyone can sit on their couch  and know exactly what the quarterback should do to win the game, it’s easy to go through flash cards and have an overinflated sense of your language ability.  In real life kanji rarely comes in nice pairs of characters.  It comes in huge blocks of text that overwhelm your working memory.  It comes when you’re standing on a moving train simultaneously listening to an announcement, talking to your Japanese colleague, and looking up something on your iPhone.  Where as phases 1 and 2 are primarily knowledge-based, phase 3 requires both knowledge and skill.  It’s the skill of being able to tune out non-essential information and focus on certain key terms in order to construct meaning, much in the way one would speed-read a book in English.  At such times, it’s not uncommon to be unable to recall even kanji that you know perfectly and wrote hundreds of times, simply because of the information and sensory overload.  Hey, your brain’s still human.

So let me leave you with two things.  The first is the heretical notion that you don’t need to learn all of the joyo kanji at once.  The Japanese don’t.  They learn the about a thousand in grade school, but they learn them through all 3 phases.  With roughly 1200 of the most-often used kanji, you can easily (okay, well, not easily) form over 10,000 of the most essential words of the language, and begin to use them in meaningful ways.  In other words, it’s reasonable and valid to consider delaying learning the rest of the kanji.

The second thing is that learning to read Japanese is actually a bigger project than it may appear at first.  You may be able to learn cursory meanings for all the joyo kanji in a few months, but learning how to read is a bigger can of worms.  It’s good to know what you’re getting into.

10 Replies to “The 3 Phases of Learning Kanji”

  1. You know, just today I was thinking, “Damn, ma opresc si incep asa.” Then I saw your post. Whoa, serious coincidence. Really, I couldn’t have said it better myself, in Romanian.

  2. Great article! I’d add that a knowledge of the radicals is really useful in helping to identify, remember and distinguish kanji. I’ve made some games to help with Phases 1 and 2 that you can check out over here:

    For Phase 3, I use the Rikaisama toolbar to look up and save words from Japanese articles from the net (such as NHK easy news, ALC blogs, koborebanashi). One nice feature is that it can save the sentence the word is from, with a blank for the target word. with this you can test yourself using the original context.

  3. I have been sitting in my chair now for about 2 hours reading your blog. I ask myself why I have missed it, This is brilliant! I just wanted to share with all (who want to know) Download JA Sensei to your I-pad (Or if you are hardcore like me, on your samsung 😉 ) In JA Sensei you learn Joyo Kannji, The app have alredy sorted the kanji for you. Grade one. You learn all the kanji small kids learn at they’re first year at school, and so it goes. If you need a break, you can always study Hirigana or Katakana. ( started with Hirigana, because they appeared to be more artistic…. ( I have no clue why I thaught that way now). It is a good app for newbies.

    Last but not least, I am still ashamed for discoering your blog now, But now you have a new follower on facebook and I gave you a home in my favorite section.
    I also want to apoligse for my crappy English, but i hope that you understand an old scandinavians effort to make herself understandable 😉

    1. Thanks for the tip and the encouragement. Don’t worry about the English. I’m still working on mine, and studying Japanese has done little to improve it.

  4. First of all, please excuse my bad english.
    I just found about your posts, and i’ve been reading them all. I’ve studied japanese for aprox. 2 years now, mainly throught Anki and grammar books, but recently i found something that i’m not sure how to ask, and i hope you can understand me.
    Here is my problem:
    I know how to read words like 終わり and 始終 but sometimes, the kanji appears just by itself, for example at the end of a tv show it would be like a screen with a big 終 and nothing else. And i find my brain trying to read it like おわ(?) or じゅう(?) and it doesn’t sound right. I know it may be a really stupid question but how do i read a kanji like that one when it’s by itself?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. I think the general principle is that it’s one kanji all alone by itself, it gets the kun-yomi (if there is one). If it requires a verbal/adjectival reading, you have to imagine the okurigana that would be tacked on.

      1. That seems correct, so far as I know.

        It’s also probably worth noting the scale of this problem, relative to all the other stuff you need to know. I suspect the number of stand-alone kanji you see on a regular basis is pretty low, and you could knock those out just by writing them down and asking someone. That’ll free up time to get on with the other twenty thousand words you need to know.

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