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Japanese Kanji Learning: Short-Cuts to Rapid Mastery (Part 1)


What? Kanji can be learned quickly? This seems an impossible dream to many students of Japanese who come from a non-kanji language culture. Even hiragana and katakana seem impossibly hard to the average beginner, so remembering kanji, with all their intricate strokes and multiple readings, can appear to be beyond the abilities of the human mind.

But don't give up hope just yet! There are tools that can transform you from a kanji klutz to a veritable genius. That does not mean that it will take no work, sweat or tears. (I would be lying if I told you it would completely pain-free.) But you can gain a good grasp of kanji with a lot less these than you would think.

So let's look at two approaches that can have you gobbling up kanji like there is no tomorrow. In Part 1, I will talk you through mnemonic methods, and then in Part 2 I will focus on methods that can benefit visual learners.

Mnemonic Methods

"Mnemonic" simply means a device, formula or rhyme used to assist memorization. An example of a mnemonic embedded in my mind from childhood is "Never Eat Shredded Wheat". As a rhyme it has nothing to do with navigation or geography, but it helped me learn the points of the compass.

So let's have a look at the mnemonic approaches that can speed-up kanji learning.

James Heisig's Remembering the Kanji Series

Heisig's mnemonic-based approach is not only famous for the claims its practitioners have made of rapid kanji assimilation (1,000 kanji in 29 days, for example), but also for the critical flack it has attracted from traditionalists.

Undoubtedly, the method has flaws: The student being encouraged to associate a single, very narrow and sometimes non-standard meaning with a particular kanji being a major one. However, the fact that Heisig's approach is geared to Westerners also has advantages: Focusing on the meaning before the pronunciation is of more practical value to the adult Western student, since while meaning is the key to understanding, the pronunciation of the kanji is of little value unless reading aloud.

I came to this approach late, having used the good ol' rote memorization and drilling method of most traditional textbooks, so it has not been such a boon to me as it would be to someone starting from scratch. However, while using a computer to write Japanese at work has made my mind lazy when it comes to writing, Heisig's method keeps the shape of the kanji right in front of me when I do pick up pen and paper. And I am hoping to use book 3 to go well beyond the standard 1,945 character kanji set in the future - something I would not even consider attempting without using this technique.

You can download pdf files of substantial sections of each of the books in this series for review here:

James Heisig - Remembering the Kanji Book 1
http://www.ic.nanzan-u.ac.jp/SHUBUNKEN/publications/miscPublications/Remembering_the_Kanji_1.htm

James Heisig - Remembering the Kanji Book 2
http://www.ic.nanzan-u.ac.jp/SHUBUNKEN/publications/miscPublications/Remembering_the_Kanji_2.htm

James Heisig - Remembering the Kanji Book 3
http://www.ic.nanzan-u.ac.jp/SHUBUNKEN/publications/miscPublications/Remembering_the_Kanji_3.htm

Kenneth Henshall's A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters

Now, I should first state that, personally, I have not used this method in my own kanji study. However, while looking at ways to accelerate my kanji assimilation ability to joyou level (the 1,945 kanji set taught up to the end of high school in Japan) and beyond, I came across Henshall's method as the other major alternative to traditional repeat-until-you-go-mad methods.

Henshall also employs mnemonics, creating a sentence to plant the image of the kanji deep in the learner's brain. The difference is that where Heisig takes a fast-and-loose approach with the meanings assigned to individual elements of each kanji in reaching his goal of creating a memorable mind-picture, Henshall traces the history of these elements in great scholastic detail.

In my opinion (and the reason I personally chose Heisig over Henshall for my own study), the academic strength of Henshall's analysis is its biggest weakness as a memorization tool: If you have an excellent memory, or if you already know the kanji anyway and are interested in their etymological roots, then Henshall will give you a depth of knowledge that will impress even your native speaker Japanese friends. However, if you do not have an almost-photographic memory, and mastering kanji in a sensible time period is your priority, you will probably find that this detailed and obscure analysis does not provide the compelling memory "hook" that Heisig's method does.

Other Mnemonic Kanji Study Methods

In addition to these two main players you may also want to consider 2001 Kanji by Father Joseph R. De Roo (although its availability is questionable) or Kanji ABC by Forester and Tamura as alternative approaches.

If you are a visual learner, skip on to Part 2 and discover the methods that can work best with your learning style.

About the Author
Stephen Munday lives in Japan and is the creator of http://www.japanese-name-translation.com/ where you can download images of over 2,200 names in kanji or get a romantic calligraphy gift.

This article is Stephen Munday 2005. Permission is given to reproduce this article in whole with the URLs correctly hyperlinked.


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