Thursday, 11 April 2013

Scary kanji, aka do I need it and how do I do this

Fourth post in the learning a language posts, one that focuses on the one thing that scares many people off about Japanese, Kanji.
Here are the other posts in the series: 1. Starting out with learning a language, 2. Choosing the right method to learn, 3. How to get more passive knowledge? / How to keep training your passive understanding of a language?

Same disclaimer as always:
I'm not a teacher, I compile each of these posts by going by my own knowledge and they only reflect my own opinion. You should at all times think for yourself and not take any of what is said as the pure truth, I am after all human so I make mistakes too.

Scary kanji, aka do I need it and how do I do this

Kanji exists of 4 parts, the kanji itself, its meaning and its on and kun readings (both pronunciations). Some methods only focus on a few of these and expect you to either ignore or learn the other parts of it at a later date. I don't think this is a good idea unless your focus is purely one single skill (like only being able to read).

Kanji and their on and kun readings are NOT connected, you can't derive the pronunciation of a kanji because you know a kanji that looks similar or the other way around. Something which you can in most languages. We can guess the pronunciation of bat when we know the word bath and cat, this is not how it works in Japanese.

The Heisig method is one of the methods that doesn't focus on both learning the kanji and its reading. It teacher mnemonics (little stories to go with [partial] kanji) and meanings. What you're missing is the skill to actually pronounce the words. Sure, you might become a semi-fluent reader and you can understand what it going on, but you'll miss out on homonym jokes and other things like that, simply because you don't have the skills to understand the connection between different homonyms. I know from looking around the internet that within the Visual Kei community there are quite a few artists who do this and it makes translating their posts a lot harder (which is why I'm not even attempting it yet).
The downside of this method is that after having learned some kanji that you then need to re-learn them with their appropriate on and kun readings. This is literally doubling your study time of something that you could learn in one go. What would be a good idea is learning the single and compound kanji as you're going through all the radicals, but since I have no experience with this method (exactly because you're not learning any readings) I can't give any better advise.

The other side of the coin might even worse, knowing only meaning and on and kun readings you'll pretty quickly run into this problem: What does the word ひ(hi) mean or what does the ひ part of a word mean? If you'd ask me this without any context I wouldn't be able to answer, why? Because there are almost 100 kanji that have hi as one of their on or kun readings. Wanna see a few? Here is the full list but I'll show you a handful of them.


long robes



The kanji of these have nothing in common, the meaning of these have nothing in common and they still all have ひ as one of their readings.

Now that I scared you enough, I'll make this easier.
Most kanji on their own are read in their kun reading, this is also called the Japanese reading.
When kanji are used in combination with other kanji they are usually written in their on reading or Chinese reading.
Lets see a couple of examples:

Meaning: Mountain
Kun reading: yama やま
On reading: san/zan さん・ざん

Meaning: Fire
Kun reading: hi ひ
On reading: ka か

But when you combine this:
You can guess the meaning, right? Fire mountain aka volcano. Easy enough. Sadly enough, pronunciation is not hiyama(ひやま) but rather kazan (かざん).
This you can see as a scary part or tackle it differently.

It honestly isn't that scary when you simply learn them as different words. Mountain, fire and volcano are 3 different words, with 3 different pronunciation, that one of them is made out of two other ones? Handy for meaning, not that useful for guessing the pronunciation.
BUT! If you learn enough combinations of kanji you'll get a feeling for when to use what reading, since not all kanji have just one on and kun reading. Some readings are more common then others so by learning compound kanji (as seen above) as different words with different pronunciations you'll quickly start to recognise which reading is most often used with what kanji when you make compounds.

Learning kanji can be relatively easy if you use these quick tips:
- each kanji has a meaning, they are connected and form one unit.
- each kanji has a kun reading (also called Japanese reading) which is the reading when it is used on it's own or in combination with hiragana (aka grammar and things like that).
- kanji can be used in compound of two or more kanji and this creates a compound meaning (as is seen with volcano).
- when using compound kanji you use the on reading(or Chinese reading) of a kanji.
- compounds are different words and should be learned as such.

The rule about kun and on readings being used this way is NOT set in stone but is a good rule of thumb to use when you find compounds that you don't know yet. Though it is better to learn compound readings then depend on your knowledge of kun and on readings since often kanji have multiple kun and on readings. If you would only depend on your list of those you'd be guessing. Let's do simple maths: let's say kanji X has a total of 4 readings, and kanji Y has 5. That would make (4x5) 20 different possibilities of reading that particular kanji compound, that's a lot of guessing.
If you learn enough compound words of kanji X and Y you'll see that certain combinations of readings for each of the kanji are more prevalent. This means you can make an informed guess as to what the reading might be, which would bring your choices of 20 readings maybe down to 3 or 4, which is a better odd to deal with.

Side note: there is what is called furigana, these are the hirgagana that you sometimes see above or next to a kanji. These are the intended readings of a kanji in that sentence. Some study books use them and they are really useful. But also quite some online resources for practice and even some magazines focused on a younger or less studied audience use them. You can see them below in my Anki cards, it's how I study the reading of kanji.

Don't be scared by kanji. Yes, they look difficult. Yes, they are read differently depending on their use. But you know what? You can make it a lot easier on yourself by systematically looking at the words and also learning them that way.

I hope this was of help, leave a comment below with other tips you might have.

Study on!


PS, here are a couple of my Anki cards that I use for studying:

These are the kanji for study and the kanji for live
these are the kanji for people and mouth

All the images used in this post (apart from the screenshots of my anki cards) are from: