From time to time, I meet other folks who, like me, are interested in Japanese culture and language. I have been studying it more or less since I married my wife, but more seriously about 10 years ago when I was focused on passing the JLPT exams, and through it all I’ve made a lot of rookie mistakes in how I learned the language.
When I chat with other Japanophiles, I often see the same patterns in how people learn the language and some of these patterns aren’t helpful.
One of these patterns I often see is when people try to brute-force memorize Japanese “kanji” or Chinese characters. Japanese uses them¹ a lot and they seem pretty daunting when you first encounter them, so people often fall into the pattern thinking that if they memorize X kanji, they can read Japanese. They build large flashcard libraries and cycle through them every so often.
Unfortunately (and again speaking for experience and many wasted hours), this doesn’t work because:
- The sheer number of kanji is too great to retain in one’s mind for long. Seriously, as soon as you stop memorizing a kanji character, you’ll start to forget within a week. SRS (space-repetition study) helps a bit, but once you’re memorizing more than a couple hundred kanji things get out of hand. And remember, there are thousands of kanji to memorize, not just the 2100+ on the Joyo Kanji list.
- Past a certain point, the on-yomi (Sinified, non-native reading) for kanji really start to run together. For example, how many kanji out there have a on-yomi of chō ? A lot.
- Knowing a kanji in isolation isn’t nearly as useful as one might assume. People frequently make the mistake of assuming Chinese characters are self-contained “symbols”,² but they frequently work in concert with other Chinese characters to form proper words. This is true in Chinese language as much as it is in Japanese despite being totally different languages otherwise.
- Finally, this really isn’t how Japanese people themselves learn Kanji. I know because I’ve seen my kids grow up and learn Japanese. They do rote memorizing, initially, but the real learning comes from all the reading and writing of Japanese that they do. Rote memorizing is really only useful for learning the proper stroke-order, in my humble opinion.
So, just put down the flashcards and let’s look at another way of learning kanji. I like to call this the “Convergence Method”.
In so many words, the Convergence Method works like so:
- Learn some Japanese words. Learn how to pronounce them, read them and write them.
- Learn some more Japanese words. Repeat #1.
- Eventually, the kanji in those words will start to overlap with one another.
- Kanji learned.
Case in point. Here’s some random Japanese words:
- 発見 – hakken (discovery)
- 見物 – kenbutsu (sightseeing)
- 意見 – iken (viewpoint, opinion)
- 見事 – migoto (something splendied)
- 見る – miru (to see, to watch)
Based on these 5 words, what’s the common denominator? The kanji 見 which can mean things like “to see, “to observe”, “to watch” and so on. It can be read sometimes as ken and sometimes as mi or miru.
Now, if you see a 6th word, 見当, and without any other clues, you can reasonably guess how to read the first character and guess it’s general meaning. That’s how convergence works.
Similarly for 当, it appears in such words as:
- 弁当 – bentō (boxed lunches)
- 本当 – hontō (truth, fact)
- 当時 – tōji (at that time)
- 当てる – ateru (to guess, to hit a target, etc)
So, 見当 is probably going to be read as kentō and probably alludes to “see, observe” and “truth, fact”. And you’d be pretty close to the mark.
Thus, the key to reading and writing Japanese isn’t memorizing kanji, it’s learning vocabulary, and enough of it to get critical mass to see words overlap.
¹ Interestingly, you also see some usage of Chinese characters in other Chinese-influenced cultures as Korea and Vietnam, but to a far lesser degree, and often in nostalgic or marketing contexts.
² This is another reminder why Chinese character tattoos are generally a bad idea. Having 光 (light) as a tattoo makes about as much sense as tattooing the Greek φος (phos-) on my arm. Phos- what? Phosphate? Phosphorescence? I won’t even touch on the times I’ve seen people tattoo the wrong Chinese character on their arm even though it has the same on-yomi as the one they were thinking of. Compare 禅 (“zen” as in Zen Buddhism) with 善 (“zen” as in a set of dishes, etc).