How to learn Kanji 漢字の勉強法

So today I’m going to be talking about how to learn Kanji, which even in Japan takes a long time and is a pain to learn. This way is very effective on the long term, and is not very intense nor complicated. It’s easy to keep up with and allows you to continue to learn Kanji without stopping. I started learning Kanji  around 8 months ago for real with this technique, and to this day I know 1330 of them. I should know the recommended amount within 6 months. So with this technique you can learn the necessary Kanji amount in just a little over a year with less than 10 minutes of work a day ; compared to 10 years of school learning in Japan. The only downside to this strategy is that it does not emphasize the writing very much, but then after all, you should be the one to decide if you need handwriting.

漢字

So the method in itself is very simple:

  1. Download Anki
  2. Create a Kanji deck
  3. Add 5 Kanjis everyday : the front of the card showing the kanji and the back showing the pronunciations and meanings
  4. Revise them around 2 to 3 times the day you added them and let Anki calculate the time before the next revision
  5. The next day, revise your previously added Kanji and add 5 more.

5 steps is all it takes.

There is a 6th step for writing, which involves another app, I talk about it below.

So yeah, download Anki, if you don’t know this app, it allows you to create flashcard decks however you want, it’s very practical. So obviously, we want to create a deck for Kanji.

Download Anki

I’m now going to talk about the steps in detail:

The first day, since your deck is empty, you will need to add your first Kanji to learn, I recommend using the JLPT order for Kanji learning, this way it’s organized and easy to keep track of. I also recommend adding 5 Kanji at a time. I’ve found it to be a good number, being not too high and thus not saturating your memory when learning, and being not too low in order to learn quickly. So the first day, add you first 5 Kanji to your deck. Start with the basic ones, even if you already know them, that way you’ll have all the Kanji in your deck and you’ll be able to check numbers etc.. also they’ll allow you to get familiar with the app and the process.

adding kanji to deck
Adding a Kanji to our deck

To get the data on Kanjis in order to learn them, I use Obenkyo (android app), which has a whole dictionary of Kanji classified by JLPT level. I highly recommend it. But there are plenty of websites with detailed info.

JLPT levels
Kanji list

When adding Kanjis, what I do is I write the Kanji on the front of the card, and the readings/meanings on the back. Personally, I focus more on learning the readings of the Kanji rather than the meanings (although I learn them too because they’re important): if you have the reading, then you can look the word up to find out what it means, if you only have the meaning, you can kind of guess the meaning of the word but it’s not very reliable and you can’t pronounce it.

Also when I add new Kanji, often there are some readings that are written on the app because in some very rare cases they are used, but sometimes they’re really not, so I usually do just a bit of research on the usage of the Kanji in order to know which pronunciation is worth memorizing. I write in bold the pronunciations that are really important.

bold
most used reading in bold (for the kun-yomi)

Sometimes when I notice that a certain number of readings are used, I indicate with a number the order of ‘most usefulness’ (1 being the most used):

numbers
‘most usefulness’ indicated with numbers

Something you will probably come across during your Kanji learning experience: discovering a new word written with kanjis that have multiple readings. I haven’t found a perfect solution yet to know which reading to use. You will often find patterns and after reading for a while you’ll get more and more used to finding the correct pronunciation and understand which reading is used for what type of word, but most of the time (at least at the beginning) you’ll have to memorize that this word holds this reading.
It’s the same for words with specific readings, like 為替 (kawase, meaning ‘exchange’ or ‘money order’). This word’s pronunciation has nothing to do with the Kanjis original readings.
But most of the time, there aren’t that many readings to choose from and you get the hang of it quickly!

Once you’ve added you 5 Kanji, you can now click on the “study now” button in order to review them.

When I review a new Kanji, I look at it and try to remember the readings and meanings. Once I think I’ve got them or I don’t remember at all, I click on the “show answer” button at the bottom and check. Then appear 3 buttons : “again”, “good” and “easy”. If I didn’t know at all, I click “again” and the kanji will be shown again a few Kanjis later. If I got it, I click “good” and the Kanji will reappear in a little while. If I got it real good and know I’ll remember it for a long time, I click “easy” and the Kanji will be revised after a longer period of time (2 days by default for knew Kanjis). I recommend to review newly added Kanjis at least 3 times the same day.

The next day, before adding any new Kanjis, I review previously learned ones. Obviously, the first few days there aren’t going to be a lot to review, and it’ll be all the ones you learned recently. Anki does all the job of calculating the necessary time before reviewing certain Kanjis, so after a while of Kanji learning,  even though you’ll have hundreds of Kanjis in your deck, you’ll only have to revise a few dozens. To give you an idea, for me at about 1300 kanjis, I review around 50 to 60 Kanjis a day. So that’s definitely reasonable.

To revise, same principle as when learning: “again”, “hard”, “good” and “easy”.
The “again” button resets the Kanji and makes you learn it from scratch again.
“hard” states that you had trouble remembering this Kanji and that you should revise it not in not too long.
“good” states that you got it normally and the time between the sessions of reviewing the Kanji will grow normally.
“easy” states that it was ‘easy’ and therefore you don’t need to revise it for a long time.
When revising you have to be honest with yourself and have to judge wether or not you need to revise that Kanji again from scratch or if you need to click on “hard” to revise it not too far in the future etc…

Once you’re done reviewing previous Kanjis, you can go ahead a repeat previous steps and add 5 new Kanjis.

Mnemonics or, making the Kanji YOURS

Some Kanjis are going to be easy to memorize, you’ll get them in no time.
Some others are going to be real pains.
For these ones what I recommend doing are mnemonics. Basically create your own story around this Kanji and make it so you’ll never forget it.
You can either invent a story around the visual of a Kanji like “this looks like a dude eating a pineapple” or anything.
Here is an exemple:

Kanji meaning "to catch"
Kanji meaning “to catch”

I’ve been struggling with this Kanji for a while, often mistaking it for another. So I decided to add my own mnemonic to it: “I see a guy fishing and catching a fish”. The right part of the Kanji represents the man, and the lines or the represent a fishing pole in the water. You can see it too right? It actually doesn’t matter as long as it works for me, because it allows me to remember that this Kanji means “to catch” and therefore I don’t mistake it anymore with another.

Or you can associate certain to Kanjis to certain things in your life or events.
For exemple a Kanji that I learned recently:

Kanji meaning "enlightenment"
Kanji meaning “enlightenment”

Well, you might recognize it from:

This is the Kanji written on Son Gokū’s clothing and is also present in all the characters names : 孫悟空 (Son Gokū)、孫悟飯 (Son Gohan)、孫悟天 (Son Gohan). So that’s basically how I remember this Kanji. It doesn’t necessarily give me clues on all the readings (it does give me at least the “go”) but it helps to make the memory of this Kanji pop into my mind and it makes it easier to remember.

The main point it making the Kanji YOURS, you have to find your own way of making each Kanji (or just the ones you struggle with for exemple) unique and yours, so that you remember them forever.

Regularity

Make sure to do this everyday. At first it won’t be cause much problems skipping a few days or two, since you don’t have much Kanjis to revise, but once you get to the higher numbers, if you skip just a day, you’ll find yourself having to review more than 100 Kanjis the next days. Then 160 the one after and the more you have, the more you might find yourself not wanting to do it and it becomes a vicious circle. And it’s hard to get out of, trust me, I’ve been there.

Also, when you skip a review session, you skip the calculated time at which you were supposed to revise which was optimized for memorization, and thus you’re kind of disrupting your “memorizing spree”. It’s  basically not a good thing to sum up.

What I do is, when I get up in the morning, I feed my dog, get dressed and start reviewing my Kanjis. Then if I have time I might even go to school.
Doing it straight away when getting up is a good way to make sure you don’t forget during the day and you’re fresh to dedicate your mind to it.

It’s up to you to find a moment of day which you can stick to everyday in order to stay on schedule, to let the habit settle in and become part of your daily routine.

About the writing…

Now, this is the tricky part… First you might even not want to learn to write, it depends on what you want and need. If you plan on living in Japan and have to fill forms you might consider learning how to handwrite. And let’s be honest, if you want to show off, you need to know how to handwrite. On the other hand, if you don’t plan on living in Japan or don’t plan on showing off or needing to handwrite then you might be relieved of this aspect.

What I usually do for the writing is, when I review Kanji,  I look at the Kanji really fast to know which one it is and look away right after. I then try to write the Kanji with my finger on my desk. Although that’s better than nothing, you’ll find that it doesn’t suffice. So to remedy that I use a Kanji handwriting app:

手書き漢字ドリル1006

google play link

appstore link

Fortunately it’s available on both iOS and Android!

It’s really easy to use, first you select a certain level:

Main levels
Sublevels

And then at the top appears a word or sentence with a missing Kanji. The Kana pronunciation is indicated and you have to write the corresponding Kanji. Most of the time the app recognizes the Kanji but sometimes doesn’t. When it doesn’t it usually means that the order of the strokes are wrong, it took me a long time to understand that. Sometimes (rarely) the app just doesn’t recognize the Kanji for some reason, but that’s very important, just look at the answer and check if you were right.

exemple exercice
when you’re right

Sometimes the app will also say you’re right when a few strokes are wrong. Again, be honest with yourself and try to remember for next time.

I’m not very regular with this app myself, even though I suppose I should be 😀
But I find writing to be a bit different in learning, for some reason, I can write certain Kanjis (sometimes even very complicated ones) without thinking about it and others I find myself forgetting how to write, even though I knew them really well! It’s kinda weird but eh!

Personally, I have a Kanji notebook in which I write the new Kanjis I learn everyday. It doesn’t really help for the writing because I write them only once, but it’s fun to keep track of it all, seeing the pages get filled with Kanjis little by little.

Kanji notebook
My Kanji notebook 😀

Find your own way

In the end, I think you should find your own Kanji learning strategy. You might take some of my advices and follow some instructions but decide they’re not for you. I talked about the way I learn Kanji and hopefully it helped guide you. But in the end, you’re the one learning and I think that you should find something that works for you!

I’m curious:

How do you learn Kanji? (because I might be subject to advices too! :D)
Do you concentrate much on the writing?

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