How I am Learning the Writing and Meaning of 2200 Kanji in 16 Weeks – Part 1


Kanji Learning Time!

Kanji Learning Time!

After my wife and I came back from our honeymoon in Japan a few months ago, I decided I wanted to get back into learning Japanese.  Previously, I took 2 semesters of Japanese for fun at the local community college.  I had previously knowledge of Japanese language from elementary school in Hawaii, so I caught on fairly fast but I have always been weak in memorizing kanji.  Urghhhhh kanji… the ultimate enemey.  Sadly, after about 4 years since my last Japanese class I have forgotten all but a hand full of kanji.  Well, it’s not like I forgot much anyways because I think we only went through about 200 characters in 2 semesters.

So how am I supposed to improve on my weakness?  Enter “Google Sensei” (as  Danny Choo likes to say).  After a little bit of research, I came across a couple of articles that referenced the book Remembering the Kanji, Volume 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters by James W. Heisig.  In a nutshell, when James  W. Heisig first learned Japanese years ago, he crammed for about 4-6 weeks to learn about 2000 characters prior to the start of his language schooling.

How is it possible to learn 2000+ kanji in 4-6 weeks?!

  • James W. Heisig splits learning kanji into 2 phases.  Phase 1 is learning the order of how to write each character while learning the meaning.  Phase 2 is learning the Japanese reading of each character.
  • Why 2 phases?  He noticed that Korean and Chinese students  who already knew the writing and meaning of kanji had an easier time learning the Japanese readings vs westerners with no knowledge of the characters (for those of you that don’t know, although Asian languages share many of the same characters, their reading differ depending on the country)
  • For a student with no knowledge of kanji/Chinese characters, learning the stroke order, meaning, and multiple ways to read each character can be a bit overwhelming.  Yes, that’s how Japanese students learn in elementary school, but it is also their first language.
  • James W. Heisig also breaks down each character into  “primitive elements” that appear multiple times across different characters.  He tasks readers to use these primitives and their “imaginative memory” to remember the meaning of the characters as this will make the meaning of the characters harder to forget (Have you ever seen something so disgusting that it was hard to forget? That’s the effect we’re going for when memorizing kanji)
  • The primitive element for "fire" (火) doubled up means "inflamation" (炎)

    The primitive element for “fire” (火) doubled up means “inflamation” (炎)

    Old school flash cards!

  • So, Remembering the Kanji, Volume 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters is about learning only the writing and meaning of the characters while Remembering the Kanji 2: A Systematic Guide to Reading Japanese Characters expands on knowledge learned in volume 1 and teaches the Japanese readings.

Now 4-6 weeks is a bit of a lofty goal for me to finish Volume 1 considering I have a full time job, so I decided to go for memorizing 20 characters a day which means if I stay consistent, I can finish the book in about 16 weeks.  I have only been at it for about 6 weeks and as of today I have learned the writing and meaning of 840 characters.

In the next part of this series, I will go over some of the tools I am using to assist in my quest to learn the meaning and writing of 2200 kanji in 16 weeks.  If you have a tablet or smartphone, then you are already one step ahead.  I personally use the Kindle Fire HD 7″ that I rooted, but any Android tablet such as the Google Nexus will work as well.  Any iteration of iPad will work as well, but next time I will explain why I prefer droid.

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