Thinking on how-to learn (part 1)

Kanji… List of kanji’s… For many people these are synonyms. And it’s quite natural for many Japanese learners to think about kanji’s as of long list of characters that should be indexed, graded and memorized. You will find lots of pre-cooked lists and most likely fall into the trap.

Flash card programs, paper flash cards, books like Heisig’s ‘Remembering the Kanji’, JLPT-based lists and 常用漢字 on top of it.

In my opinion, the worst problem with those pre-cooked lists is that beginners try use them somehow in their studies. One sees 常用漢字 list and thinks, ‘This list has grades and is arranged according to frequency of usage. So if I make flash cards and will be memorizing 5 kanji a day I will be able to learn them all in 13 months.’ Others go a little bit farther – they take into additional factors like time required to revisit already learned symbols and summer vacation. Even in this case this way of thinking leads only to frustration once you started your attempts to nail these characters down.

So, what many people don’t understand is that you have to be a real genius to memorize all 1945 characters absolutely without context. Even if you managed somehow to remember all the kanji’s from the list, you should be aware of the fact that they are not real words and you have no idea how to transform these pictograms into meaningful language primitives (I mean words, of course). You have no idea how to read them and how to use them.

Even if you put the fact that you cannot really use those ready-to-use kanji lists aside, what’s the usefulness of these kanji inventories? Let’s take 常用漢字 as an example. Why am I supposed to learn 「亜」but not the kanji for the word “who” (誰)? Have you ever seen, even once, 「アジア」 and 「アメリカ」 written as 「亜細亜」 and 「亜米利加」? Moreover this kanji goes FIRST in this list. Why can’t I find 「枕」 among these 1945 characters? Don’t you use pillows every single day in your life? But you definitely should know that 「斤」 means 1.32 lb.

So what’s the bottom line for this post? Throw all your flash cards? No, I’m not advocating for throwing your stuff out, I’m simply trying to say that we should always think of the list not as of goal but as of an aid.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply