Here’s the thing about Japanese: It should be easy. It’s not really a hard language, to be honest. It seems like one, but that’s only because I feel we approach it in exactly the wrong way. If you try to memorize it, you’ll kinda fail, or it’ll be at least a lot harder than it needs to be.
The trick to learning Japanese is to accept it for exactly what it is, and leave all of your English preconceptions at the door. Japanese is difficult only because we can’t let go of what we know.
Kanji is something almost but not entirely unlike anything in the English language, and this is because the meaning of each symbol, and the use and pronunciation of the symbol, are almost neatly divorced from each other. We’re taught early on that kanji can have a multitude of different pronunciations, and that becomes very intimidating very fast. That’s because we’re treating it like an alphabet, like hiragana or katakana or even romaji, and it isn’t one. A kanji is a meaning upon which a word is built, and that’s all it is.
It’s not the kanji you have to memorize. It’s the words. Because here’s the not-so-dirty little secret of kanji: the pronunciation of a kanji is always exactly the same when it’s in a word . Even if it has eight different pronunciations on its own, that doesn’t matter – the pronunciation never changes when it’s a part of a word.
So you can have 生まれ (umare), which means something like “time of birth”, and 先生 (sensei), which means “teacher”. Both contain the same kanji, which means roughly “life” or “birth”, but the kanji are used in two different ways, and have two different pronunciations. If you just memorize the kanji, you’ll be utterly confused. If you memorize the word, and accept that the kanji is pronounced differently each time, then you might have a bit more to learn but you will not be confused.
You can even end up with the same kanji twice pronounced differently in the same word, such as 日曜日 (nichiyoubi, or Sunday). Just let go of the fact that they’re the same kanji. It’s that much easier in the end.
Sometimes the kanji is itself a word. Fine. Then it has its own pronunciation in that case (kun-yomi), memorize it as a word, and move on. But don’t then assume that that has anything to do with how it’s used in any other word. Because it doesn’t. It can, (such as 本 and 日本) but that’s more the exception than the rule.
This is the trap of learning Japanese. Trying to understand it in terms of your language. You can’t. It’s different. Accept the differences for what they are, and move on.
Great well-written article!
I generally agree with your sentiment (especially regarding the need to put your foreign tongue behind when learning a foreign language), but I had a few comments.
You statement “exactly the same when it’s in a word” was a little confusing to me since I thought you were separating when a kanji is used in isolation vs. when it is used in *any* word. But after reading through I see what you meant was “Exactly the same when it’s a *specific* word”. Let me know if I am misunderstanding, though.
But more importantly, you emphasize the need to learn words, not kanji. While I think an over-focus on kanji can lead to burnout (since learning kanji by themselves is, frankly, tedious), your suggestion of focusing on words means the learner is never (or not for a long time) going to learn the common readings and meanings for common kanji. This is *very* important since it helps you guess new kanji meanings and their sound.
You also seemed to mention that a given kanji having similar meanings in different words is more the exception than the rule, and I think this is completely backwards. Sure you will get strange words like 流石 where you can’t figure out where the words came from, but 少食、朝食、食器、and 食生活 all have “食”. In each case it is pronounced the same and each word is strongly related to food/eating/meals. I’m sure you can think of some examples where the kanji meaning is loosely connected, or even random. But if you find a kanji dictionary that lists example words you’ll see that a large percent of the words are related to one or more of the base meanings of the kanji in question.
Finally, I’m curious if you have any other reasons that Japanese is “not really a hard language”. Comparing it to English there are many differences in characters, grammar, pronunciation, etc. and when you add cultural elements I personally feel if I had to pick one way, I’d say Japanese “should” be hard because of these differences. Look at the number of people who are not fluent in Japanese after many years of study (or even after living in the country). Sure, having a positive outlook can help one learn faster, but I think saying ‘Japanese is actually easy’ is setting up for later frustration when the student finds they still haven’t mastered this ‘easy’ language.
Anyway, again I do honestly appreciate you writing articles about Japanese. It gives me something to think about, and sometimes provide a counter-argument for (:
Thanks for your comments. I find I agree with many of them, but I still stand by my post, and here’s why.
I think we might have different definitions of “easy”. Kanji is seen as one of the most difficult aspects of Japanese, and for good reason, but I think people tend to approach it as this gigantic amorphous blob of thousands of logographs that have many different meanings and pronunciations that make no real consistent sense. And in one sense, that’s kind of what they are. The most difficult aspect of kanji comes from seeing a huge spread of kanji laid out in front of you with no real way to approach it other than just starting to memorize them and hoping for the best. That’s “hard”, in my opinion.
But if you have a way to diminish the confusion of having all of these different kanji with different pronunciations, then it becomes a simple matter of memorization, and more importantly, familiarization. This requires a lot of time and effort (to your later point) and something being easy doesn’t mean there are shortcuts to learning it, but then that’s really all it is. There’s no trying to remember thousands of different readings (unless you want to!) and it’s just learning words, of which kanji are a part. Kanji basically get reduced to just another part of learning a Japanese word. Yes, there’s still a *lot* to learn, but it’s just not as complicated.
I agree with your point that there are commonalities between the ways that some kanji are used, and those can most certainly be used to your advantage! (my learning the word 気楽 because I already knew the words 元気 and 音楽 comes to mind) but, to me, that’s a pattern that kind of arises out of a familiarity that already exists, rather than trying to use it as a pedagogical tool.
But, y’know… I’m still learning. I might change my mind in a year. But right now, I’m finding it much easier to learn by just learning the words and attaching the different readings to those rather than trying to figure out what readings go with which kanji. I assume that as I learn more, the patterns will become very clear, as in the example above.
I do learn differently than most, though. So I guess all that said, YMMV.