The Intimidation Factor of Kanji

Let’s face it.  As a Japanese learner, Kanji are intimidating.  They are this set of pictographs that really seem to have nothing to do with anything, each of them have a whole bunch of readings, all of which apply only in specific contexts.  There is a sentence:

明日は日曜日です

Where the same kanji appears three times, has two different readings, and two and a half different pronunciations (one of them is in a word that has a reading that only applies across the entire word – there is no specific reading for that kanji in that word).  It means “Tomorrow is Sunday”, btw, and is pronounced “ashita wa nichiyoubi desu“.

It is massively intimidating, particularly to the new learner.

In my opinion, though, it’s a paper tiger.  Here’s why.

First of all, you have to get rid of the idea that there is some kind of a pattern that will help you understand the meaning.  In most cases, there isn’t.  There is a pattern, but it comes from the Chinese the characters come from and was mostly entirely lost in its move to Japanese.  So stop trying, it’s not going to help you all that much.  That would seem to make it more intimidating for the short term, but there’s no use wasting time on things you’re not going to find.

But there are patterns.  The characters, by their very nature, do share characteristics with the Chinese characters they come from – there are specific radicals that make up kanji, and only a finite number of them.  Most kanji are created by sticking these radicals together in weird and unnatural ways.  You do start seeing patterns as you learn them – not in the readings, but in the kanji themselves.  You can build them up from more fundamental building blocks.  This helps make them a bit more manageable.

Another thing to note about kanji is that their on-yomi readings are exclusively Chinese – nearly all jyukugo (there are a few exceptions) are Chinese loan words.  For example, I once wrote the word shinnen (New year, 新年), and a Chinese speaker not only understood the word but my pronunciation (while almost certainly incorrect) was understandable to said Chinese speaker.  So again, you just kind of have to take it for what it is.  Much of your vocabulary is going to have its origins from a different language.

So if you put this all together, you have a path to memorization.

  1. Become familiar with (note I did not say learn) all of the different radicals that can be put together to form a kanji.  Remember that “radical” is a much misused word, but it is misused simply to make the concept easier to understand.  The true definition of radical is much narrower than you’ll find in wanikani, for example.  But don’t worry about things like that.  You’re trying to make kanji less intimidating, not become a Japanese language scholar.  At least to begin with.
  2. Remember that all of the readings have specific origins and uses.  There are exceptions to all of the rules, but if you just remember this, you’re pretty close to where you want to be.  Most of the time, on-yomi are only used in jyukugo.  Most of the time, kun-yomi are only used in native Japanese words with okurigana.  Remember these two rules and you’ll get there about 95% of the time.
  3. There are always exceptions, but don’t dwell on them.  Get to that 95% of where you need to be, and learn the exceptions as you encounter them.  Probably 95% of the jyukugo words you learn have predictable pronunciations.  About 5% of those are variations on the pronunciations, but knowing the rules still make those easier too.
  4. Mnemonics DO help.  They will get you to the point where you associate a character with a sound.  Eventually you won’t need them anymore with a specific character, but use them until you don’t.  In actuality, the more memorable the mnemonic, the better it is for learning.  Personally, I find that mildly offensive ones are the best.
  5. Learn the rules of rendaku.  This is the change of voiced to unvoiced syllables in the second or later syllable (read:  adding tenten, or those two little ticks at the top right).  There are always exception, but it makes some of the more unusually pronounced jyukugo more predictable.  I won’t go into them here, but there are several very simple rules to learn that cover about 95% of the times you’ll encounter it.  For example, there is a reason for the “go” vs. “ko” in the words chuugoku (中国) and beikoku (米国), and it’s actually a highly regular and predictable change.  But I have not found that this is something that is taught in beginner Japanese.  I think it should be.

Kanji is conquerable.  It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, finding the patterns you can discern, letting go of the idea that there should be patterns you can’t, because those were lost a long time ago, and understanding that while there are exceptions, not dwelling on them will help you to not acquire that initial mental block most students do when first seeing that vast array of inscrutable pictograms.  Just take it slowly and methodically, and you will get there eventually.

Don’t expect it to come quickly, though.  Two thousand of anything are hard to memorize, much less kanji.

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