Sunday, February 24, 2008

Idea for Kanji acquisition method

Let's just admit that learning Japanese and its Kanji is not a quick and easy task. Of course, nobody wants to admit that it's going to take 15 years. You've got people trying to learn 2,000 Kanji when they don't even know 1,000 words. It should be the other way around. We need to know lots of words before we learn more and more Kanji. Just knowing Kanji alone doesn't allow you to read and understand everything you see.

There is a way to be able to read everything in a book without knowing a single Kanji. There are books written for people to do this. The whole book is written is Hiragana. Just go down to your local Japanese library and you'll find dozens of these books. They all have pictures and tell nice stories. You'll want to have a dictionary with you to look up all the words you don't know. And there will be a lot. Spend your first year, a whole year doing this. You'll learn lots of words and enjoy reading Japanese books.

With that solid foundation in vocabulary, you'll be ready to start reading books with Kanji in them. Start with the 一年生 books. These are for first graders. They will use only 80 Kanji but they will always have ふりがな above or next to the Kanji so you can read it. Again, spend a whole year reading these books and look up the words you don't know.

You'll be able to follow this method up through the sixth grade books. The important thing is to build up vocabulary. Without the vocabulary, even if you have learned 1,000 Kanji, reading books for 6th graders is still going to be very difficult.

As a modification to this method, you could move on to the next level after every 6 months. I would suggest doing so if after six months you felt the books had become too easy and you weren't learning any new vocabulary.

Another thing you could do differently is to not use a dictionary at all. Don't look up any words. That might make it less of a burden on you.


  1. Hm, Khatzumoto from All Japanese All The Time ( to first learn the Kanji with Heisig's method and THEN concentrate on vocab building etc. What do you think of this?

  2. That is truly diving in head first, isn't it. It's a harder approach than the one I've proposed in this article. If you don't use all your learned Kanji, you'll start to lose it, so you have to really spread yourself thin with that method.

    Please notice that my article describes an approach that allows you to concentrate your efforts. First you learn words only through reading Kana. When you move on to the first grade Kanji, you are only working with a small subset and you really build your foundational knowledge. You keep building up as you go.

    If, instead, you just go and learn all the Kanji at once, you've got to keep up with all of them. For many of us learners, it's too much. You know, I learned Kanji like 日 and 大 a long time ago and I can't imagine ever forgetting these simple ones. This is the kind of "learn" that you need to get to with all of the characters. You need to know them so well that you can't imagine ever forgetting them. And of course, it's not just the individual characters, but the words themselves. If a word has two characters, then which two are they? Some characters look alike and some meanings are alike and that is where the real difficulty lies in really knowing your Kanji.

    So anyway, I think the difference is in which approach you like. If you like to concentrate on a subset of Kanji after having learned a lot of vocabulary and move forward at your own pace, then the method I described would be good for you.


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