When I was in college, I studied Japanese for three years. That’s 36 credit hours, so if you do the math I could have graduated about three semesters sooner if I hadn’t! You’d think after all that time I’d be pretty fluent, right? Not even close. If you’ve ever taken any sort of class you know that it’s very easy to get in the cycle of studying, cramming for a test, forgetting everything, and repeating. That’s not to say I forgot absolutely everything — It would have been impossible for me to get that far if I had — but because vocabulary varied wildly from module to module, my brain was more of a revolving door for everything but the most common and generally-applicable words. This is in stark contrast to grammar, which thanks to constant repetition and re-introduction stuck with me much, much better. Learning Japanese wasn’t as easy as it seemed. (Go figure, right?)
After I finished the class, I didn’t really use Japanese for about a year, until I rented an apartment in Tokyo and lived there for two months. Daily life was jarring, to say the least! I could get around, but not anywhere near as easily as I thought I should or would be able to. It was my vocabulary. That wallet I wanted to buy wasn’t a 財布 [wallet], it was something like a 金入れ物 [money-put-in-thing] (which I totally lucked out with because that’s actually almost a correct thing to say). Before my trip I was proud of the few hundred kanji that I knew, but living there I realized that even if you know how to read 4 of the 5 kanji in a sentence, it still might be completely unintelligible without the fifth character. This isn’t always the case, and context is often quite helpful, obviously, but it was still an issue.
Well, with the lessons of that trip behind me, and an additional year of using the language much less than I should have been, I recently decided to straighten up this year and come up with a focused, easy-to-follow (though not necessarily super easy to do) plan for learning the 常用(daily use) kanji, a list of 2,136 characters issued by the Japanese Ministry of Education as a baseline for those who have completed required schooling in Japan. That’s right, even 2,100+ characters is just considered a baseline. But it’s a good start.
Choosing the System
I agonized over how to approach this for a week or two, reading reviews of and considering about a dozen different systems and courses, until I found the Andrew Scott Conning’s Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course. Why did I like this book so much? Well, there are a few reasons:
Mnemonics That Work
Like many other kanji study systems, the book relies on mnemonics to remember each character, but unlike any other system I’ve seen, it uses a mixed approach to actually forming the mnemonics, which Conning calls eclecticism, along with a heavy focus on making them visual, rather than abstract, as our brain is better built to remember such things. As he puts it:
Different strategies are appropriate to different kanji. Some are easy to remember as pictograms. Others are best approached by linking together the meanings of their component graphemes. Still others are best learned by considering their etymology, or by focusing attention on one of their distinctive features, or by applying some ad hoc method.
As someone who tried and struggled to keep track of several stories in James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji because of how abstract they became by trying so hard to maintain consistent meanings for component graphemes, I found this approach refreshing.
Clever Kanji and Vocabulary Order
Conning points out that many kanji learner’s texts make an unfortunate compromise by ordering characters based on frequency, Japanese grade levels, or proficiency test requirements. He argues (and I agree) that for adult learners, the most important points are to (a) learn kanji graphemes step by step, so that one does not learn a complex kanji without first learning the component parts to be used in interpreting its meaning; and (b) learn kanji in logical groupings based on similarities in graphical form, so that one can give meaning to the features that distinguish one kanji from another as one learns them. For example: 常、堂 & 党 are all listed in close proximity to each other.
For each kanji, he also provides a few sample compound vocabulary words which tend to cover most readings (both on and kun-yomi) and meanings of a character. Where this gets even cooler, is when you realize that every sample compound only contains the new kanji in question and kanji that have already been introduced. If you stick with the course, the vocabulary should almost never contain an unfamiliar character! Frankly, this was a huge selling point for me, and if you’ve ever made any effort to learn kanji before, I’m sure it is for you too.
While Conning may provide upwards of five or six example compounds for each kanji, memorizing them all is a pretty tall order. What’s nice is that he has marked compounds that he thinks are of specific import, and advises you to memorize only those and use the remainder as simple examples. Usually these marked examples cover the most common readings of the character, a particularly common word, or both.
How I Study
Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you of the merits of this book, or at the very least laid bare my thought process. If you’re as convinced as I am, let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about a study plan.
The ritual I go through everyday is as follows:
- Complete Anki cards due for review – Anki is, at it’s core, a spaced repetition system for learning and a flash card app. I’m not going to get into too many details about what it is, but I love Anki because a) it helps you both study efficiently and effectively and b) I can use it from my smart phone, web browser, or a desktop application… just about anywhere! If you’re curious why SRS is so great, here is some further reading. For this course, I created a new sub-deck for this book and configured it to show me up to 9999 new cards and 9999 review cards a day. Basically, if a card is due, I want to review it, so I set the numbers high enough that I will never hit the limit. Where do these cards come from? Steps 2 and 3, below.
- Read through 5 new characters and write them 5 times each – This step is pretty straightforward. I review 5 new characters following the study plan prescribed in the book’s introduction. You may be tempted to power through more than 5 a day, especially in the beginning when they’re easy, but the nature of Anki (and spaced repetition learning systems in general) is that it repeatedly re-presents cards for review in the future. This means that the number of characters you study each day will snowball and has the very likely potential to grow out of control if you bite off too much. Trust me on this; you should build a sustainable path to completing the whole course and learning things well rather than rushing through it and quickly getting overwhelmed. As for the writing practice, rather than buying expensive “real” genkō yōshi (manuscript paper), I print copies using the templates freely available on this website. You can see a great example of my bad handwriting filling a few sheets at the top of this post!
- Create new Anki cards – Now is where the convenience of this course really begins to shine through. As mentioned above, several kanji compounds for each character are marked for you to memorize. Quickly, I create new cards in Anki for these compounds. Be sure to set your deck up to generate reverse cards! Recall and recognition of something are two VERY different skills, and you must teach yourself accordingly.
- Memrise – Anki covers studying the kanji compounds well, but when it comes to remembering the course-specific keywords for the characters, I can’t recommend anything more highly than Memrise. Memrise already has a pre-existing course for this book. Much like Anki, you can use Memrise on your desktop computer or phone. On top of that, you get points for studying, and can set a daily point goal, get badges, compete on leaderboards and more. I’m a big fan of the gamification of things when it’s done well, and rest assured, this app does it well. Something else to be aware of is that you can configure the app to show you 5 new characters a day, which lines up perfectly with my study plan above! My general approach to this app is to complete the “learn new words” step twice (it takes two run-throughs per day to “learn” a character as far as the app is concerned), followed by classic reviews until I hit my daily point goal. If I still haven’t hit my goal, a single run through the speed review mode is usually enough to push me over the edge.
- Study new Anki cards – Finally, I return to Anki to do a quick review of the cards I just added to the deck. I like to take the Memrise break in between so that I’m a little distracted and not immediately parroting back the cards I just created.
This whole post comes with a caveat, of course; This is a system I’ve found that works for me, but it may not necessarily work for you! I set aside a little more than an hour almost every single day to do this, and on the days I can’t find the time to learn new kanji, I still cram in as much review (both Anki and Memrise) as possible. It’s a big time commitment. That said, if you give my ritual a shot (or don’t), I’d love to hear from you! Comment below and let me know how it worked for you, or if there’s anything in this post you’d like to hear me elaborate on.
UPDATE (1/2/2017) : I’ve been asked a few times to write a follow-up to this post, and while I’m not quite there yet — give me a month or two — it is coming. Meanwhile, there are a few new KLC resources I wanted to share!
- There is now an official companion website for KLC called Keys to Japanese. It is pretty new, so there isn’t much discussion on the boards yet, but I’d recommend checking it out, especially if you have questions or comments about the book, since I understand Conning checks the site regularly.
- If you prefer a more formal format for your writing practice, they’ve published a writing practice book specifically for KLC.
- Most excitingly (if you’re like me) they plan to release a set of graded readers for every single entry in the KLC. Just like the vocabulary, the readers will contain only kanji learned previously in the course. I’m incredibly jealous of everyone who gets to go through the book with these resources from the start.