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Remembering the Kanji

By Mike Lin

I took Japanese in school from grades 5-11. At the end of it, I passed the BC provincial exam and knew, maybe, 200 kanji. I didn’t put much work learning kanji it because I never thought I’d ever be able to learn the 2000 or so I needed to be barely literate. Furthermore, if my teachers were realistic, I’m sure they never thought I’d be literate either.

In the mean time, I’ve forgotten most of my Japanese. But last summer I took a beginner Mandarin course at George Brown College, which restarted my learning of ‘kanji’. It was slow going, maybe 10-20 a week while I was in the course, and it was hard work! I’d beat them into my brain for hours at a time.

Eventually I thought I might as well refresh my Japanese while I’m at it, and looking around online, I found lots of people advocating this book Remembering the Kanji. So I picked it up without too much thought, and it turns out it’s strikingly different from any other way of learning Kanji.

First, it doesn’t teach them in any traditional order, like the order in which japanese school children first learn them, or the most common ones first. It teaches them in an order that takes most advantage of the psychological phemonemon known as chunking. It teaches a few primitive pieces at a time, and then all the characters from the list one can make from these pieces and ones already known. This order pays no regard to the usefulness of the character, but because you already know the pieces remembering the new ones is simpler. How obvious is that? Why shouldn’t adults approach things differently from children? At different ages we have completely different mental capabilities.

One really big caveat about the book though is that it does not teach you the pronunciation at the same time. Rather it associates each character to a keyword that supposedly is related to its primary meaning. So until you get through the course and start connecting the characters to your vocabulary, your new knowledge is useless for communication.

Still, in this way in the past 5 days I’ve gotten through the first 150 characters in the book, of which I already knew about 50. So I’ve learned 100 characters in less than a week, and it wasn’t even hard! We’ll see how it works out in the long run, but it’s already given me the most important learning tool: the belief that I can eventually become literate in Japanese and Chinese.

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