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Why you must learn kanji

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For a lot of people, kanji is about on par with natto. A huge sticky mess, difficult to consume, and not nearly as tasty as it is troublesome. Anyway, me personally, I never wanted to spend years studying kanji; I just wanted to speak well enough to communicate (read “drink beer”) with people. Funny how things work out.

Hiragana? Fine. Katakana? Piece of cake. There’s not that many of them, so whatever. But kanji? Yeah, let me get back to you on that. I mean, who wants to take the long route to learning Japanese? I was determined to find a shortcut.

If you, like me, love shortcuts and have the approximate attention span of a gerbil, then let’s jump right to the conclusion:

  1. Kanji is the shortcut to learning Japanese, even if you only care about speaking.
  2. If you know the kanji, you can make sense of every word in the Japanese language.
  3. Every word. Think about it.

How can kanji be the shortcut when it’s so impossible? First of all, you’re trying to learn an entire freaking language here, and that’s a huge task. People say learning Japanese is easy. Yeah, like swimming the English Channel is easy. It’s just swimming. How hard could it be?

Microwave and Light Bulb, Not Friendly?

But anyway, okay, think about a Japanese person learning English. They’re going to need everyday words like:

Microwave oven Telephone Light bulb

Sucks to be them, because those words bear no relationship to one another. “Light bulb” looks and sounds nothing like “microwave oven.” Learning English requires remembering a ton of unrelated stuff, using only letters and sounds. It’s like a pure memory exercise. You know how many words there are in a language? Okay, well I don’t either, but I’m sure somebody on Wikipedia does.

If only there were an easier way. Welcome to Japanese. You learn a couple thousand kanji and Boom, you’re done. Okay, not done, but you’ve got great leverage. Check out the same three words in Japanese:

電子レンジ 電話 電球

Everybody’s friendly. It’s clear they all use 電, which means “electric.” That’s because, unless you’re using two tin cans and a string, they’re all electrical appliances. And there’s the shortcut. With a six-degrees-of-separation-like magic, knowing one word immediately helps you understand and learn other words. Learn five kanji and you can make sense of ten words. Learn ten kanji and you can make sense of thirty words. That’s leverage, and Japanese is cool like that. Since all the appliances in Japan use electricity(電), you’ve just learned a big chunk of Japanese vocabulary. You’re welcome.

We Need to Talk in the Den

Let me be honest with you. If you’re trying to learn Japanese without learning kanji, you are making a huge mistake.

Okay, right, I know. It doesn’t seem efficient to memorize a couple thousand complicated kanji when you just want to have a conversation with the attractive person on the barstool next to you. All you want to do is learn to speak.

Yeah, that’s not going to work. Here’s why:

Daily-conversation Japanese doesn’t cut it. You’ll be out of material in five minutes, at which point the other person will either excuse themselves to go the bathroom and climb out the window, or start speaking English. You need vocabulary. And to learn vocabulary, you’ve got to remember stuff, somehow.

Japanese Homonyms

But Japanese has a bunch of homonyms, which means that everything sounds like everything else. You know how English has three words for one sound: “to,” “too,” and “two”? That’s nothing. Japanese has like 50 words for the sounds “sho” and “shou.” You can’t understand the language based upon the sounds. You have to see it written.

Japanese people make the opposite mistake when learning English. They focus on reading and writing when they should invest time in listening. English is an impossible language to make sense of through the writing system, because it doesn’t have enough letters. Or maybe it has too many, whatever. I don’t know. “Guess” and “Scene”? Please. You’ll never figure out how to say them by reading. To make the sounds of the English language, the letters are forced into double-duty or mashed into peculiar combinations. Then you’ve got phonics, where someone has essentially reinvented the alphabet so that it might make more sense. And you’d still probably mispronounce “epitome.”

Japanese people learning English would be well advised to put down their books and focus on listening. For English speakers learning Japanese, it’s the opposite. Both groups are trying to use the method that works best in their own language, when the languages are constructed differently. That’s a problem.

Some Monk on a Mountain Top

Japanese is a written language first, and a spoken language second. The sounds hardly even matter. Some monk a million years ago sat down in a temple on top of Mt Fuji (or such is my understanding) and worked out a thorough relationship between all of the visual characters, so that they all relate to one another in a reasonable fashion. All of the words are networked. Using that network is how you build vocabulary and learn Japanese.

English is the opposite. People just started speaking it, like in caves a thousand years ago. And then somewhere around the Middle Ages somebody said, Oh, maybe we ought to start writing this down, and then they came up with some letters in an attempt to represent the sounds they were making. But the letters don’t really even matter. That’s why you’ve got all those extra letters cluttering up so many words. It’s the sounds that matter, not the letters.

As an oral language, Japanese is hard to parse, partly due to all the homonyms. You said “sho”? Oh, I thought you meant “sho.” But it’s a breeze to understand once you see it written. And from the sounds, you’d never know that “kuruma” and “sharin” were related, but see them on paper and it’s immediately obvious: 車 and 車輪. “Car” and “wheel.” Well, there it is. Again, Japanese speakers learning English don’t get this advantage. They just simply have to remember stuff. Yeah, sorry about that.

One extra, challenging aspect of Japanese as an oral language is that it doesn’t lend itself very well to mnemonics, at least for English speakers. The sounds are so different that it’s difficult to come up with good mnemonics. Like how are you going to remember “nyuukokukanrikyoku”? Yeah, good luck. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that hiragana and katakana are going to help you either. It’s the same problem. にゅうこくかんりきょく isn’t any better. You need kanji to make any sense of the words.

Even sounds that can be easily represented in mnemonics are problematic. Because of all the Japanese homonyms, the same sounds have to be used over and over again.

Here’s the deal with learning kanji. It’s not easy. But it’s the only way to learn Japanese. Books can help a bit, like "Remembering the Kanji" by James Heisig, or "Kanji ABC" (which I prefer). You can also put sentences into Anki, and start writing things out. But anyway you approach it, it’s going to take you a long time. Which is why you should start today.

Don’t spend time learning how to speak and think you can learn kanji at a later stage. You’ll only hit a wall and realize, a year later, that if you’d started kanji a year ago, you’d be much further ahead. Even if you memorize a couple thousand words of vocabulary, it won’t be enough. You need more words. And words, in Japanese, are kanji. Enough said. Now go eat some natto, and get busy.

© Japan Today

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63 Comments
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"Japanese is a written language first" ? ... "some monks a million years ago" ? Not sure if trolling, but I find it hardly believable that any culture in the world would think "let's invent a writing system before we can communicate with each other".

Kanji is Chinese's invention, and Japan-China cultural contact happened much later than the first civilization ever recorded in Japan. So, I really doubt Japanese didn't communicate with each other until they encountered Chinese culture.

Though I have to agree, reading Kanji is just much faster than romaji or hiragana.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Kanji makes sense to me. Katakana on the other hand I find the most difficult ; trying to work out what word in what language it is trying to cover.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

The writer sums up his writings as "funny, fantastical and a little crazy". Well, I agree with "fantastical" and "crazy" in the sense that he's wrong. Is he really suggesting that Japanese kids don't learn to speak Japanese until they start writing kanji? Homonyms? In context, not really a big problem. A shame he left the humour out of this article....

4 ( +7 / -3 )

One thing he failed to mention is the ever useful Pareto principle, which means you use 20 percent of your inventory 80 percent of the time. Which means you really only need to learn 500 kanji or so, to get 80 percent of the words written or spoken. Of course, it's better to learn all of them, but just learning the 500 most used will get you pretty far.

You can also use the ever popular "Excuse me, but what does this Kanji mean?" if you want to talk to an interesting person on the street.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I just dislike the drill it into your head method.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I agree with the Kanji learning approach! I moved to Japan in August last year and have been struggling just to get the basic communications down pat. e.g. ordering food at a restaurant, getting a haircut, mailing parcels back home, etc.. I started taking Shodo lessons about two months ago and now I'm exposed to Kanji all the time (which I was dreading at first). My Japanese is still definitely beginner but it's improved ten fold since I've started. I'm not sure how or why, maybe it's because I'm learning Kanji in a fun creative way through Shodo, but now I feel i'm making progress and that's a good thing to feel.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

if you really want to learn japanese then it is essential that you find a way that works for you to learn at least 1000 Kanji characters - both the onyomi and kunyomi readings. Your vocab will increase along with your general understanding of the language.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Japanese people learning English would be well advised to put down their books and focus on listening.

So wrong. Listening only will never lead to a good education without reading writing and speaking.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Great article! I really dont think the monk on Mt Fuji was intended to be serious - the whole tone of the article is light-hearted, but with a truthful message (of course kids dont learn kanji before they learn words, but i bet that highschool learning of words is built up on Kanji knowlege).

My learning has been to pick up both at the same time, but these days it is my knowlege of Kanji which drives my progression with new vocabulary. When in conversation and i hear a word i havent heard, i can fairly accurately guess the meaning based on the knowlege of kanji and their onyomi (its not 100% accurate, but fairly close when you filter them out by the context of the conversation)

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Loved this article! Well written, humerous and motivational!

I have been one of those slackers when it comes to kanji. But the more I study it, the more fascinated I am with it. You can learn so many interesting words with the combinations of different kanji.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The author could at least have been honest and admitted that kanji were invented in China, not Japan.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Download an extension called "Rikaikun" for Firefox or "Rikaichan" for Chrome. They'll help you a lot.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Compared Kanji to Natto. "funny, fantastical and a little crazy"

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Its pretty simple, when u learn Japanese just ditch the roomaji and you will be sorted

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

In the past most people in the world used pictographs as a writing system. But some people advanced to a more advanced abstract writing system as the alphabets. I think that the lack of philosophical ideas in Japan are a result of this lack of abstract thinking.

-9 ( +2 / -11 )

LoveNot - I don't see why the use of a simple alphabet is "more advanced" than kanji. It's just a different way of writing - Kanji tells you what the word means, but not necessarily how it sounds. Romaji tells you (poorly) how the word sounds but nothing about what it means.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

I completely agree on the article and yes, learning kanji is entirely necessary in order to do well in Japanese, not to mention that it helps your understanding of a lot of words, as stated in the examples of the article.

But those kanjis you are talking about are really really basic, and when you go pass the 1000 kanji barrier you find out that there are many kanjis that mean almost the same ( you can write eclipse with 2 different kanjis) many words that even if you know the kanjis just by changing the order the meaning changes (logic and theory), and many words that even when you know the kun/on/na reading you have no idea of how to read them (adult).

For beginners it is recommended to go through the first 400 kanjis or so right after they learn the kanas so they can get used to the whole kanji architecture and so they can, as stated in the article, realize that kanjis are strongly linked to the meaning/ use/ origin of the word. But after that you really have to combine that with a lot of vocabulary that uses all those unique and no so used kanjis and with listening to the pronunciation and tone of those words, since you also have the problem of having so many words that sound so similar (bridge, chopsticks, border) and for many foreigners that is also a huge burden to overcome.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I usually learn a language by reading. With Japanese, I found this impossible to do since there is sometimes no connection between the word and the actual pronunciation. A chicken and egg problem where you need to know the word before in order to understand the sentence. Therefore, I made this http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/koto/id448395423?ls=1&mt=8 . It's free. Enjoy!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Here's how I learnt.

First learn to speak. When you're comfortable, buy a book that has all of the "common" kanji (one I had was orange and black, don't remember the name but it was sold in any bookstore that had Japanese study materials like Maruzen bookstores, etc). Study a page or so a night, but by this I mean "every" night and revise what you have learnt.

Don't be put off by the large number you "need" to learn. The ones that used most are far less.

If you already speak Japanese, you'll learn and retain a lot faster. If you are motivated, you will be reading fairly well in a matter of weeks and it will only get better.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Kanji is great but forget katakana. I'll stick to hiragana and Kanji. It makes no sense to intentionally split up foreign words with their own script if words are words in a language.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

This article is fun to read and yes, what the author says about learning kanji is so true. It helps you a lot with communication, indeed, but it also helps you understand some of the aspects of the local culture and, respectively, the way of thinking of the people here. (Or should I say their logic?) For every individual, the timing of learning kanji varies, I believe, but whatever timing you choose, do not shy away from it.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I did 5 Kanji a day, just meaning first, then sound later when doing sentences so differences with the same symbol were taken into account. James W. Heisig's books didn't really work for me but they may work for you. Generally it made sense to split up the learning of Kanji since it has no pronunciation function and is just meaning. So splitting up their learning seems a rational outcome.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I walked around a lot and always got maps with Kanji. Best way to get familiar with a place. Also transit maps and phone cards with Kanji on them. Got used to the Osaka, Nagoya, and Tokyo subway system lines with that approach, as well as reoccurring themes in street names where I could guess the sounds after a while quite easily.

Everything is a learning environment if you are open to it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"Some monk a million years ago sat down in a temple on top of Mt Fuji (or such is my understanding) and worked out a thorough relationship between all of the visual characters, so that they all relate to one another in a reasonable fashion."

Ummm... no. Some people came from China or Korea a few thousand years ago with the Chinese language, which was used here... at least in terms of characters. The phonetic syllables in Hiragana and Katana came much later to deal with the complications of verb conjugation.

Anyway, I know I'm being literal, and I know this is an opinion piece, but I think that learning Kanji first just isn't that simple for some. I know a number of people who absolutely suck at Kanji but get along just fine here and can communicate well here -- yes, for more than five minutes and not 'run out of material'. And show me someone who wants to talk to the person next to them at the bar and decides not to SPEAK to them but pulls out paper and tries to talk to them in Kanji.

Finally, if the author is correct, do parents in Japan not use baby talk with infants and instead write Kanji on paper and show it to them? Do kids at two years old know how to write Kanji and use that instead of speaking?

Personally, I love Kanji, and it's probably my strongest point in the language, and I agree that it helps people understand meaning, but the bottom line is no one SPEAKS Kanji, so knowing Kanji but hearing someone speak isn't going to mean diddly if you can't communicate first. Also, other people learn languages differently and have different strengths. To suggest someone focus on Kanji first and foremost just won't help some people at all.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

I started to learn kanji so I could write to my ex in her own language (and also help me on my annual trips to Japan) but the teacher quit on us... I'm now trying to study at home with help from my ex... not easy.

Great article though and very motivational.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Thunderbird2: Best of luck with the Kanji, though not sure learning with the ex is the best idea (I know from experience). I recommend that if you buy books on Kanji you try getting them from Japan, and not learning Kanji through English, for example. There are a number of different books I find (found) helpful. I don't know what level you're at, but when I got started I used "Basic Kanji Book" Vols. 1 and 2 (500 characters each), published by Bonjinsha Co. Ltd. I bought the Intermediate version as well, but found that by that point the "Kanji Kentei" book series was more worthwhile. Books on the origins of Kanji as well as Kanji quizzes are interesting, but the former in particular aren't all that helpful in terms of learning. Anyway, there are heaps of resources. Best of luck!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The author is completely wrong about English and its difficulty. The majority of "difficult"English words is based on either Latin or ancient Greek. People with some level of classical education at school can use this to derive the meanings of plenty of words in almost all western languages from their basic education. Furthermore, since these words pervade all western languages, they contribute a lot to understanding most western languages.

Meanings of words like telephopne, television, telecommunication and telescope are plainy trivial for educated people. Oops, all that "tele"(Greek for distant) wihtout Kanji. How is that possible? Complicated words in western languages are easiest for language learners. I'd say Latin and ancient Greek play the role of Kanji in western languages. This acutally compares well to the Kanji usage in Kango in the Japanese language that are often formal ways of expressing simple things. Japanese people suck at this very often because they don't have any classical or multilingual education at school.

Kanji on the other hand cannot be learnt without available imagery, since they are abstracted too far. Unlike "tele" which is extremely simple, as it is everywhere. Either you have to memorize the Kanji by rote learning or by one or two particularly memorable examples of use or by some mental image - kind of a mapping between the Kanji's form and the space of meanings and images. This can be created artificially (which is the Heysig method), this can be clobbered into the brain (which is the Japanese method) or this can be picked up in passing once you have learned the basics of the language, lived in Japan for a while and once you have stopped bothering about perfect and full knowledge of the language.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

I agree, in principle, with the writer but like many commentators have stated, I don't think it is necessary to learn 2000 Kanji nor is rote memorization a palatable approach to learning. The problem is the time & motivation required to learn Kanji keep me from developing (and sticking to) study habits hat will allow me to communicate better in Japanese.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Damn it !! Why didn't you write this earlier?

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Johannes: I agree with you completely on the Greek/Latin suffixes/prefixes point, and it is a VERY good point that no one up to you pointed out. I often state to people I know if we get on the topic of language and prefixes/suffixes (turns into a private lesson, really!) exactly that: that it is much the same as Kanji in that if you learn the meanings of the prefixes/suffixes you can know what a word means without ever having seen it before.

Tele- (from afar) -phone (sound)

Therefore: 'telephone' literally means 'sound from afar' (or in this case the device you use to hear them).

I'm willing to bet most native English speakers don't know or don't often come across the word: "otorhinolaryngologist", but if they know that 'oto' relates to the ear, 'rhino' to the nose (hence rhinoceros and rhinoplasty), 'lyryn(g)' to the throat (larynx, laryngitis, etc.), and '(olo)gist' to doctor it is pretty easy to see you are talking about an 'ear, nose, and throat doctor'.

I could go one, but my point is that you are spot on with what you say. That's one of the reasons why it's a shame they don't teach Latin in most public schools anymore in many countries. And it's another reason to disagree with the author of the article -- or at least to make him think a little more.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I teach at elementary schools and at the end of the school year, many of the children write a "thank you" note to me. Most write in hiragana with a little kanji which is easiest to read, but I could just blow a head gasket when they write everything in romaji. It blows me away and while they think they're doing me a favor, it's so much more difficult to read. Japanese Romaji should be done away with all together. It's a major hinderance in them learning English. I love texting in Japanese far more than texting in English! But not when driving! (Just thought I'd throw that in)

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I learned my kanji with Kumon. They have by far the best books. Unfortunately, I mainly use that knowledge for reading cooking instructions. I guess it is a good investment to learn Chinese.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Smithinjapan

I have kanji workbooks and my ex 'grades' the exercises... she isn't a teacher but as a Japanese person she knows her own language ^_^ I'll get there.

As for Romaji I totally agree with those who dislike it - it just looks wrong. My teacher would give us the hiragana and Romaji versions and the hiragana was easier to read.

As for English, I completed a TEFL course and I was amazed at how annoyingly complicated English is to teach. Those of you who teach in Japan I take my hat off to you.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Tom: Also a good point! While Japanese is rare in that it technically has four writing systems for one language, I also think Japanese should never be written in Romaji (save for proper nouns on street signs and train stations, etc., for those visiting and who don't know the language). I still have a Japanese language book I got before coming to Japan where the Japanese has Romanji written for phonetics and I absolutely HATE it. That's why I always recommend studying Japanese with Japanese texts, and I even study Korean with Japanese texts (although the Katakana phonetics are even more useless than Romaji in that case).

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Oh! Natto!! Do you like Natto? and How cooking do you eat one? Natto is one of the famous japanes dishes. Howeve I'm Japanese, I don't like one. Kanji? these days many person speaking Japanes perhaps Don't write many Kanji. At least, I can't write many kanji. One of the reason, ther is computer,; Word, Excel, and so on, that is not need knowledge--Glyphs or shape of kanji--. That is just may be selected.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Seems the author has yet to experience the fun (the payback?) to be had telling the kind of Japanese person who loves to hear how hard, how strange and exotic their language is "The thing I enjoy most about studying your language? Oh, that would be the the Chinese characters you use."

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Learn kanji? I totally agree. But a number of points the author makes in this article are ridiculously incorrect:

You need to know kanji to understand homonyms - Nonsense, you distinguish homonyms through a little thing called "context". Try it sometime.

Learning kanji will boost your small talk vocabulary (by inference faster than speaking) - Wrong again, kanji are pretty useless for conversation, because you have to first figure out if the word you're using is using the kun or on reading, then try to remember the perculiar reading for the compound you want to use (which is often totally unrelated to the single kanji reading)... by which time the person you're talking to has died of old age.

A couple of thousand kanji is a good start - In English a couple of thousand words (if they were the right ones) would be the end of the story for day-to-day activities. And the problem with Japanese kanji is that you might know how to read two thousand kanji in isolation and still be unable to read a newspaper since compounds read entirely differently, so to actually USE your 2000 kanji you need to memorise about 4000 basic readings, plus about another 10 000 compound kanji that may or may not follow any sort of logical system for determining their reading.

.... sorry mate, but the proper way to approach Japanese is to learn to speak first, THEN learn to read and write... which is pretty much the pattern for every language in the world (apart from the dead ones). This article smacks of the Japanese fallacy "Japan is different". It isn't.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Yukio was the telling the point here, with PCs widely used for word processing, Kanji writing would probably be fading out. The pyramid of needs is different from individual to individual : those who are not satisfied with mere "Beer-drinking" styled communications, do dig deep into the couple thousand of Kanji, memorize them by heart..once the tough part is over, practice on writing them should be alleviated by modern tools -- just choose the right Kanji from your PC software.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Why learn something that is so narrowly used? I can go just about anywhere on earth and communicate in English! I thought about making up a new form of communication just to confuse those that don't understand it! Geez...

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Current trends in schools reveal even the locals are having a hard time learning kanji. Time for re-write of the whole kit'n'kaboodle if ya ask me. Let's parse the whole mess down to 500 and be done with it.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

4 semesters of Japanese wrapping up this week and I'm going to have to re-take this last semester when it's offered again. Kanji was partly the reason, but grammar was probably a bigger cause. I'm 52 and I'm trying to keep my brain in learning mode to stave-off alzheimers. If there's one thing you can say about learning Japanese as an adult, it's that it definitely gives your brain a workout!

I have Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji" series and my sensei was all for using anything that helps in remembering how to write those suckers. I found, however, that while his system works for learning to write the actual kanji, it didn't help so much with meaning because it only assigned ONE meaning to every kanji. As most of you know, the meaning can change depending on the okuragana that accompany the kanji character.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Fantastic article! Would love to read more like it!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

LoveNot wrote:

In the past most people in the world used pictographs as a writing system. But some people advanced to a more advanced abstract writing system as the alphabets.

I believed this ethno-centric nonsense myself before learning Mandarin and then Japanese. Now I know better. All the use of alphabets does, especially in the sloppy way English has done, is to make the language obtuse when being read. Kanji are what make Japanese readable and easy to understand.

By the way, the most 'advanced' non-pictograph writing system is one that did not evolve from pictographs*: Hangul.

*Actually, Hangul is based on the shape of the mouth when making sounds, but that is not pictography in the same sense as being discussed here.

I think that the lack of philosophical ideas in Japan are a result of this lack of abstract thinking.

Oh, boy.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

The only thing going for Chinese is that most characters have only one reading. Otherwise, I'd say learning to read and write Chinese is more difficult - you need to know at least twice as many characters to function in the language. And you and the natives don't have hiragana to fall back on.

smithinjapan:

I'm willing to bet most native English speakers don't know or don't often come across the word: "otorhinolaryngologist",

I actually know this 'useless word'! But only because I learnt it in French. Never studied Latin long enough to remember anything of importance. Yes, those Bonjinsha books were quite good. The problem I found with Kanji Kentei was that I was learning too many kanji compounds without really understanding how to use them. And the higher the level, the longer it took to study for the exams. Been telling myself to continue with level 3, but it's going to take ages.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I believed this ethno-centric nonsense myself before learning Mandarin and then Japanese. Now I know better. All the use of alphabets does, especially in the sloppy way English has done, is to make the language obtuse when being read. Kanji are what make Japanese readable and easy to understand.

Given the number of homophones that exist in the Japanese language, the kanji are a requirement for clearly understanding what is being written. 「さけさけ」, anyone? No? How about 「鮭酒」? ("Consumed by the most refined in the piscene community.")

Our textbook took us through all the hiragana and katakana before dipping our toes into the kanji wading pool with the kanji 先、生、大、学、and 校. Four semesters later we have covered the writing of 214 kanji in addition to the hiragana and katakana, but we have been exposed to many more kanji as part of our vocabulary reading. Still, this is but a fraction of the number of kanji considered adequate for junior high school equivalency.

Contrary to the author's premise, kanji can ONLY help you understand something if you're reading it. If someone is speaking to you, knowing the entire required kanji list isn't going to help you understand what they're saying unless you've forced them into drawing the kanji on their palm with their finger to clarify. Native speakers and those others fluent in the language rely on context for understanding the spoken language, not which kanji are used to make the word.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

^^ So true. I used to think i could understand 80% of what was being said around me, but couldnt fully understand the dialogue in a serious movie or understand the news (without relying on pictures). I now know that people around me were dumbing their conversation down for me. It still happens occasionally, but since i can understand so much more (bigger vocab, grammar, and of course kanji knowlege for words that i havent heard before), i can pick it out pretty quickly.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The Japanese mix of pictograms and a phonetic alphabet only has one parallel and that is ancient Egyptian. And ancient Egyptian died for good reasons while the Latin alphabet contiinues on for good reasons. I absolutely hate kanji for the same reasons I hate so many of the table manners mentioned in the piece about the Korean actress in the commercial; they are so much contrived, impractical junk which makes things much more unnecessarily complicated than they ever had to be.

Yes, even I balk at all romaji or all kana writings and read the kanji/kana mixes easier. But that is for two very simple reasons. One is because I am more used to the kanji/kana mixes because that is 99 percent of what I see each and every day I am here. In other words, sheer rote. Next is because there are no standard punctuation rules for all romaji and all kana writings. All kana writing should be standardized and used just like the Roman letters are for English. If this was done we would all get used to it, just as everyone has gotten used to it for all languages using Roman letters. Kana is a wonderful system going to waste because of kanji junk.

Yes, I know artistic types love kanji, and so do those who get a lame-ass feeling of superiority for having learned the contrived characters. But as a practical system its just a mess. Art belongs on the wall, not in everday writing. And those who need a superiority fix can focus on something else.

Kanji is not necessary for the language at all except that it has been made so by human will alone. And I submit that adherance to it for no good or logical reason will see the Japanese language take the same route as ancient Egyptian and the dinosaur.

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Another benefit to knowing kanji is you can often guess correctly at what a term might be by combining two kanji (plus "suru" for verbs). I've had many experiences where I'll dredge up some kanji, throw them together, and try to pass them off as something I knew - and the listeners would understand without even a blink!

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People having difficulty remembering kanji can have a look at http://rtega.be/chmn/ It offers sentences for each character in order to remember them more easily, tying the meanings of other characters together.

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Whoa, a lot of comments, very cool. I appreciate the outpouring of support from those who have, um, outpoured.

Well, a few people have suggested that I may have been slightly inaccurate, off-base, or, perish the thought, wrong as hell. Let’s just clear that up right now. Me wrong? That's unpossible. Everything I write is tinged with the faintest hint of truth and imbued with the very essence of accuracy. Maybe I used a semicolon when a comma would have sufficed, but other than that, eh, pretty much on par with Wikipedia, I figure. Thanks for reading.

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I like the way the article was written. It was humorous.

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Yes, I know artistic types love kanji, and so do those who get a lame-ass feeling of superiority for having learned the contrived characters. But as a practical system its just a mess. Art belongs on the wall, not in everday writing. And those who need a superiority fix can focus on something else.

Artistic type? Please. As the author states Japanese have a bunch of homonyms 同音意義語

For example, こうしょう

There are 48 ways to write it in kanji all with different meanings Imagine Japanese language having just the hiragana alone. I wonder what the dictionary is going to look like...

In my experience, those who whine about the kanji being unnecessary are the types who can't even fill out their own name and address in Japanese despite being here for many years.

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I've always wondered. It is predicted that modern language (homo sapiens) was created about 120,000 years ago.

So before the development of modern language, how did the cavemen communicate with one another? And once we developed language, why did we make so many of them?

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Tom DeMickeMay. 01, 2012 - 06:35PM JST It blows me away and while they think they're doing me a favor, it's so much more difficult to read. Japanese Romaji should be done away with all together.

I think you mean the Japanese shouldn't use it, which is true. Most Japanese have such a poor grasp of pronunciation of the Roman alphabet that they can't transliterate Japanese into the proper sound combinations in the Roman alphabet.

It's a major hinderance in them learning English.

Romaji is not the problem primarily because it's rarely used or needed. Katakana is the problem. If we could do some house cleaning in language education in Japan, first and foremost would be to take the standardization of "loan word" "spelling" in katakana away from the Japanese and let the bilingual folks from where the words/names come from handle it. Three perfect and perfectly annoying examples of words/names that could better rendered in katakana - pizza, Hawaii and Vietnam. Most of us have lists that run into the dozens, I'm sure.

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Chaz EdMay. 01, 2012 - 09:34PM JST Why learn something that is so narrowly used? I can go just about anywhere on earth and communicate in English!

Chaz may be a bit flip here, but what he says is true. Japanese is a borderline dead language. No one actually needs the language except the Japanese themselves. And even when a non-Japanese masters the language, you're still often treated as a curiosity, like a talking dog.

The rest of the world has used Greek, Latin, French and now English for the last couple of millennium. One could argue that Mandarin may replace English, but then, no one really likes doing business with Chinese to being with, so it's probably the Chinese who will be learning English rather than the rest of the world learning Mandarin.

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Japanese is a borderline dead language.

What!?

No one actually needs the language except the Japanese themselves.

So are you saying that 130 million people is just a handful or something?

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Learning kanji is no big deal. About 1.4 billion people use it in their everyday discourse, and if they can learn it, then so can I. It's just a matter of will power and having a practical reason for leaning them.

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Get Heisig "Remembering the Kanji" There are three books. Brilliant and very easy to learn from him.

If you are computer savvy and understand torrents, you can get all three volumes on line. I did. Free

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Whether this article is true or not, it's inspired me to take up kanji again. I started but I lost interest after learning more than 500 kanji yet still couldn't read anything. Time to try once more!

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The rest of the world has used Greek, Latin, French and now English for the last couple of millennium. One could argue that Mandarin may replace English, but then, no one really likes doing business with Chinese to being with, so it's probably the Chinese who will be learning English rather than the rest of the world learning Mandarin.

There is a very simple background for that. The European period of enlightenment and industrialisation is the foundation for the prominence of western languages. Greek and Latin have been the languages for education during the last two millenia in the civilizations that shaped the recent five centuries.

The question, whether anyone wants to do business in a language or with certain people is irrelevant. There is a simple answer why no other language will ever surpass English as lingua franca for common people around the globe and that answer lies in the Internet and the operating systems, system languages and so on, which are based on English. This is due to a historic background - the majority of these technologies were initially introduced in western countries - and for practical reasons - since English has an exceptionally small character set, which is completey covered in basic ASCII code. For everyone who is using computers beyond the pure user or application level, English is unavoidable.

Learning Kanji is neither more nor less of an issue than learning basics of Latin and ancient Greek for western people. These skills are required to understand the working principles of languages on a higher, abstract level. For daily life, you can get quite far without deeper and structured knowledge of the underlying principles. In that sense, 500 to 1000 Kanji are already a very good start for Japanese fluency.

I further must support the notion that Katakana is the disease that keeps the Japanese majority from fluency in other languages. Katakana should be banned from all kinds of foreign language training in Japan, because it interferes with the ability of children to learn new phonetic systems. The most severe deficiency in educated Japanese people is their ability to handle different phonetic systems and pronunciations. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to understand foreign names onces these names have been brutalized to fit into the Japanese Katakana scheme. It is absolutely beyond me why the Japanese mainstream cannot leave foreign names in the appropriate characters.

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We must learn kanji because we must know how to read and write 東京電力 lol.

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Where romaji excels is as a method to enter Japanese kana on an english-based keyboard. It's a means to an end, not the end itself. If I had to read Japanese strictly in romaji, I would quickly get confused and lose the meaning of the text. Having the text all in hiragana isn't much better because of all the homonyms. Including the kanji into the text is where the meaning is clearest.

私の娘に捜すです is a much more serious issue than 私の娘に探すです, yet both are わたしのむすめにさがすです in hiragana.

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Katakana? Piece of cake. There’s not that many of them

Realy, i find it the most difficult, a kanji i can read in 2 seconds, it sometimes takes me minutes to decipher a katakana word.

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