Throughout my 3 years of teaching myself Japanese, I have learned quite a lot. To me, the grammar and vocabulary was not the difficult part since I am used to the subject-object-word sentence structure from studying Latin in High School. So far, I can understand most of what they are saying providing that I have a Japanese-English dictionary by my side.
For most people, the Kanji or rather Chinese Characters tends to be the hardest part of the Japanese language since it uses logographic characters (in addition to Kana) opposed to the traditional roman characters. People might be asking: why do we need it when we have ひらがな and カタカナ? I will answer that question along with sharing strategies I currently use to understand them.
So what is Kanji (漢字)? Kanji basically means Chinese Characters in Japanese. They are logograms used in the Chinese language. They are also in other Asian languages such as Korean and Japanese. In the Chinese language, there are 10 thousands of characters, but only 2136 characters are commonly used in Japan. They are referred to as Joyou Kanji (常用漢字, Commonly Used Chinese Characters). Students learn these characters from primary to secondary school and only 2000 out of the 2136 appear on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.
Each character can have two readings: Onyomi (音読み, Chinese-style reading) which is used in most compound words like 納得 (understanding). Kunyomi (訓読み, Japanese- style reading) on the other hand is used for words such as 花 (flower). Still, using Kanji has a lot of advantages compared to other languages since you can convey your thoughts with fewer characters. This is a reason Asian languages in general has a huge advantage on social networking sites like Twitter because one can share more within the character limit.
You might be wondering: why do we need to learn Kanji when you have Kana? Imagine yourself reading a text that is written only in Kana. You will soon realize that there are some words that have the same homonym. As a result, you won’t know the meaning of the word without knowing the context. This is perhaps the reason why playing earlier generation Pocket Monsters (Pokémon) games can be very difficult since it only used Kana instead of incorporating some Kanji like in the later games. This gives a misconception to a person who knows Japanese only at a beginner level that they can play and understand the dialog in a Japanese version of Pokémon because it doesn’t use Kanji. Yep, they are in for a rude awakening when they look up a word they don’t know what context its being used in. This is a number one reason Kanji is used in Japanese: to give additional meaning to a word.
If you need to know Kanji, what approach should I take to understand them? There are in fact many ways to achieve this such as the Heisig method, which uses mnemonics or using flash cards. For me, I memorized all the common radicals by using this deck, which are parts of a Kanji. By looking at the character, you will soon realize that they are composed of simpler Kanji. By knowing this, you will understand why children in grade school start with simpler Kanji before focusing on complex ones in secondary school. Even so, memorizing the radicals does not only help you understand them, but it can make finding unfamiliar Kanji easier.
The second aspect of Kanji that people tend to have difficulties on is memorizing the readings. If you look up a character in a dictionary, you might become intimidated by how many readings there are. If this happens, you are probably doing it wrong. You should primarily concentrate on memorizing the meaning of the Kanji and learn new vocabulary with it. To me, I find it easier to learn the vocabulary with the character since you will also learn the meaning and the readings in the process. This can be best achieved by adding an extra field to the Kanji deck and add words that use the character in question in that field.
Lastly, there is the writing aspect, which can be time-consuming since you have to know the stroke orders for each character. Probably, the only reason you would need to learn how to write Kanji if you plan on living in Japan, teaching Japanese or want to write letters by hand. Aside from these reasons, I can’t find a reason to learn how to write Kanji since I write most things on the computer and Japanese Input Method Editors makes it easy to input the right word. As a result, this also makes looking up words a lot simpler since you can just type and search for the word you are looking for and get the meaning right away.
If you are teaching yourself Japanese or want to broaden your knowledge of Japanese in a classroom setting, what would I suggest to improve one’s knowledge of Kanji? First off, you should definitely immerse yourself in written Japanese media aside from reading the passages from your Japanese textbook. This can be newspapers, websites, visual novels, video games (as long they are text heavy), light novels and manga. If you come across a word you don’t know, record the word and the meaning in an electronic notebook program like Evernote or Onenote. After you finish reading/playing, look up the Kanji for the vocabulary you discovered and find other words that uses the same characters (aside from adding the new word to a separate deck) and study them every day. Anki is the best tool to study Kanji and new vocabulary. Don’t forget that radicals and using parts of words that contain the Kanji can simplify the lookup process.
For those who are learning Japanese, how do you remember the Kanji? Feel free to share what methods you use.