Many Japanese teachers and language texts advise learners to hold off on studying kanji. There are a few reasons for this:
- they believe that kanji are too difficult for foreigners to learn.
- they think that the learning of kanji will take away from the time needed to study grammar, vocabulary, etc.
- many of their students have complained about studying kanji in the past.
Don’t fall into this trap! There is absolutely no reason to postpone your kanji studies. The more kanji you know, the easier it is to live in Japanese society. Kanji allow you to read authentic materials made for Japanese people (books, newspapers, etc.), instead of being limited to children’s books and watered-down, foreign friendly articles.
Also, kanji can help you understand the meaning of new words. If you know the meaning of individual kanji, you can often guess the meaning of compound words without having to look them up! Let’s say for example that you come across the word 同音異義語 (どうおんいぎご) in your reading. If you know the meaning of each character (同=same; 音=sound; 異=different; 義=meaning; 語=word), it is easy to see that 同音異義語 means homonym. But if such a word were written in hiragana or romaji, you would not be able to guess the word’s meaning unless you looked it up in a dictionary.
The bottom line – if you only have time to study one thing, STUDY KANJI!
- Take 書道 (shodou, calligraphy) classes. Most junior highs and high schools have classes or after school clubs that will allow you to learn Japanese calligraphy.
- Take notes, etc. in Japanese – it’s really geeky, but hey, practice is practice.
- Find a Japanese pen-pal and then write them a handwritten letter once or twice a month.
- Write articles for your school or community newspaper. It’s good for your Japanese and it’s a great way to share your views and experiences with the community.
- Read manga – it’s highly contextual and therefore easy to understand (having pictures always helps.) Also, they usually print 振り仮名 (furigana, little hiragana characters to help you read kanji) next to more difficult characters in most manga.
- Read the Hiragana Times. Bad name, good magazine. All of the articles are written in both Japanese and English and almost all kanji words have furigana.
- Copy an online article and paste it in the “Translate” box at the WWWJDIC website. It provides the pronunciation and meaning of each word so you don’t have to spend hours looking them up. Also, you can set it so that repeated words are only defined once by checking the “no repeated translations” box.
- Rent a Japanese movie or TV program you enjoy.
- Play it with English subtitles.
- Play it with Japanese subtitles.
- Play it with no subtitles.
- Books on tape. Play the tape as you read along in the book. This will also help your reading and listening skills a great deal.
- Try listening to announcements at train stations or stores, either while commuting to work or travelling in Japan. Even if you cannot understand everything that is being said, over time you will find yourself able to pick out place names, times and other information.
- Have a “Japanese Only Day” Set aside a few days a month where you speak nothing but Japanese from sun up to sun down. On this day, you should speak in Japanese even when thinking to yourself.
- Say words out loud when you read or study vocabulary. A big part of speaking with quasi-native pronunciation is muscle memory and elasticity.
- Do not rely on rote memory! There is not a single linguistic study that supports rote memorization as an effective method for foreign language learning. It may work to pass a test, but it will not lock new words into deeper levels of memory.
- Use association (i.e. tying the word to something you already know)
- Learn synonyms, antonyms and related words at the same time.
- Learn new vocabulary in context – a story, movie, etc.
General Study Tips
- Don’t just memorize grammar rules and example sentences – make your own. When you learn a new grammar point, write out a list of sentences using the specific structure, and then go over it with a native speaker.
- Try to use a number of different sentence structures to test the limits and constraints of the grammatical structure in question.
- As you study in Japan, you may find it useful to find three types of study-buddies.
- A native speaker of Japanese who DOES NOT speak English fluently and who does not teach Japanese: They will be best at pointing out what phrases and sentences sound natural.
- A native speaker of Japanese who DOES speak English fluently: They will understand the structure of both languages well and will be better at explaining the what’s and why’s better than type 1.
- A non-native speaker of Japanese who speaks Japanese fluently: They will be best at explaining the why’s and moreover, since they had to learn Japanese as a second language themselves, they will be your best source of advice on language learning methods.