The chronicles of Burrito's bizarre adventure into Japanese.

How I study kanji (without boring myself to tears)

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As you may or may not know, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with kanji since the very beginning. On the one hand, they lend so much meaning and compact convenience to the written language (just look at Twitter messages – you can cram in 3 to 4 times more into one message in Japanese than in English!), not to mention they look so cool and are fun to write. On the other hand, they’ve traditionally presented a huge roadblock for the vast majority of Japanese language learners, and not without legitimate reason. Thankfully, Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji books have alleviated the latter problem significantly, but this only goes so far – there are still multiple readings and scores of obscure kanji not covered in any of the three RTK volumes to trip up even the advanced learners among us. A miracle system in its own right, to be sure, but alas – the world of kanji has proven to be a monstrous beast, impervious to even the sharpest blades and arrows… but of course, far from being the invincible, immovable object many fear it as.

The bigger problem, in my mind, is that constantly reviewing kanji with Heisig’s (often confusing, often arbitrary) keywords becomes a tedious, frustrating exercise in boredom. I can’t recall how many times I’d get one kanji mixed up with another simply because its English keyword was practically synonymous with another. Besides the problem of Ambiguous Keyword Hell, the entire process would always wear on me and have pretty adverse effects on my studying habits in general. Believe me, I’ve tried practically everything to make it fun or at least bearable, but after multiple failed attempts (albeit, having gone through all 2000+ kanji but faltering with the daily reviews thereafter), I figured it was time to approach this behemoth from another direction altogether.

I’d read a little bit about another way to review kanji, and some success stories that compelled me to explore it a little further. This alternative method was to do away with English keywords completely, replacing them with their Japanese alternative. I’d actually tread the waters some time prior and found it too difficult; this was mainly due to my clunky, ham-fisted implementation. Oh, and by “tread the waters” I mean “dived right into the deep end head first,”  by the way. I’d approached it like my old kanji deck, advancing through in Heisig order and wracking up far more failed cards than I was comfortable with as I ran into uncommon kanji I’d never encountered before in real Japanese. Overwhelmed and with a slight sense of defeat, I begrudgingly returned to Heisig Hell, resigned to the apparent fact that I was yet 100 years too early to face Japanese keywords.

Perhaps I was slightly premature in my attempt to transition, but I’d later learn that a little preparation could have made all the difference.

This time, I had a battle plan. I’d been systematically reviewing the kanji of JLPT 2, 3 and 4 (via Reading the Kanji, which I rave about in multiple posts not long ago), and realized that if I limited my Japanese keyword reviews to only these kanji – unsuspending the “harder”, lesser used kanji from JLPT 1 and onward as I actually learn them – things would go a lot smoother.

Ironically, around this time I was actually coping pretty well with my standard Heisig deck – go figure. But there was a better way, and I was determined to make it work!

The process of unsuspending all but JLPT 1 kanji was grueling, I’ll admit. I went through and labeled almost all 2000+ kanji by JLPT level, by hand, and it took almost entirely too long. But as I went through, I could already tell how successful my subsequent reviews would be, being able to review kanji I’d already known, was in the process of memorizing or had evaded me but “needed” to be learned as soon as possible. Still, I recommend finding a more elegant, less mindless way of doing things if you decide this is the way to go, because it was seriously time consuming and exhausting (but well worth it).

Using Wrightak’s awesome resources,I imported his master spreadsheet and created a deck which included onyomi readings, one or two common “keywords” in kana (ideally corresponding to the English keyword, but occasionally liberal usage if said kanji was used in more common words with a different meaning), and a cloze deletion example sentence if I felt necessary (mostly for verbs). It ended up looking something like this:

Not the prettiest presentation in the world, but more than enough to get the job done. From the top, it’s set up like this:

  1. onyomi/kunyomi readings. Kunyomi isn’t always necessary, but definitely helps to include in some cases. This particular card only includes the onyomi reading, as the kunyomi is obvious given the keyword.
  2. The almighty Japanese keyword, written in kana. I’ll often include a second word for greater context.
  3. Example sentence, with the particular kanji deleted. This adds a great deal of helpful context to the particular kanji, which helps especially when you don’t yet know that kanji very well. I usually grab the most fitting sentence I can find from Smart.fm, which makes the process pretty quick.
  4. The kanji, of course, complete with the awesome kanji stroke order font.
  5. The Japanese keyword, in all its kanji glory. In this case, it’s a simple one-kanji word.

Not all that complicated, is it? The reviewing process is simple and not unlike how I’d review my old Heisig deck: write the sucker by hand and score it accordingly. As for my old mnemonic stories from Heisigland? Of course I still use them whenever necessary, but with this deck, I can actually feel the lines between mnemonic and true, natural kanji recall blurring more than ever.

I’ll admit that this deck is still a work in progress, as I continue to go through and add example sentences and occasionally different and more fitting keywords, but progress is going great and I actually enjoy reviewing this deck, and feel like I’m getting so much out of it. It really feels like the glue that’s firmly, finally making these badboys stick, and I recommend any serious learner of Japanese who’s completed Heisig to give it a try.

Any other Nihongoteers out there who have made the shift to Japanese keyword kanji reviews? How’s it going, and how is your deck set up?


Written by ritobito

May 20, 2010 at 6:02 pm

One Response

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  1. […] I’d like to talk about my kanji deck, which I explain in detail in a previous post. I’m now roughly 500 kanji in, continuing a leisurely (yet consistent!) pace of 10 new cards a […]

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