Learning Kanji is Doable, but the Struggle is Real


Learning spoken Japanese is already difficult enough due to its dissimilarity to English and other western languages. And if that was not enough, you also need to contend with kanji, an inseparable part of written Japanese. If you have ever started learning kanji and gave up, or you have yet to start but are intimidated by the task, you are in good company. Learning kanji is decidedly difficult.

Kanji is known to be one of the most challenging aspects of learning Japanese, particularly for those of alphabetic backgrounds. It’s a barrier that leads to a high attrition rate. Successful learners require a high degree of self regulation to persevere with their learning and achieve proficiency.

The following is a list of 10 reasons that make learning kanji difficult. They come from the works of Professor Heath Rose of the University of Oxford, a native English speaker and a kanji learning expert [1], and from Professor Yoshiko Mori of Georgetown University, who teaches Japanese and specializes in second-language learning [2].

Why learning kanji is hard:

  1. Second language learners do not have a good grounding in the Japanese language when starting to learn kanji the way native speakers do. Second language learners cannot easily link kanji with well known words and often must rely on other techniques to link kanji to their native language.
  2. Kanji do not represent the phonology of the language they way hiragana, katakana and alphabetic languages do. Kanji is a morphological script that is inherently representative of meaning. It is difficult to make a shift from a written language that is based on phonology (such as English) to a written language based on meaning.
  3. Learning kanji in isolation without simultaneously learning it in the context of words can leave a learner with an inability to read it despite the invested effort to learn. This is because knowing the meaning of individual kanji in an unknown word does not necessarily allow you to deduce the word’s meaning. The meaning of kanji words based on their underlying kanji can be semi-transparent.
  4. Kanji may have multiple meanings. But even knowing the meanings will not allow you to read the kanji aloud when encountered in written texts. This is because kanji represent sounds in addition to their meaning(s).
  5. Kanji often have multiple readings (sounds). The correct reading depends on the word in which the kanji is used. When reading a word written in kanji, even if the kanji are known, it is hard to know which reading is the correct one.
  6. When writing a word in kanji it is hard to know the correct kanji to use. In Japanese there are only 46 speech sounds, but large numbers of kanji can all be read with the same sounds.    
  7. For an unknown kanji, it is extremely difficult to guess its reading. One of its components may hint at a possible reading, but otherwise, kanji cannot be sounded out.
  8. The huge number of kanji, and the time commitment needed to learn them is a formidable barrier.
  9. When learning kanji, it is easy and common to forget kanji which you have already learned, frequent practice is needed to keep kanji in your memory. Long-term, maintaining literacy in kanji, particularly handwriting, is a lifelong task.
  10. Rote memorization on its own is an ineffective way to learn kanji.

To get past the many difficulties mentioned above, you need effective strategies and a learning system. These things are incredibly important and need a whole article to themselves. I write everything you need to know here. Strategies and a learning system will make learning kanji much easier, but its still going to be an uphill battle.

Managing Yourself as You Learn Kanji

The complexity of the writing system is such a formidable barrier to literacy for Japanese language learners that it is the main reason for students to drop out of Japanese language classes or to give up the study of written Japanese entirely.

Heath Rose

Learning kanji is certainly not impossible, but the above quote does powerfully illustrate just what tough task it is. The main thing you need to contend with is yourself and managing your reaction to the negative feelings that arise when you feel that you have not progressed to where you should be by a certain point.

Oftentimes, these negative feelings creep in at later stages. In Professor Rose’s studies, he found that it is actually the more advanced students who are most affected and talk about giving up on kanji after several years of intensive study [1]. I know this to be true from personal experience, I gave up on learning kanji at one point.

There is a huge volume of kanji to learn and as you progress, you will forget kanji that you were supposed to have learned a long time ago. Without frequent review, the memory trace will breakdown [1]. This is completely normal and part of the process, but it’s demoralizing just the same. Tough times will come, but bear in mind the following to help get you through them.    

Breaking through the kanji learning barrier:

  • Make sure you are taking time to review kanji that you have already learned. Prioritize this higher than learning new kanji.
  • If you forget a kanji, do not be self-critical. Instead think, “good, this forgotten kanji has been brought to my attention, my review system is working”.
  • Frequent testing is an important way to get kanji into your long-term memory. Taking the time to relearn a forgotten kanji is a necessary step for you to be able to recall it long term. It does not matter how many times you need to do it. Each time you do it strengthens your memory trace.
  • Consistent small investments of time over a long period are what will bring you results. No matter what happens in given study session, just showing up and putting in the work brings you one step closer to kanji mastery (even if it feels like you have taken two steps back).
  • Believe in yourself. If you think you can do it, you can. If you honestly don’t think you can do it, this will have a negative impact on your ability to execute and your belief will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can do it!

It is important to set goals when learning kanji to keep you on track, and my best advice is to set goals that are not outcomes. Compare the following two goals. The first one is an outcome, the second is not. Goal: I will learn and memorize 100 kanji this month. Goal: I will spend 20 minutes per day learning up to 3 new kanji and reviewing up to 10 previously learned kanji.

With the first goal, if you don’t fully memorize 100 kanji, you will be disappointed. But with the second goal, if you stick to your 20-minute commitment everyday, then you achieve your goal. You were still specific about the number of kanji to learn, but achieving the number was not the goal. The goal was to consistently show up to the task everyday and put in an effort.

Fighting Procrastination and Boredom when Learning Kanji

Procrastination and boredom are two other negative forces which may work against you. Procrastination is when you are avoiding doing something that is unpleasant. To get on with your studies and push through procrastination, fall back on your goal and remember that keeping your commitment to yourself is the most important thing you do.

Sticking to your commitment will make you feel proud of yourself. But as discussed, a given study session can be unpleasant because of the failure experienced in forgetting a kanji. To combat this, surrender the outcome of the study session. Showing up and putting in the time is achievement of the goal, not flawlessly being able to recall every kanji 100% of the time.

In terms of boredom, there are two things at play. One is the length of time of your study sessions, the other is how stimulating you find the learning activity. Limit the time you spend on studying. It takes mental energy to study kanji. Choose a time of the day when you have energy to do it and stick to your time.

Your time commitment is directly related to how many kanji you are learning at a time. I have written in detail about the required daily time commitment relative to the number of kanji learned per day here. In terms of stimulation of the kanji learning activity, rote learning alone will likely lead to boredom. Rote learning does have its place, but fortunately, there are much more stimulating ways to learn kanji!

In fact, learning kanji using a variety of strategies is the most effective way to learn. Once again, the article about all the strategies is here. One fun strategy is mnemonics which is a memory technique where you learn kanji through creative stories. For example, the kanji learning system WaniKani uses all sorts of clever and humorous mnemonics to teach kanji.

Pitfalls: The Mistakes I and Others Made When Learning Kanji

The first mistake I made when I started out learning kanji was trying to learn through rote learning alone. Rote learning is just writing out kanji over and over. Sadly, this an almost unavoidable trap that many learners fall into because rote learning is the most recommended strategy by teachers [3] and is often thought to be the only way to learn [2]. I thought that, and I was wrong.

Although rote learning does have its place, we know that we also need more effective strategies. But in any case, rote learning was the way I learned a few hundred kanji at the beginning of my studies, but I really struggled with it. It was frustrating, and I eventually gave up on this strategy. Actually, I gave up on actively learning kanji completely, which I regret.

With rote learning alone I just couldn’t remember how to properly write out even just a few hundred kanji. My experience is not unique. A study conducted by Professor Nobuko Chikamatsu of DePaul University further underscores the danger of rote learning as a learner’s sole strategy [4]. The study compared the ability of native Japanese speakers and non-native learners to produce kanji.

Unsurprisingly, natives were more proficient, but the real interesting thing was the difference in mistakes each group made. It was found that more often than not, when non-native speakers made mistakes when writing a kanji, they would miss individual strokes or draw part or all of the kanji in a way that did not match any known kanji, let alone the target kanji.

Conversely, when native speakers made a mistake, it was usually that they replaced one component of the target kanji with a component of a different kanji, or they replaced the target kanji with a different kanji altogether, but in either case, whether just a component or the entire kanji, what was written was still a properly formed kanji and also had the same reading as the target kanji.   

The missing ingredient for non-native learners is the understanding that kanji are not just a series of strokes, but rather an assemblage of components [4]. Native speakers have this conception, but non-native learners don’t because they start learning kanji by rote memorization without understanding the structure of kanji and without any knowledge of other more effective learning strategies.

I had given up on ever being able to write kanji, but I still wanted to be able to read in Japanese. So instead, I moved to strategy where I just practiced reading and used flashcards. I would read material at my level, for example, articles from NHK News Web Easy, but there were of course a lot of words and kanji that I did not know.

I would put these new words into flashcards with the kanji and reading on the front, and the meaning on the back. I figured that if I just encountered words enough during reading and supplemented with flashcards, I would eventually be able to read authentic Japanese texts written in kanji. This was my learning strategy for many years.

It did yield some results for me. It even got me to the point where I was able to pass level N1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam (JLPT). But even after passing N1, kanji was still a challenge and a weak point for me. In fact, I felt that I was still overall not that good at Japanese, and I really wanted to continue getting better.

One thing I realized was that my weakness in kanji was one of the things hindering me from making further progress. So, I decided to bite the bullet and the kanji learning challenge again. But this time I have gone about it differently, I discovered WaniKani and various strategies that makes it so much easier. Learning kanji is still difficult, but it can be done, and you don’t need to make the same mistakes I did.

For more information about kanji, like why it still even continues to exist is modern times, what makes it useful, and how to manage it as a learner, please have a look at my other articles linked below. Good luck in your studies!

Even more articles about kanji!


References:

[1] Rose, Heath. (2017). The Japanese Writing System: Challenges, Strategies and Self-regulation for Learning Kanji. Multilingual Matters, Bristol, Blue Ridge Summit.

[2] Mori, Yoshiko. (2012). Five Myths About Kanji and Kanji Learning. Japanese Language and Literature, 46, 1.

[3] Gamage, G. Haththotuwa. (2003). Issues in Strategy Classifications in Language Learning: A Framework for Kanji Learning Strategy Research. University of Wollongong.

[4] Chikamatsu, Nobuko. (2005). L2 Japanese Kanji Memory and Retrieval: An Experiment on the Tip-of-the-pen (TOP) Phenomenon. Second Language Writing Systems, Chapter 2. Multilingual Matters.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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