I'm writing this blogpost after speaking with Olly Richards about my approach to learning kanji. We recently discussed this on his podcast show and I thought I'd add some extra thoughts to expand on what we talked about.
My story in brief
I moved to Japan two years ago and could hold some pretty basic conversations in a bar. I had learned two of the three Japanese writing systems (hiragana and katakana) but would be completely baffled by the kanji - the Chinese characters. I had tried to learn some kanji, but mulling over the fact that Japanese people take about ten years to become literate, decided that I'd concentrate on learning to speak Japanese. That in itself is a big enough challenge for anyone isn't it?
Well, last year I found myself in something of an intermediate plateau. I was visiting friends in Kyushu and met a guy who's Japanese wasn't the same as most foreigners I'd encountered. It seemed to me that, whenever I'd hear foreigners speaking Japanese, I'd understand most of what they were saying. I guess this is because whatever route a foreigner has taken towards learning Japanese; the language that sticks is the most immediately useful language most of the time. You know, why learn five or six words that essentially mean the same thing, if the one "catch-all" word will communicate an idea "good enough" for most situations, right?
So intrigued by how this guy had gone about reaching such a high level of proficiency, I asked him, "What advice would you give someone like myself?" ... and without a moment of hesitation, he replied, "Learn to read .... if you learn kanji, it unlocks the language!"
All I needed was a key
The moment he said, "it unlocks the language", I knew I'd stumbled upon the honest answer I'd been looking for ... and now I desperately needed the key. So where do I get a key to unlock this language I asked. Start with Heisig's book, "Remembering the Kanji" he said.
If truth be told, I'd already dabbled at using Heisig's book a couple of years before, but back then, I wasn't very good at sticking with routines ... so my previous attempt had been somewhat fruitless. However, since that attempt I'd done a few "Add1Challenges" and felt that perhaps one of the greatest "take aways" from doing these language challenges was that I'd learned how to persist with things ... I'd learned to quiet the nagging voice in my head saying, "Oh what's the point ... I'm not getting anywhere". I'd learned that when you're learning a language, you learn to just keep going anyway ... you probably won't feel like you're making any progress .... but in fact you are.
Persistence ... that's the key here!
Heisig Smyshig ... just get on with da show!
So, January 15th 2016, armed with the knowledge that I was capable of maintaining a routine I started using Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji" book - volume one. It teaches you how to associate the characters with a single keyword meaning. You learn radicals (or primitives as Heisig calls them) to make mnemonic stories. I used the book and the RTK application on my iPhone. This time was different because I knew persistence was the key.
A few people were critical about me using Heisig's method ... and I'm sure it stems from "Whatever method worked for them, would be the method they'd advocate for other people." I used to explain that I'd tried learning the readings before, but that not only slowed me down, because the characters have multiple readings etc ... it made the whole challenge of learning 2,000+ characters feel much more like 10,000 characters or something seemingly persistence breaking.
In hindsight, I'd say that there comes a moment where you no longer question why you're doing something ... you just say, "this is what I do" ... you're no longer questioning whether it's the right way of doing it or whether it's the quickest most effective way of doing it ... it's just that this way works for you. I do love one of Steve Kaufman's profoundly brilliant comments on language learning as a whole .... "What's the hurry!!!!" he cries ... and I love him for that ... it's so true ... if you're enjoying it, nothing else really matters!
My other trick to help boost my morale along this marathon of challenges was to reward myself at a few milestone moments. For me, as I'm a huge Star Wars fan, I bought myself a Star Wars figure at 500,1000, 1,500 and 2,000 kanji characters in Heisig's book.
Learning kanji is like being an archeologist!
Back to why people often criticize Heisig's method. I guess I would have been about a thousand kanji into my great Heisig adventure when I found myself on the Sobu line train to Tokyo. I was looking at adverts on the train and internally feeling enormous pleasure in knowing that "that character means 'fresh" or that one means 'cheap'" etc etc ... and I'd be able to gain a reasonable understanding of what the advert was telling me.
When you arrive in Japan, you'll see lots of signs in kanji and English. For example, you'll often see 消火栓 - Fire hydrant or 消火器 - Fire extinguisher. When you learn kanji with Heisig, you start reading these signs like this: 消 - extinguish 火 - fire 栓 - plug or 消 - extinguish 火 - fire 器 - utensil ... and for me, I'd smile at the fact I'd know I'd be reenforcing the keywords I'd learned from Heisig's book as I wandered around.
To me, this was exactly what my friend in Kyushu had told me ... "learning kanji unlocks the language" ... oh, absolutely ... I'm now thinking in Japanese ... no longer am I looking for the word "hydrant" ... I'm thinking "extinguish fire plug" or "extinguish fire utensil". This little change in perspective seems to have helped me a lot when I'm sitting talking with my Japanese language partner. It's as if, by learning kanji, I'm slowly (and I mean sloth-like slowness) starting to form more natural Japanese sentences by virtue of my thinking shifting towards a Japanese way of thinking about things. For sure, I've had over forty years of thinking in British English ... so it's perfectly understandable that I think of things this way ... but I know the deeper I dive into kanji, I'm seeing things through Japanese goggles.
And this was the point where I started to read Japanese books (with furigana - the small hiragana printed beside kanji so that children / teenagers can read the kanji).
From Kanji Padawan to Jedi Master
In the wise words of Stephen Krashen, "Input should not only be comprehensible, it should be compelling". This is very true. I remember being bored beyond belief during my French lessons at school in the UK. The textbook had stories about Monsieur Lafyette going to the supermarche to buy a baguette. Nice for Monsieur Lafyette. Boring as hell for the 30 odd kids in my French class.
So about halfway through Heisig's RTK book, I began reading "The Empire Strikes Back" in Japanese. The greatest thing about me reading Star Wars in Japanese ... I love Star Wars! It's very compelling for me. There are lots of katakana words in Star Wars. So for example, take the sentence:
Armed with katakana, hiragana, very basic knowledge of Japanese particles and Heisig ... that's:
Ru-Ku wa Star wo See Above Ga-Ru
... and thus I'd know the sentence means: Luke looked up at the stars.
If I only knew katakana, hiragana and the same knowledge of Japanese particles. That sentence would mean: Luke (subject) ... something something .. garu ... hmmm ... not very helpful ... maybe I'd guess that last word was "agaru" (to go up) ... and maybe one of the kanji you learn just through exposure to the language would be "mi" and you might think, ah okay ... looked up ... but still, what's he looking up at ... is that a spaceship ... what was happening in the story?
So, the more characters I could at least recognize and know roughly what message they were conveying, the more detail I'd be able to grasp from the text. I love reading Star Wars in Japanese because I'm not only immersing myself in stories that I adore, I'm also getting a lot of joy from reading the story from a completely different perspective ... a Japanese perspective.
Of course, I'd also be encountering kanji like this ... 反乱軍 (Rebel Forces) which some of my friends might say, "Kevin ... that's really not going to help you order a meal in a Japanese restaurant". Fair criticism perhaps ... and very true ... it's brilliant being able to sit chatting with Japanese people about Star Wars, but sometimes it's helpful to be able to read word for "unreserved seat" (自由席) when looking around a station for where I need to board the coach with unreserved seats on the shinkansen.
Enter the Alligator-Crab
So about four months into my mission to learn 2,000+ kanji using Heisig's RTK book and in addition to reading Star Wars books in Japanese; I started using a website called Wanikani. It teaches you pretty much the same kanji as Heisig, but not just a keyword association ... you learn the readings. Some people don't bother with Heisig at all; they just learn kanji using Wanikani.
Did I think, "Oh no, I needn't have bothered with Heisig?" ... well maybe a little ... but on the other hand, I felt like I was reviewing Heisig's keywords as I ploughed my way through the levels of Wanikani. It reenforced what I knew ... and also, it often uses different keywords ... which, in my opinion is rather good because it reminds me that kanji don't just have one meaning. Kanji change their meaning in a context; they're very flexible like that. But in addition to just learning kanji on their own; I'm learning vocabulary words .... loads and loads of really useful vocabulary words.
Wanikani will teach me the readings of about 6,000 vocabulary words in addition to over 2,000 individual kanji. I'm on level 10 of 60 at the moment. That means I can look at a kanji character, know what it means and also be able to read it out loud. Often I'll already know what a word means because it's a word I use a lot in conversation. Let's illustrate that with an example.
自分 : myself (reading: じぶん = jibun).
Now, with Heisig, I might know that 自 = oneself (じ:ji) and 分 = part (ぶん:bun). I'll then encounter other words that use these kanji ... 自転車 (じてんしゃ: jitenshiya - bicycle ... self revolving vehicle) .... or how about 多分 (たぶん: tabun - maybe ... many parts).
You might notice how quite often, you'll already know a word that you use in conversation and then you'll get a wonderful "penny dropping" moment where the reading of a kanji just makes perfect sense (and once again, there's a certain amount of "oh, that's how Japanese people see the world around them) happening all the time.
The more kanji you learn, the more it unravels and becomes a fascinating game. I seem to have stumbled into this journey at exactly the right time ... I was stuck in an intermediate plateau, I was looking for an answer to how to progress to a higher level ... and the more kanji I learn, the more everything seems to be making sense.
That guy in Kyushu was absolutely right. If you want to speak Japanese, you don't need to learn kanji ... but if you really want to speak Japanese eloquently, gain a huge vocabulary AND have a fascinating adventure along the way ... learn to read Japanese.