The 5 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Learning Kanji

The Japanese learning industry has, for all intents and purposes, failed you. It’s not your fault that learning kanji is like hitting your face on a curb, it’s the industry as a whole. Sure, there are pockets here and there that are pretty smart about it, but they tend to be small and nobody really knows about them. Most likely, you know what your teachers says about kanji, or what Rosetta Stone Japanese (doesn’t) say about kanji, or what your textbook throws at you… But, here’s the problem, though: You’re learning kanji from native Japanese speakers, and they have no idea what it’s like to learn kanji anymore (and even if they do, they just emulate the way Japanese school children learn kanji), which really just doesn’t work.

The Japanese learning industry, on a whole, has failed us when it comes to kanji learning. But, you can learn from their mistakes, and in doing so, learn how to fix the way you learn kanji.

FAILURE #1: You Learn Kanji Stroke By Stroke By Stroke…

Sure, there’s something to be said about learning correct stroke order. I’m all for that, but the problem is that it ends up putting emphasis on learning kanji stroke by stroke by stroke. When kanji is simple, it’s easy to learn this way. Three strokes? Only three things to learn. Huzzah! But, when you start out learning kanji like this (i.e. when you think of kanji as a bunch of strokes), you keep learning kanji like this. That’s why in most Japanese classes, when the kanji homework goes out, people automatically see how many strokes a kanji has. “I know a 20-stroke kanji, I’m impressive!” people think. No. You’re stupid. Thinking of kanji as a bunch of strokes just forces you to try and remember more. A 20-stroke kanji = 20+ different things you have to remember. If you think of a kanji as individual strokes making up the whole, then you’ve already failed. So how should you think of kanji, then?

FAILURE #2: You Don’t Learn Your Kanji Radicals

Oh sure, you might learn a few radicals here and there, like the water radical (just a few little strokes next to a kanji). “If you see this,” the kanji resource says, “you’ll know that this kanji probably has something to do with water.” For the most part, though, radicals are a distant afterthought in the kanji-learning world, and this is an absolutely huge mistake. Most people teach radicals (if they teach them at all) as pieces of a kanji that help you figure out the meaning of the kanji if you don’t know it. Although this works sometimes, why not just learn the meaning of the kanji in the first place?

Instead, learning radicals should be treated like building blocks. Remember how I said kanji should not be learned stroke-by-stroke? More complicated kanji should be put together radical-by-radical. If you take the time to learn the 200-250 kanji radicals (it may seem like a lot, but it’s really a pretty quick process), you can put a fairly complicated kanji together in 3, maybe 4 steps. Think of radicals like the ABCs of English. You can’t put together the word FAILURE if you don’t know the letters F-A-I-L-U-R-E, right? By learning radicals first you’re setting yourself up for kanji success. You cut down on the memorization required for every single kanji by 300-800%. Here’s an example:

Now, this kanji isn’t particularly difficult, but you get the drift. Learning this kanji stroke-by-stroke would set you back eight steps (because there are eight strokes). Instead, let’s take a look at the radicals that make this kanji up. If you learn all the kanji radicals (or, at least the ones I recommend), putting this particular kanji together can be done in a mere 3 steps, depending on which radicals you would use. That’s a 260% less to learn which means you’re saving valuable time and brain-space.

As you can see, these three “radicals” can be put together (like letters in a word) to create the kanji above. The first one (止) makes up the top portion, the second one (小) takes up the bottom, and the third (ノ) rounds it out. The best part is that you associate these radicals with names and concepts, which means you can come up with some kind of mnemonic device to help you remember what goes where (more on mnemonics below).

In summary, everyone should learn their radicals before even thinking about learning kanji. If you don’t, it’s like building a highrise with no foundation.

Failure #3: You Memorize Instead of Learn

Good things can be said about repetition and “memorization.” I think they’re a necessary part of kanji learning, but everything has it’s limits (and you can use all the help you can get when it comes to kanji). One of the problems I have with the “normal” way people have you learn kanji is that they give you 10-20 kanji, sit you down with a kanji worksheet, and have you write the kanji over and over again (and of course, the focus is on the number of strokes, right?). The problem, though, is with our brains. First of all, there’s only so much information (or so many steps) we can fit in our short term memory. That means as soon as you move on to the next kanji, there’s a good chance you’re already forgetting the one before it. Another problem is that with too much repetition, our brains switch to autopilot. At that point you aren’t learning any more, you’re just going through the motions. To solve this, there are a couple of solutions.

SOLUTION A) First of all, don’t think of the kanji as strokes, think of them as particles. This will help you learn more effectively (and get the information in your long term memory more quickly). When you’re practicing, think of the individual radicals that you’re writing, and how they go together to form the whole kanji. The more you do this, the faster you’ll be able to learn kanji.

SOLUTION B) Don’t write a single kanji more than three times in a row. If you have multiple kanji to practice, switch back and forth and go back to previous ones. Come up with some kind of pattern. I would recommend something like this. Each letter represents a kanji, and each time it shows up it should be written for practice: A, A, A, B, B, B, A, B, C, C, C, A, B, C, D, D, D, A, B, C, D, E, E, E… etc. When you run out of space for “A” kanji, you would just start at “B” the next time around. This way you are forcing your brain to actually think and process the information, instead of hitting autopilot the moment you’ve written a kanji for the 4th or 5th time.

SOLUTION C) Apply some kind of mnemonic strategy to your kanji. Mnemonics help you remember things. They basically leave hints in your brain that when seen trigger another memory, which really helps you to remember things more effectively. One way to do this is to come up with “stories” for your kanji. If you’ve learned the kanji radicals, it is pretty easy to do. If you take the example above (歩), we can use the three radicals to come up with a story to help us remember whatever it is we want to remember. The radical examples below are ones I’ve given meaning to. You can come up with your own meanings if you want to, or use a set that someone else has developed.

  • 止 is a radical that means STOP
  • 小 is a radical that means SMALL
  • ノ is a radical that means SLIDE

So, we can use these three concepts / words and put them together in a way that helps us remember that the kanji 歩 means “walk.” Here’s one: “Stop! It’s a small slide. We will walk from here” (you know, because zombies hang around slides). As long as you know the radicals already, the hints to trigger this little “story” will be right in the kanji, every time you see it. Of course, we could get even more in depth with it and start associating emotion as well as our senses. This gets into the concept of creating “flashbulb memories” for yourself (these are memories your brain produces during traumatic or incredible events, that’s why you remember where you were, say, when you learned about 9/11). By imagining the emotion you felt when you saw the small slide, or the smell of the aluminum, or perhaps even the shock you felt when you saw how small it was, you can make this memory a lot stronger by tricking your brain into thinking it was really important. The more senses or emotions you associate with it (you really have to imagine they’re happening, though!), the more likely you are to remember. This may seem like a lot of work at first, but it actually gets quite quick and easy as you practice.

You can even take this a step further and learn the pronunciation of the kanji like this as well. Once you know the meaning of the kanji, you can learn the pronunciation using a similar strategy. For the kanji 歩, the most common on-yomi for this kanji is ほ (ho). When you know this, you can come up with another story that uses “ho” in it. Maybe something like: “When you walk around, be careful about stepping on a hoe (ほ). Since we know the meaning of the kanji from the previous story, we can use that as our hint to figure out what the pronunciation of it is as well. Beyond that, though, I’d recommend also learning the common words that use that kanji, since there are often plenty of different ways to pronounce the same kanji, and learning through example is the best way, I think.

FAILURE #4: You Learn Kanji Like Japanese School Children (i.e. In The Wrong Order)

When Japanese school children learn kanji, they go from simpler kanji meanings to more complicated kanji meanings. Sometimes, a simple kanji will have a simple meaning, but sometimes it won’t. Take a look at these kanji, for example. These are learned in secondary school (i.e. they are “higher level” kanji), but if you look at them, you’ll notice they’re really, really simple to write. Two or three strokes each.

乙 了 丈 勺

Even though these kanji are simple to write, the meanings aren’t as simple, which is why Japanese school children don’t learn them until  later in their education. On the other hand, take a look at these kanji, which have very simple meanings associated with them, yet consist of many, many more strokes. These are learned by second graders in elementary school. We’re talking tiny little kids, with tiny little brains.

曜 線 鳴 算

The problem with a lot of Japanese learning resources is that they emulate this Japanese school children method of learning kanji. The thing they seem to have totally forgotten is that you, as someone who is learning Japanese as a second (or third, or fourth) language, probably are not a child (not to mention a Japanese child, in Japan), which means it really doesn’t matter if you learn kanji with difficult meanings earlier. You already understand the meanings behind the words, because you’ve learned them all in English. The difficult part is the actual kanji itself (and how to write / read them), not the meaning associated with that kanji. Because many resources forget this, you are introduced to more difficult kanji early on just because the meaning of the kanji is easier.

Instead, everyone should learn kanji based on the simplicity of the kanji itself. Who cares about the meaning. Start with 1-stroke kanji and work your way up. There are approximately 2,000 kanji you have to learn no matter what, so you might as well put them in an order that makes a lot more sense. By starting simply and moving your way up, you are able to build one kanji upon another. You’ll find that more complicated kanji are really just made up of less complicated kanji (or radicals). But, if you learn kanji the way Japanese school children learn them, it feels random, overwhelming, and just plain confusing. Learning kanji isn’t the same as learning vocabulary in Spanish, German, or whatever. It’s its own monster, and should be treated that way.

FAILURE #5: You Don’t Use The Best Tools Out There

I’m pretty sure most teachers today don’t say “okay, when you go home, I want you to go through your Smart.fm/Anki deck and practice your kanji.” No, it’s more like “okay, when you get home write this kanji a gazillion times in this kanji sheet until you feel tired and lethargic.” Now, you don’t need fancy tools to do anything. Tiger Woods could pick up a crappy golf club and still beat you every time. But, when it comes to language learning, it certainly doesn’t hurt, especially when the best tools out there are free.

Smart.fm and Anki are “intelligent” flash cards (i.e. they know when to bring back certain cards and know what’s giving you trouble so that it can help you learn more effectively). Even if you like the feeling of paper in your hands, these services will beat your handmade set almost every time (though Rainbowhill has a pretty good method if you do like using physical flash cards). These services will tell you what to study and when to study them (and in general, they’re usually right), which really helps take the pain out of flashcard learning, and will be your best friend when it comes to learning kanji.

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  • ThatGuy

    Did you miss the part where he said those more complicated looking kanji are learned earlier due to the simpler meaning? Your statement is invalid as he was talking about the reason the more complex kanji are taught earlier in comparison to the simpler ones. He’s right to say that it’s stupid to learn the kanji from simplest MEANING to the most complex MEANING and that you should instead learn them from simplest to WRITE to the most complex to WRITE. Also you merely proved his point about complex kanji being built off of simpler ones…

  • heinza

    Sorry guys, but I’m just thinking…Shouldn’t one try to learn kanjis from most frequent to least frequent, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of either their meaning or the way they are written?? And perhaps organise them in a logical way e.g. similar characters, by radical, etc. In fact, could anyone recommend resources that have this approach? I’d like to start with the most commonly occurring kanji and build up from there rather than by how simple their meanings are, or how simple they are to write… Thanks

  • warwick

    Really, it’s probably a combination of those as well as other variables.

    Here’s a chart from the Japanese Agency for Cultural affairs that lists kanji by frequency:
    http://www.bunka.go.jp/kokugo_nihongo/bunkasingi/kanji_24/pdf/sanko_3.pdf

    In general it’s probably accurate enough. For comparison, the numbers listed on the right are the frequencies arrived at by other surveys.

  • seb

    Hello,

    in the free software Tagaini Jisho (available for MS, Mac and Linux), there are usefull pop-up windows showing animation about how to draw kanji. The big difference with other programs is that they use a different color for each componant of the kanji. So you don’t remember strokes but shapes as you recommend. (sorry, i m not fluent in english :))
    Cheers.

  • Kanjilearner

    Actually I was being taught excactly the 5 don´ts, described here. Then again, I checked some textbooks and I have to admit, that I have become a huge fan of Kanji text- and workboos.

    To share my “resources”, here are my recommendations: Basic Kanji and intermediate Kanji (the red, blue, orange and green books), published by Bonjinsha. Furthermore there is, altough it should be revised in the future, Kanji in Context, which has reference Kanji book and addionally two workbooks and interestingly, they are quite similiar like those tips from the article above.

    I also learn and revise just for fun with the Kanken series and can highly recommend this series for learning Kanji. It is just the Japanese way, which means, write and repeat, write and repeat, but you can test them if you have (like I do) a Nintendo DS and the DS cartridges. I unfortunately do not have such a certificate as in Switzerland you simply can not participate for this exam, but the Kanken series was a big help for the JLPT exam.

  • Minoru Arakaki

    I’m a full 2dn Generation Japanese American and was taught by my Parents and Japanese school which in Hawaii we had after our regular school. It’s optional but you take it from kindergarten to the 6th grade. So I can go to Japan and no one can tell as my Parents were from Tokyo and taught me how to read and write. Going to the class after school was mainly to stay out of trouble. LOL And Lived in Tokyo for 10 years off and on so I have a Tokyo accent.

    And just one comment I really dislike when all these NON Japanese peeps say stuff that we of pure Japanese decent or even a Japanese native is doing it wrong. WTH is that? IMHO? Complete you’re talking complete NONSENSE. Learning Japanese is easy so is Kanji, Calligraphy now that’s another subject. But Kanji is no biggie. Heck I learned German in a couple of months. But one thing I can tell is if you learned from a NON Japanese teacher. You can really spot em easily. Its like how we here Japanese who learned English in Japan. But those who go to school here to learn English you would never know. I have a niece who studied in Socal where I live now and she has a California accent.

    Sorry dude but you’re not getting it or know what its really like even if you’re half Japanese. Like the anywhere in the world different area’s of a country has different ways of talking and writing. Just like us yanks. Why make such a big thing out of nothing? As long as the person understands is all that matters. Heck just look at how many Americans that can’t even speak or spell English correctly or even know so called big words etc. haha!

  • Minoru Arakaki

    No I’m not a texter or typist so yes thar be typo’s mate! ;P

  • Yuki

    I find that learning kanji in the order of japanese kids is best. It teaches u the most commonly used kanji first, so u can begin reading at least some kids books. If u go learning all those complex meaning but easy stroke kanji first and leave the more common but higher stroke order kanji till last, you wont be able to practice reading as you learn. I learned the first 1006 kanji primary school kids learn and can read most manga and young reader books and magazines. Its in this order for a reason, and you also remember kanji the more you see it, so reading is also helpful (as well as writing of course).

  • Anonymous

    This all looks pretty good, but I have one question about number four: Sure, the kanji may have simple concepts, but wouldn’t more Kanji writing actually be made out of those as well? Rather than the complex concepts? E.g. I’m guessing that someone learning English would be better off learning the words rain, fun and television before the words cohesive, mausoleum and antidisestablishmentarianism (yes, that’s a word).

  • Khawlita Chan Hatsune

    this is really useful , thank you very much

  • Ash

    Wow, this is completely awesome. Thank you! These problems seem to go beyond the Japanese school system, in my experience. I learned to read (English) at home, rather than at school, and I definitely noticed a similar phenomenon. In schools they want to teach you phonics and memorization, and kids get bored and frustrated because they don’t see the point behind it all. Or how in math and physics, they give you sheets of equations with weird symbols before you even know what the hell the concepts they’re supposed to be describing are. Can we just make you education secretary of the world?

  • dinkster

    Your math is wrong. 800% => 8.0 => 1/8.0 => one eighth. One eighth the amount of work is 8 times less work, which is 800% less work.

  • Tj2820

    Learning time = unit value = 1. You can break the unit into smaller units (I.e. minutes into seconds). Since our learning time = 1 and 100% represents the whole reduction by more than 100 % is not possible. To challenge this please reduce 1 sec by 800%.

  • dinkster

    Textfugu’s claimed learning time is unit value = 1, which is 800% smaller than traditional unit value = 1_naught. You call B whole, I call A whole. The argument is moot.

  • Tj2820

    No. When you reduce state x, the traditional, to state y, the claimed, by some factor z the math works as follows ( when you want to reflect reduction by a percentage value):

    (1 – x/z ) * 100 = percent reduction;

    Where x/z=y

    Thus,

    (1-(1/8)) * 100 = (1-.125) * 100 = 87.5%

  • dinkster

    You can normalize it any way you want, the ratio is the same. The above is a colloquial use of speech that happens all the time.

  • Trey

    Yeah, I’m DEFINITELY bookmarking this page.

  • Alca

    hmmmm….i don’t know, but my techniques to learn kanji, might be lil bit different, i learn by remembering the words that written in kanji, and the shape of the kanji. such as ‘心’ [kokoro] means heart, the shape it’s a stilation [simple shape] of actual human heart, or maybe ‘鳥’ [tori] bird, it looks like bird. Well, i don’t know, but this technique help me a lot to learn kanji :)

  • Matan

    I COMPLETELY disagree. Kanji learning is an essential part of vocabulary learning – the two go together, hand in hand, and should not be seen as 2 seperate processes.
    And for the same reason it won’t make any sense learning complicated words BEFORE you learn simple, basic ones – it will be unwise to learn uncommon or obscure kanji before you’re familiar with the most common ones.

  • http://salamipolis.blogspot.com/ Ahmedichov Fachrynov

    well thanks tofugu-senpai.. i think i must learn more about radicals, not strokes.. it make me dizzy..

  • laura

    What do these mean? (Mirror image)

  • laura

    Oops nvm flipped it. They`re right.

  • Max

    I think what he meant was that people learn shapes, and forget each one has meaning. I’m currently learning Hiragana and I believe that is a vital thing to remember, the fact that you are learning pieces to put into a puzzle, you’re learning letters that make a word that make a sentence, I guess even more so when using kanji, people use kanji for art, kinda misleads the western world into believing they are shapes and fancy characters used for aesthetic purposes.

  • red

    oh my god this is going to help me so much

  • Erico Shimada

    I bought all Kanji books of the collection “漢字マスター”, and each volume refers to a JLPT level. The first book is the level N5 and it has, obviously, very basic kanji. So does anybody here know if the level JLPT N5 covers only the basic radicals necessary for more complex kanji?

  • Jeff Morgan

    Here is a selfish comment. You may reply if you like.

    The kanji is always reasoned to be isolated and grouped in some rational way.
    Kanji by radical,
    Kanji by stroke order,
    Kanji by concept,
    Kanji by frequency.

    1000 remedies. 1 cure.

    Are we missing the point?
    How do I associate words?

    When I say feather.. which word is more closely associated, in your mind,
    weather, father, tickle, bird, pillow, or feeder?

    we can associate words by structure or function.

    father, feeder, weather are structured like feather.

    bird, tickle, pillow are similar in function.

    the two structures are either aesthetic or phonetic or a mix of the two.

    weather sounds like feather.
    feeder looks like feather
    father sounds and looks like feather.

    The function is divided into origin, destination, or usage.

    Feathers come from birds
    feathers go into some pillows
    feathers are used to tickle.

    What do we know now about vocabulary?

    lists based on concepts don’t work well for me. Because of the confusion, of learning too many divergent things.
    Spoon and knife are similar concepts and are found together.

    Into the dark, my experiment is to arrange and learn Kanji as an English Dictionary would.

    By the sound they make.

    Good luck to everyone as we grow into japanese speaking assasins.

  • Troy

    heh, this is me. Getting bombarded with the kanji in college, I hated them.

    Then my first year in Japan I discovered Heisig’s book, and was able to get a handle on them.

    Now we’re cool.

    But several years ago I really felt sorry for my classmates in Mandarin, for they were forced into the same wrong-order approach I was back in the 90s with Japanese.

    For me, mandarin was no sweat since I already could read the characters, mostly.

  • Troy

    if you only have time/energy to learn 100 or 200, sure.

    But if you’re going for 2000-3000, starting from the basics isn’t a handicap.

    When you get going, learning the basic meanings of 30-50 at a sitting is doable.

    2000/40 is 50 days. There’s only about 300 elemental kanji anyway, so you can clear these out in a couple of weeks of study.

  • Kaj

    Super helpful article Koiichi, brilliant job.

  • saber

    I think he meant “using” in the natural sense, i.e. through books, subtitles, writing yourself, etc. In other words, through actually using the language. Anki is an outstanding resource, and very worthwhile, but if that’s the only time you see what kanji you’re learning, it’s probably safe to say you’re wasting your time on kanji not worth knowing.

  • Realm

    Chineasy was established to help people learn Chinese characters. Sure it’s specifically for Chinese language. But it certainly help you visualise stuff. http://chineasy.org/