A teacher once gave me an English alphabet stencil. As a young child, I had exhausted her patience with my inability to write letters from the English alphabet. I held the moulded plastic alphabet and busily shaded in my chosen letters, grateful that I now had the power to create words on paper.
Fast forward thirty years and here I am teaching foreign students how to write and speak in English. I often wonder whether my students would have the confidence in me that they do, if they knew that I, too, once struggled to write words in my own native language.
In my Japanese studies, I put off learning Hiragana for years. I would look at them in a book and that plastic alphabet stencil from my childhood would come back to haunt me. Why on earth did I need to be able to read Hiragana let alone Kanji, which looked to me like something only a rocket scientist could get to grips with? Was it not better to just focus on speaking Japanese? Why waste time on something I would probably never use?
I was wrong; very wrong. Now, I see the error of my ways. Learning Kanji might be one of the best decisions I have ever made.
What is Kanji?
I'm going to keep this article as simple as I can. So, just for today, I will refer to Kanji as pictograms. I'm sure there will be a lot of people out there shaking their heads or holding their head in their hands in dismay. Sorry, but this article is for the newbies! This is for English speakers wondering why they should consider learning Kanji, and for those studying Japanese who have put off learning Kanji up to this point.
A pictogram is a picture that represents a word or an idea. You may have also heard of the word hieroglyph, which is what Chinese characters probably looked like to Japanese people when they first encountered them back in the first century AD. However, the Japanese were slowly won over by the effectiveness of Chinese characters and moulded them into their own system known as Kanji.
Who uses Kanji?
Obviously, Japanese people do. But, as mentioned already, they originate from Chinese characters which are in use (in one form or another) in the following countries: mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and South Korea.
I'm an English speaker - why should I consider learning Kanji?
There are many reasons to learn Kanji. To save time, I will explain my own reasons and let you consider what benefits learning Kanji may have for you.
As I mentioned earlier, I mainly learned Kanji to help with my studies of the Japanese language. I have, however, found many other additional benefits including increased patience and concentration, mindfulness, a sense of achievement, and a possible way to improve my career. In the following article I will elaborate more on these benefits and advise how I set about learning the Kanji.
A lot of books advocate using imaginative memory to learn Kanji. This is a highly effective method, but for the moment I'm going to recommend some resources which focus particularly on getting to grips with stroke order.
I first decided to learn Hiragana, which derives from Kanji but was more apt for a complete novice, as I once was. In Hiragana, as in Kanji, it is important to focus on getting the stroke order correct. Using the book 'Let's learn Hiragana' by Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura, I first focused on developing patience in learning the correct stroke order.
The first step is not an expensive one, and I began practicing Hiragana characters using cheap paper and pens from a local thrift store. It is tempting to try and learn the basic 46 Hiragana characters as quickly as you can, but I would advise against this.
Simply copy each individual character and write it out as many times as you need to. Your aim is to feel comfortable at writing out every individual character. Don't rush to move on until you feel you have a natural ability to sketch out a character.
When I first got started, I would aim to fill in five lines on a lined A4 writing pad. This meant I would initially write a single character out at least one hundred times. I would learn in blocks of ten characters at a time, roughly equivalent to one thousand characters in a single sitting. As I learnt more characters, I would steadily decrease the number of times I wrote out characters that I had previously learned. This meant a new character would fill five lines, but an older character would be written only five times. I would practice every day so that I was revising new and old characters each time I sat down to practice.
As the days turned to weeks I became more patient with this process, and it even became fun! I felt like I was back in a school art class messing around making pen line drawings, and also enjoyed the fact I could listen to music while practicing Hiragana.
Another great thing about learning Hiragana are that there are countless apps for your smart phone with built in quizzes. I don't start work till 10:30AM, so I would practice writing out the Hiragana early in the morning, then on the bus I could quiz myself about what I had learned. By occupying my mind during free time (for example, while sat on a bus) I found my concentration levels rose a great deal.
I would recommend downloading 'Dr.Moku's Hiragana Mnemonics'. This app allows you to test yourself, and also has handy visual memory learning cues for characters you may be struggling with.
By following this pattern of everyday learning before I got to work I quickly mastered Hiragana and then moved on to Katakana. I followed the exact same methods for Katakana as I had for Hiragana. You also may find the book 'Let's Learn Katakana' by Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura and also the 'Katakana app', also by Dr.Moku. Once again, I used these two resources to focus strictly on stroke order.
Every supermarket and bookstore in England is now bursting with mindfulness colouring books. The basic idea of mindfulness is to focus on being in the present and not worrying about the past or future. These colouring books are proving to be a lucrative market, and are now being followed by dot-to-dot books.
I think it's great if the colouring books help someone to take their mind off their problems, but wouldn't it be more productive to learn and write Kanji? Kanji are both time consuming and require concentration, but if you are able to focus on Hiragana and Katakana then Kanji should not be an obstacle for you. There are thousands and thousands of Kanji to learn and use, which gives you an inexhaustible supply of characters.
In Japan the Japanese Ministry for Education has designated two thousand one hundred and thirty-six Kanji as frequently used and which should therefore be learned. Studies also suggest that a well educated person in Japan will know around 3,500 Kanji. So, if you enjoy writing Kanji to unwind, then it will one day come in very handy if you plan to visit Japan. You will get a great sense of achievement when you are able to read newspapers and signs on your holiday.
When I started to learn Kanji I looked into the characters used in the JLPT N5 level test. JLPT stands for Japanese Language Proficiency Test. The N5 level is the lowest, and estimates seem to put the number of Kanji characters needed from around 80 to 105 for the N5 level.
I first began to learn Kanji using the book ‘Remembering the Kanji’ by James Heisig. The book uses imaginative memory techniques to help you remember each Kanji. I went about learning from the book in a haphazard fashion, researching apps and internet resources to make a list of 105 Kanji which are suspected to be used in the JLPT N5 test. I then looked through Remembering the Kanji and highlighted all the Kanji which were on my JLPT N5 list.
Once I had a sense of the 'imaginative memory' method used in Remembering the Kanji book, I would apply it to the Kanji on my list and come up with my own mnemonics to remember the character. You can also try doing this yourself and put together a list of Kanji that you feel you would benefit by learning first.
This may sound like a shortcut process, but I've always believed that we learn better when we take a personal interest in what we are learning.
Kanji and your career
In recent years, the UK has received an increasing numbers of Japanese and Chinese tourists and students.
I'm old enough to remember when most employed people did not know how to use word processing software. Nowadays, it is essential to be able to use a word processor if you work in an office. This is just one example of a change in standard employment skills that happened very quickly.
Could Kanji begin to appear everywhere in the UK? It is hard to say, but as the saying goes: the best time to learn something was twenty years ago, the next best time to learn it is now. Perhaps it is time for English speakers to consider sharpening their pencils and start practicing Kanji now.
Hero Image by Leio McLaren on Unsplash