If you’ve ever taken an interest in Japanese, you will know there are 3 writing systems; Hiragana, a phonetic ‘alphabet’ for native words; Katakana, a phonetic ‘alphabet’ for loan words; and the mystical Kanji, pictograms knicked from Chinese that hold multiple meanings and pronouciations.
Every Japanese student will spend every year of schooling, learning these Kanji. Starting from the first year of elementary, they will learn 80, 160, 200, 200, 185 and 181 kanji each year until they know 1006 kanji. Then continue through Junior and and into High School learning the Jōyō Kanji – the everyday Kanji agreed by the Government and used in newspapers.
It’s no surprise that foreigners are some what intimidated when it comes to learning Kanji!
Learning Kanji as a Foreigner (and adult)
Let’s pretend that this symbol ‘/’ means the feeling one gets when there is an air tension between two people. And this character ‘#’ represents mother.
The ‘/’ is a much simpler object, a single line. Whilst the ‘#’ takes up four lines! Much harder to draw and remember the shape of.
But their meanings are significant. ‘#’, mother is a concept well understood by a 6 year, whereas our meaning for ‘/’ is much harder to explain.
Learning Kanji is about both meaning and the symbol. The kanji learnt by our elementary school kids is dictated by what they can understand, more than what they can remember to draw.
And this is why a foreign adult shouldn’t learn the kanji like a Japanese child.
How being a fluent speaker of a language helps with Kanji.
Our understanding in our native tongue, English, French, etc, allows us to concentrate on learning how to draw the image, and linking it to a meaning, or keyword, rather than getting lost trying to understand the concept.
By building from the simple looking Kanji, and combining these, we can create increasing complex looking kanji, from simpler building blocks, whilst our keyword behind the kanji can be simple like mother, to complex lust, or enlightenment.
Is it easy? No! There will still be kanji with multiple meanings, and we’ve not even learnt how to pronounce the Kanji! But that will come with studying the Japanese language.
As a foreign, adult learner of Japanese, we can at least be thankful that we don’t have to spend a decade or more learning how to write and gain meaning from these kanji pictograms, and instead can, with the right attitude, compress this into the space of a few months, leaving room for other areas of study to build on this knowledge.