sk   Slovakia

So what about Kanji?

March 2015

Hi, I have a question about learning Kanji. I tried to do it my usual way (with detailed explanation of my needs) and it turned into a 1000-word essay. So I'll just ask the question in the following paragraph, and if you want to read the whole thing you can just continue reading:

Short version:

I need a system for learning Kanji that's efficient, lets me work at my own pace, and also teaches character writing. I've already tried: Remembering the Kanji (via kanji.koohii.com), Kanji Odyssey 2001 (with Anki), and Obenkyo. You can just keep reading for more details.

Long version:

First I'd like to provide some background on my efforts to learn Japanese, so you'll know where I'm coming from. I apologize in advance for the lengthy post.

I started learning Japanese many years ago. It has always been a hobby for me (never a professional or academic necessity). But my end goal has always been native-level proficiency in speaking, reading and writing.

Unfortunately, seeing as Japanese has always only been a hobby for me, my learning efforts have been sporadic. I'd go through bursts of intense studying over holidays, and then when school or work resumed I wouldn't touch Japanese for months at a time (except for the occasional Anime)

In 2012 I spent 6 months doing an internship in Japan. There I discovered I could speak somewhat decent Japanese, but my vocabulary was severely lacking (I'm here to fix that!)

Just like Steve, I believe the key to proficiency is a lot of exposure - listening, and mainly reading. Which brings me to the point of this post - Kanji.

I've tried several methods and tools for learning Kanji. Each has helped me progress, but none of them has brought me what I aim for - a high level of proficiency (approaching mastery in the limit) in reading and writing of the roughly 2000 to 3000 characters needed to be truly literate in the language. I'll briefly mention what methods I've tried:

1. Remembering the Kanji (RtK) by prof. Heisig (using the SRS at kanji.koohii.com) The advantage of this method is that it gave me a great framework for remembering the individual Kanji, with their various elements and their relative positioning. It also made me practice writing the Kanji by hand until I had the Kanji-writing mechanics engraved on the inside of my skull (curioulsy, I believe this has improved my handwriting as a whole). But it also imposed an artificial system of English keywords that had no practical use for a Japanese language learner, and could even interfere later when learning actual vocabulary. Eventually I found the keyword list tedious and pointless to try to keep in my memory, so I quit RtK. The system also taught me no character readings (readings are taught in RtK2, but like many people I discovered that RtK2 simply doesn't work for me).

2. Kanji Odyssey 2001 (creating my own flashcards using Anki SRS) - the list of the most commonly used 2001 (or so) Kanji, along with their readings and compounds. I've spent a considerable amount of time creating my own flash cards, pulling the compounds from the Kanji Odyssey book and looking up sample sentences in online dictionaries. This proved so time consuming I eventually quit. Also, I realized the strictness and urgency of a SRS such as Anki was making me apprehensive in regards to my studies. You come home from work and realize you have 30 flash cards due for review. Only you don't feel like doing it, so you say "I'll leave it for tomorrow". And the next day you have 60 cards, and the day after it's 100. You get the picture.

3. Obenkyo - an Android app (there are versions for other platforms too) that I picked up recently. It's sort of an easy-going kanji/vocab review system - no SRS (as far as I can tell), so no ever-increasing numbers of expired cards. The big advantage is that it allows me to practice writing Kanji on my phone's touchscreen. But the app has its shortcomings too. The handwriting recognition system is far from perfect - most of the time it's way too strict, while sometimes it creates false positives, causing me to "fail" the Kanji I know and "pass" the Kanji I don't know. It also doesn't keep very good track of how well you know something, which results in asking me the same things over and over again, making it quite inefficient. Nonetheless I like the app, and have been using it every day for the past few months. However, I recognize that I need something more advanced for learning Kanji.

So what's my actual proficiency when it comes to Kanji? I honestly couldn't tell you. kanji.koohii.com will tell you that I know 3007 Kanji, but most of my flash cards have expired. Obenkyo will tell you that I know 2494 Kanji, and in all fairness I can pick out a character in a line-up based on a list of readings and English meanings with a 95% to 99% success rate. But I can't really write many of them, and can't use most in a compound. Anki and I don't talk to each other anymore.

I'd characterize my proficiency as such: I've had exposure to a lot of Kanji. Some of them I can read if I see them in a familiar compound. With others I just know the reading, or am familiar with the meaning. Some of them I can write from memory. For some of them I can do all those things. I couldn't give you any numbers if you threatened to feed me a bowl of pure wasabi. As for the difficulties I'm facing, I guess they're the same as everyone's - forgetting characters, mixing up elements, mixing up characters that look alike or have synonymous meanings, etc.

As you can see, I'm no stranger to the rigor of learning Kanji. In the past I've adopted stringent daily routines in order to make steady progress, and I'm prepared to do it again. What I need is a system - one with fewer shortcomings than the ones I've used so far. I need to close the gaps I have in both writing and reading. If I have a system I can trust to get me there, I know I can put forth the effort to see it through. The system should allow me to progress at my own (varying) pace. It should be efficient, and thus probably electronic in nature, but it should also include handwriting drills (I know drills are against the philosophy of lingq, but I think even Steve would agree that some amount of drilling is necessary for Kanji). It should not contain anything as time-consuming as painstakingly compiling my own Kanji lists, scavenging for sample sentences in online dictionaries. This to me is the opposite of efficient.

With all that said (and I realize it was quite a lot), I would like to ask:

What are you using to learn Kanji? Based on my requirements and your own personal experience, what would you recommend me? Just to clarify, I'm looking for something to do in parallel with lingq - a Kanji-learning supplement to lingq's language-learning approach, if you will. To be honest, I was quite surprised that lingq doesn't seem to have a support for learning the Chinese characters, given Steven's heavy personal involvement with Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese. Maybe this is something that could be added in the future?

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