Belén Albeza

Studying Japanese kanji (part I)

Kanji are Chinese characters that have been adopted in Japanese, and are used to write the language, along two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. Although there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, the ones that are used in Japanese is a relatively smaller subset. The Jōyō kanji, an official list that compiles the most used characters, is a bit over 2000 kanji.

As a student, I've struggled with kanji. When I was taking language lessons at university, we would study them by brute force: writing them over and over again. This was enough to learn around 100 of them, but it's not a very efficient approach.

I later discovered J. Heisig's book "Remembering the Kanji", where he outlines the principles of a method to learn to write the jōyō kanji. The fundamental claims made by Heisig are:

The components concept is what is very interesting, and most modern methods are based on it. Components can be either full kanji, or some strokes grouped together.

For instance, let's say that we already know the following kanji: 口 (mouth) and 千 (thousand). From, that, learning 舌 should be easy if we think in terms of (舌 = 口 + 千), instead of focusing in memorizing the individual strokes. For simple kanji like this one it might not seem such a big deal, but for more complex kanji, this is priceless. Some examples:

Heisig would also build a mnemonic out of the individual components. A mnemonic is a memorization technique. In this case, a story is constructed that uses the individual components, usually in an absurd, silly way –this aids in recalling. For instance, to remember the kanji 舌, its mnemonic would feature a short story in which the keywords mouth (口) and thousand (千) would appear.

That completely made sense to me, but I didn't implement this method in place. The book suggested writing out the kanji, their components and the keyword in index cards, and use those to review. Carrying out that stack of cards is not practical, and at that time in my life I was oblivious to flashcard apps. I started to get really busy with my computing studies and put Japanese aside.

Fast forward a some years, I decided to resume my Japanese studies. I found out about Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) and flashcard apps that implemented them, like Anki. I signed up to WaniKani, a SRS method that would teach the kanji, their most common readings, and associated vocabulary words. I got familiar with around 1000 kanji with this method, but I found a lot of problems in it, and progression was getting harder a harder:

I cancelled my WaniKani subscription and try a different approach: using a pre-made Anki deck to study kanji (there are some available online, like versions of RTK decks, and other alternatives like Kanji Damage.

Most of the struggles I had with WaniKani were gone when I switched to a kanji-only deck for Anki, but still I had the problem of some characters or mnemonics being very hard to recall: words such us "spindle", "halberd", or "bestow" I had to look them up in a dictionary; a lot of the keywords were synonyms but I didn't know the nuances of each one.

The solution seemed obvious: start to translate those keywords and make up my own mnemonics on the go. But it turned out that later on I would find yet another synonym or keyword that would clash with the Spanish translation that I made. I have a Spanish version of Remembering the Kanji, but the keywords that they use in there are just terrible. A lot of synonym that just mean the same, mnemonics that don't work for me…

Another common problem I've had across all these systems is that when I was reviewing the cards, sometimes I would make a different decomposition than the author. For instance, the character 元 could be broken down in multiple ways:

  1. 元 = 一 + ⺎
  2. 元 = 二 + 儿
  3. 元 = 二 + ⺎

For me the third option was the worst, because they would "merge" component lines, when a different composition that would not require this merging was available! I needed consistency, and I was failing to recall properly because the break down I was doing in my mind didn't match the author's.

I ended up quitting Japanese, again.

Now I've resumed my studies and I'm on round #3 to learn kanji. And I decided to find a method that would work for me. My requirements were:

Long story sort, I input the characters, keywords, and components breakdown into a spreadsheet and coded a script in Node that would do the sorting. I ended up with a spreadsheet that I could import as a deck into Anki.

I can't share the spreadsheet as it is because some of the radicals are taken from different sources/methods (for instance, I took ⺌ as WaniKani's "triceratops", and Kanji Damage's "George Michael" for 冂), and I want to respect their intellectual property. But I'm going to share the sorting and the Spanish keywords I've used for the kanji, in case it might be of help.

Behold Benko's kanji list!

In an upcoming post I would share the algorithm I coded, as well as the process I followed to create the list.

一緒に勉強しましょう〜!