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Saturday, December 09, 2006

One of the most difficult part of learning Japanese is that of learning the writing system. Japanese language is based on a combination of phonetic and ideographic systems, which may be a formidable foe for even the willful learner.

I am explaining here the technique I am employing to learn kanjis, that is, the ideographic characters that Japanese language has borrowed from Chinese.
A good learning rhythm for a grown up adult is, relying on several book and teacher's opinions, about three to five per day, with two days over seven spent in looking back and exercises. This means learning roughly 900 characters per year, and to have learned the basics 1945 characters in about 2 years. To master modern Japanese, a few more are needed, about 2200, which can be done in less than three years. This seems a lot of time to learn reading a language for our western people, but when you think that those 1945 characters are taught to Japanese children and boys during the whole study course, in 12 years, and considering that their mind are young and they live surrounded by kanjis, you can have a picture of how fast is actually a learning peace of 3 kanjis per day, especially for an already grown up mind and for a foreign not living in Japan.

* NOTE: forget about learning kanjis if you have not yet learned kana, that is, the phonetic system. There are various reasons for that which I am not explaining here, but that will become evident once you have learned kana. Kana is composed of two parallel "syllable alphabeths" both composed of 48 elements (actually a bit less in modern Japanese). Considering handwriting vs. printed western alphabets, with uppercase and lowercase characters, this means the mnemonic effort to learn kana and latin alphabet is exactly the same. To a motivated student, a week is more than enough, so learning kana is absolutely not questionable. A good resource is http://www.omniglot.com/writing/japanese.htm for the general principles, and then http://www.nihongoweb.com/Hiraganapro/index.html which also teaches the correct writing practice.

At the beginning, I tried a simple read-and-repeat approach. It worked for the very first few kanjis, but I was already short of memory before the end of the first grade, that is, the first 76 characters Japanese children learn in the the first year of school.

Trying to memorize kanjis with various mnemonic methods didn't help a lot. Well, you can learn to memorize kanji meaning, associating the basic shapes they are composed of (radicals) with a meaning, and you can even learn to recall them which this approach, but what you're not going to remember is their multiple pronunciation and possibly their compounds. Many kanjis have several pronunciations, some up to five or more, and the most common one have also irregular readings. In example, the ideogram for day 日 can be pronounced HI, NICHI, JITSU or when used as counter for days, KA. But the compound 今日 "today", can be read as KON-NICHI or more usually KYOU depending on the context and meaning.

There is absolutely no mnemonic help in remembering that. You just have to learn it the old way, with endless repetition and usage, till it enters your blood and skin.

At that moment, while repeating endlessly kanji pronunciations as if they were mantras, I got struck by an illumination. Learning is action. The most effective learning technique is association, by which you can remember numbers, lists, or other impressive things; but when association is not possible or useful, then the second best technique is learning by action. Actually, association is effective exactly because it is a mental action. You can listen or repeat to yourself a word an endless amount of time, but if you don't act in some way using that word, it simply won't be retained by your mind.

So I started writing kanjis as I was learning them. Quite an amount of times, in example 20 times for each pronunciation. I also acted with them using them to build small sentences, or mentally applying them to the physical object they represented. In example, 菊 KIKU means chrysanthemum; I imagined a chrysanthemum flower becoming the lower part of the ideogram; for the upper three strokes, as they mean "grass" it's quite easy to remember them. Incidentally, it is an homophone of a quite common Japanese verb, that is Kiku, "to work", "to be effective". So, in this case, the association "chrysanthemum just works" came easy, but it's a rare case.

However, now that I have been learning kanjis for a year or so, I realized that the "action" method has a limit. The brain has actually two different memory storage, acting differently and being used for different reasons. Short term memory is used to interact with the environment and has a great detail level. In example, if you just happen to drop your metro ticket, you are able to pick it up because your short term memory is telling you that you have a floor or a stair step behind your shoulders. Long term memory is meant to store important facts that are needed for longer times, i.e. the people you know, the places you work in or the language you use.

Straight "learn by action" thing impacts mainly short term memory. Learn a kanji, repat it 100 times, then answer a phone call from a friend and you'll see it's lost after 10 minutes, unless you had the luck or the occasion to "bound" it with a strong association as the one of "kiku", but that are rare occasions. I noticed that a repeated refresh during the day was extremely effective to transfer things from short term memory to long term memory. My usual day is reaching my workplace with a 30 minutes train trip; I use that time to learn my three kanjis. The trip from station to workplace requires other 15 minutes, in which my short term memory is wiped. When I reach my workplace, while turning on the PC and drinking the morning coffee, I give a shot to the three ideograms I just learned. I give it another shot at dinner break, then I study them again, adding a bit of generic look-back during the trip when I get off work.

This is quite effective, but it has still a problem. It's a repeated shot to short term memory rather than a transfer to long term memory. Also, I noticed that, exactly as experts says, short term memory is day-long suited. A good sleep may wipe even the effort spent with this method.

I think I had the most effective method has been given to me by a Chinese person who's working in Milan. He has an excellent Italian, he is even able to spell correctly Italian "R" which is not present in Chinese language (nor in English, actually). So I asked him where did he learn Italian, and he answered that he used to put sticks in the house with Italian names for things they were stuck upon. In this way, every time he looked at the bed, it would have been impossible not to read the word "letto".

This would be quite impractical for a student still living in its own country, but the idea inspired me. Now I am writing down my three daily ideograms, together with their pronunciations and with some compound word on a small paper piece which I bring with me and I place where I can see it well. Each time I take some pause from work, I.e. while compiling, while taking a coffee, while stretching, while waiting for a phone call to be answered etc. I re-read the ideograms I am studying. The day after, I keep the ticket handy, i.e. in a pocket and I re-study it fixing it in mind at every occasion, while studying the new three ideograms.

This has proved the most effective method so far, and also the one being less difficult and burdensome to employ.

Of course, none of those method would work without (more or less) constant training in reading. I bought some adult oriented manga (comics) from japan; adult oriented means using a "complete" language, employing a wide range of kanjis that are usually not "explained" by appending their pronunciation to them. A foreign can usually read those works when knowing about 500-700 kanjis. Then I bought some literature works. Of course I bought also some work of Natsume Souseki, but you actually need about 2500 kanjis to read those fluently. However, modern publishers prints the vast majority of the less common kanji pronunciations, so my current 1300 ideograms and a good dictionary seems to be enough to handle the situation. For other contemporary works it seems that 800-1200 ideograms (learned in usage frequency order) are enough to make it though quite fluently, always with the help of a kanji dictionary when it comes to the less common ones. However, the network is a great resource, and you'll find that Japanese Wikipedia is quite readable above the 1000 kanjis level. Net-reading has also the advantage (or the disadvantage, depending on how you see it) that unknown words can be cut-&-pasted into online dictionaries, reducing the time needed to decipher a piece you really don't know about.

In a further article I will write about online literary resources. There are many universities and study facilities, both in Japan and abroad, which are translating into electronic format an incredible amount of Japanese literature works. For some, I still prefer buying the book (also, book prices for literature works in Japan are INCREDIBLY cheap), but if finance and time is limited, they are a great solution.

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