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Adventures in learning Japanese #2 — Efficient Kanji Acquisition

By November 12, 2022No Comments

I’ve tested various methods of learning kanji, to find out what works the best for me. Here’s what worked, and what didn’t.

1. Learning them simply by reading 🟡

The supposed good thing about this method is that it helps you see characters as pictograms from the very beginning, and helps you quickly acquire the most common kanji (i.e. which appear more often in texts) very quickly and “naturally.”

But it didn’t work well for me, because it is soooo slow, and it takes inhuman discipline and patience to learn a language just this way. The other problem is that you don’t learn the radicals of kanji, so you’re not really learning the kanji at all — your knowledge of them will forever be superficial, and at the advanced stages, this will hurt you.

Of course, you can’t ignore reading, but this is not sufficient for acquiring kanji. At least for me.

The next strategy is to learn them with a flashcard system like Anki etc. But even there, I have learned that some things don’t work and others do.

2. Doing anki flashcards with kanji on the front, and the meaning/keyword on the back 🔴

I’ll actually mark this one red, because it is a deadly trap. But most Japanese learners fall into it, because it’s so tempting. You supposedly learn to read the language very very quickly, easily do 25-30 new kanji per day, and can get done within 100 days if you push hard.

I was warned against this method, but I went ahead anyway.

But the problem, I realized (and which many other learners have also realized), is that it severely hurts your ability to WRITE the language later on. And by writing, I mean both in text and handwriting.

You’re again only becoming superficially familiar with the characters — which will again hurt you at the advanced level.

3. Doing anki flashcards with meaning/keyword in the front, and kanji on the back đŸŸĸ

This is the right way to do flashcards as recommended by Heisig and many other resources, for reasons that are better covered here.

Now, I do have some specific tips for further refining this method, to speed up:

  1. When you learn a new character (through mnemonics), also write it down once, in the correct stroke order.
    Often, you should also go to and look up words that contain the kanji — it will provide the necessary context. For example, the keywords “envious” (įž¨) and “jealous” (åĻŦ) have more or less the same English meaning, but have different kanji — the former has a more positive vibe (covet, admire, etc) while the latter conveys a more negative form.
  2. While reviewing, when faced with a keyword, simply visualize how you would write its corresponding kanji (i.e. which primitives/radicals are present, and how they are arranged). If you get it right, no need to actually write it out; but if you get it wrong, write down the kanji again and review the mnemonic to help you remember it. (I earlier used to physically write down every single kanji I reviewed, which was time consuming but only had a marginal improvement in memory — if at all. I don’t recommend it.)
  3. While reviewing, don’t spend more than 10-15 seconds trying to rack your brain for a kanji – just flip the card and give yourself a chance to move on. Sometimes, I even create a new mnemonic/story if the old one fails me. (Again, it’s better to see a card more frequently than to rack your brain as if it’s a test — it’s not!)
  4. When you write, don’t worry about making it beautiful — writing is just a learning method. Use it to help your brain remember the characters better, and that’s it.

See you in the next entry in my codex!

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