What? Kanji can be learned quickly? This seems an impossible dream to many students of Japanese who come from a non-kanji language culture. Even hiragana and katakana seem impossibly hard to average beginner, so remembering kanji, with all their intricate strokes and multiple readings, can appear to be beyond abilities of human mind.
But don’t give up hope just yet! There are tools that can transform you from a kanji klutz to a veritable genius. That does not mean that it will take no work, sweat or tears. (I would be lying if I told you it would completely pain-free.) But you can gain a good grasp of kanji with a lot less these than you would think.
So let’s look at two approaches that can have you gobbling up kanji like there is no tomorrow. In Part 1, I will talk you through mnemonic methods, and then in Part 2 I will focus on methods that can benefit visual learners.
“Mnemonic” simply means a device, formula or rhyme used to assist memorization. An example of a mnemonic embedded in my mind from childhood is “Never Eat Shredded Wheat”. As a rhyme it has nothing to do with navigation or geography, but it helped me learn points of compass.
So let’s have a look at mnemonic approaches that can speed-up kanji learning.
James Heisig's Remembering Kanji Series
Heisig's mnemonic-based approach is not only famous for claims its practitioners have made of rapid kanji assimilation (1,000 kanji in 29 days, for example), but also for critical flack it has attracted from traditionalists.
Undoubtedly, method has flaws: The student being encouraged to associate a single, very narrow and sometimes non-standard meaning with a particular kanji being a major one. However, fact that Heisig's approach is geared to Westerners also has advantages: Focusing on meaning before pronunciation is of more practical value to adult Western student, since while meaning is key to understanding, pronunciation of kanji is of little value unless reading aloud.
I came to this approach late, having used good ol' rote memorization and drilling method of most traditional textbooks, so it has not been such a boon to me as it would be to someone starting from scratch. However, while using a computer to write Japanese at work has made my mind lazy when it comes to writing, Heisig's method keeps shape of kanji right in front of me when I do pick up pen and paper. And I am hoping to use book 3 to go well beyond standard 1,945 character kanji set in future - something I would not even consider attempting without using this technique.