漢字 (pronounced hanzi or kanji) are arguably the most intimidating part of getting started in Chinese or Japanese, but I believe they can also be the most enjoyable if tackled correctly. Since beginning my Japanese journey over a decade ago (and my Mandarin adventure a few years ago), I have come across a lot of teachers, textbooks, and courses that advise learners to hold off on Chinese characters until they already speak the language fairly well. I think this is absolute rubbish, but let me first give some of the common arguments before I tear them to shreds…
Chinese characters are really, really difficult; it’s easier to learn how to speak first.
Chinese and Japanese children learn Chinese characters more easily than foreign adults because they already speak the language and therefore have more to attach the characters to.
Most adult learners can get by without reading and writing; it is the spoken language that matters most.
Most signs in China and Japan have Romanized Chinese and Japanese (i.e. Pinyin and Roumaji), so foreigners can get around without knowing Chinese characters.
It takes a really, really long time. If it takes native Chinese and Japanese children all the way through high school before they learn all standard use Chinese characters, it will likely take non-native adults even longer.
Okay, on to the shredding…
Rebuttal to Argument 1
Chinese characters are not difficult if you go about learning them in an un-stupid way that exploits (instead of ignores) the adult brain’s full potential for creative thinking and association.
Rebuttal to Argument 2
Chinese and Japanese children don’t learn Chinese characters easily. They learn through pure rote memory (the same method Japanese teachers and textbooks expect us to use), arguably the most painful and inefficient way to learn just about anything. The difference is that Japanese children don’t really have a choice. Learn Chinese characters or fail school, let your parents down, and end up an unemployed looser drinking cheap baijiu or Ozeki One-Cup saké by the train station…
Rebuttal to Argument 3
The spoken language is indeed extremely important. And yes, many learners (especially the Chinese and Japanese themselves) focus entirely too much on the written word at the expense of their oral skills in foreign languages. But I cannot tell you enough how important literacy is in Chinese and Japanese:
- Reading opens up a massive pool of potential language learning material, including some of the world’s best literature.
- It allows you to read the transcript of things you listen to, a practice that creates new connections faster than a media whore on Facebook.
- Being able to read and write Chinese and Japanese makes you far more employable than only speaking the language.
- And hey, nothing impresses the Chinese and Japanese more than foreigners who can read and write Chinese characters. You shouldn’t let it go to your head of course, but you can channel that positive energy into acquiring more of the language.
Rebuttal to Argument 4
Pinyin and Roumaji are false friends. Yes, it may help you take the right exit off the highway or get on the right train before your Chinese characters are up to snuff, and yes, they are what you will likely use to type Chinese and Japanese on your computer or mobile device, but they are not a replacement for learning Chinese characters. Knowing at least the meaning and pronunciation of Chinese characters will allow you to read real Chinese and Japanese, live and work in China or Japan with greater ease, and darn it, just flat enjoy learning the languages a heck of a lot more.
Rebuttal to Argument 5
If you use the efficient, adult-friendly method I recommend below, you can learn the the meaning and writing of all standard use Chinese characters in a matter of months, not years or decades as is usually the case with rote memory.
How to Learn Chinese characters
So now that I have hopefully convinced you that learning Chinese characters is both worthwhile and not as impossible as often thought, let’s get into how to learn them as quickly, efficiently, and enjoyably as possible.
Use “imaginative” not rote memory.
Despite it’s common use, rote memory is a terrible way to learn Chinese characters, especially for adults who have better tools at their disposal, namely, what is called imaginative memory. The method, used in James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji and Remembering the Hanzi, involves creating unique, vivid, emotional, altogether wacky stories that help you remember the meaning and writing of each and every Chinese character. Instead of trying to remember a more or less arbitrary slew of strokes (ridiculously difficult) you just have to remember whatever story you created (waaaay easier). This may seem like an extra step to those just starting out with Chinese characters, but believe me, it will end up saving you heaps of time and frustration in the long-run.
Use spaced repetition.
Back in the 1960s, cognitive psychologists, linguists, and memory researchers proved what every elementary school student has long known: we forget new information really freaking fast unless it is repeated. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we remember information for progressively longer and longer periods of time upon each re-exposure. With this in mind, a number of language learning systems and flashcard tools have been developed (including Anki which I discuss below) that repeat target words, phrases, and yes, Chinese characters, in increasingly longer intervals. Just when you are about to forget a Chinese character, boom, the spaced repetition system puts in front of your face, urging your brain to store it in ever longer memory.
Study Chinese characters right before bed and upon waking.
Studying new Chinese characters right before bed is ideal because our brains consolidate new information while we sleep. Whatever you see or think about right before this neural housekeeping session has a better chance of sticking. Furthermore, I find it to be a rather relaxing practice that actually calms my mind and helps me fall asleep. Studying first thing in the morning not only solidifies what you learned last night, but also ensure that you get in some study time that day no matter how crazy your day becomes.
Take it slow and steady.
As in all skills (and tortoise-hare parables) slow and steady wins the race. You may be tempted (especially in the beginning) to rush through as many Chinese characters each day as possible. But you will soon realize that studying more kanji or hanzi everyday does not automatically equate to actually learning more. Take your time with each character. Make sure you have truly committed its meaning and writing to memory before moving onto the next.
Pick a set number of chracters to learn every day (I recommend 10 in the beginning moving up to 30 as you get into the flow of things), and stick to this goal like super glue. Make a deal with yourself that you can’t go to sleep until you’ve learned your daily dose. Or allow yourself that special naughty delight (beer, chocolate, an episode of Dexter) only once you have reached your daily chracter goal.
Take it bird by bird.
It is all too easy to get intimidated (and depressed!) by Chinese characters when you focus on how many you still have to learn. The key is to focus not on the distance between here and your final goal, but just one (and only one) character at a time. This psychological tool is put into words best by Anne Lamott in her must-read book on writing and life, Bird by Bird:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Recommended Materials and Tools
Last but not least, here are my recommended Chinese characters learning tools. Before spending any time or money on any of these, however, make sure you are properly motivated to learn. Even the best tools in the world matter not if they sit on the shelf unused.
Remembering the Kanji 1
If you get only one Chinese character learning tool, this is the one to get. The subtitle to James Heisig’s kanji classic reads “A Complete Guide on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters”. And that is exactly what the book does; it provides a systematic, adult-friendly way to learn the the basic meaning and writing of all 1,945 standard use characters plus 97 additional characters for common people and place names. By design, book one does not teach you how to pronounce the kanji, a comparatively more difficult task covered in book two. This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Remembering the Kanji system, but Heisig defends his approach well:
“One has only to look at the progress of non-Japanese raised with kanji to see the logic of the approach. When Chinese adult students come to the study of Japanese, they already know what the kanji mean and how to write them. They have only to learn how to read them. In fact, Chinese grammar and pronunciation have about as much to do with Japanese as English does. It is their knowledge of the meaning and writing of the kanji that gives the Chinese the decisive edge.”
$34. 460 pages. Available on Amazon.
Remembering the Hanzi (Simplified or Traditional)
For Chinese learners, you can choose between two options depending on whether you are learning traditional or simplified Chinese characters. Regardless of whether you study traditional or simplified characters, keep in mind that there are two books, each covering 1,500 characters (for a total of 3,000).
$29 for each book (pages vary). Available on Amazon.
Remembering the Kanji 2
Once you have learned the meaning and writing of all standard use kanji, it’s time to tackle their myriad readings. Contrary to popular belief, this component of Japanese is far more arduous than learning to write the kanji themselves, but again, Heisig comes to the rescue with his second book, Remembering the Kanji: A Systematic Guide to Reading Japanese Characters.
Most Japanese kanji have two kinds of readings: those of Chinese origin called on-yomi and those of Japanese origin called kun-yomi. Kinder kanji have just a few readings, while other less friendly characters have dozens of variant readings, each with their own unique meaning. I’ve looked far and wide for alternatives, but this book still represents the most efficient way to learn all these various readings without going crazy or pulling a wakizashi across one’s gut…
$27. 397 pages. Available on Amazon.
Remembering the Kanji 3
For the eager beavers who complete books one and two and are still hungry for more, check out Heisig’s third book, Remembering the Kanji 3: Writing and Reading Japanese Characters for Upper-Level Proficiency. This volume goes through the meaning, writing, and reading of 1,000 additional characters needed for university study and specialized academic or professional pursuits.
$32. 430 pages. Available on Amazon.
This is one of my favorite new iOS apps. Check out my review to learn more.
Remembering the Kanji iOS app
Until this app came along, I used to recommend James Heisig’s Kanji Study Cards, a complete (but enormous) set of cards designed for reviewing all the information covered in Remembering the Kanji 1 and 2. But no longer with the introduction of this life (and back!) saving app, which covers all the same ground and then some.
$4.99. For the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Available on iTunes.
Some people love flashcards, others think they are the root of all evil and should be banished to the whatever level of hell holds Hitler. I personally find them a useful addition to (not replacement of) authentic content like podcasts, blogs, television shows, etc. And when it comes to Japanese flashcards, there is no better tool than Anki, a name which literally means “memorization”.
Free for Mac, PC and Android. $24.99 for iOS. Download here.
Now Go Get “Kanjing”
Alright folks, you now have the tips and tools you need to kick kanji’s keister. Now get out there and accomplish in a few months what usually takes foreigners and Japanese children alike over a decade. Happy Kanjing!
Want more recommended tools and resources for learning Japanese anywhere in the world? Want to spend your time actually learning Japanese instead of waisting precious time searching for materials? Check out my detailed language learning guide, Master Japanese: The Beginner’s Step-by-Step Guide to Learning Nihongo the Fun Way. The guide tells you exactly what to use, how to use it, and why. In addition to the step-by-step guide (available in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats), you get 9 interviews with language experts, 5 exclusive discount codes for products I use myself, 10 worksheets and cheatsheets, free lifetime updates, and a free copy for a friend.
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