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Reader Response
November-December, 2002

New site offers (and solicits) mnemonics for remembering on/kun pronunciations

I created my site, Kanji Study Guide, because it is something that I wanted to use myself to study kanji. Since there isn't anything like it I created it myself.

I enjoy studying kanji and the best study method out there by far is Heisig's, so I just take his method a bit further (maybe much like his second volume) with help on how to remember the readings.The only problem with the site is that it eats up time, seriously, and it is most likely a several year-long task.

My hope is that other kanji addicts will send in feedback on good mnemonics or other useful memory tricks and tools so I can post them on the site. I'm sure you have a few you may want to share (hint, hint:).

Jason Webber
Sakura City, Chiba
"Forget the Kanken! Learning to write kanji is not worth the time and effort"

Most westerners living in Japan are WASTING THEIR TIME if they study for the Kanji Proficiency Exam (Kanken). Instead, they should devote their energies toward studying for the Nihongo Noryoku Shiken, 1st level!

It is an established linguistic fact that writing kanji uses a totally different part of the brain compared with learning Japanese speaking,listening, and reading skills. For proof of this, just look at the large number of westerners who are good at speaking, or listening, or reading, but cannot write more than a handful of kanji. Learning to write kanji is similar in value to the art of shodo. Writing ability has some value in itself as an art, and there is a slight transfer of ability into the reading, speaking, and listening skills, but those many, many hours that it takes to learn writing could better be spent reading, speaking or listening to Japanese.

The reason has to do with GOALS. Most westerners in Japan, for their jobs and daily lives, need to be able to speak, read, and listen to Japanese. They rarely need to write kanji. And when they do need to write, if they are good at reading, they can skillfully use a computer.

I really enjoy reading. In Japanese, I read about history, science, and politics. If I had to study hour after hour about how to write kanji, I would know a lot LESS about Japanese culture.

In summary, if you want be a so-so painter and a so-so Japanese speaker, then study for the Kantei. But, if you want to be a GOOD Japanese listener and reader, then you should study for the Nihongo Noryoku Shiken, 1st level.

Joe Lauer
Note:To learn more about the Kanken, go to Previous Columns: Column #13, "Testing, testing... Kanji exams can be fun for all the family."
What is the best way for Heisig learners to tackle vocabulary?

I have finished James Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji I & II," so I am now picking up on grammar and vocabulary words. I am trying to remember a verb wordlist right now and I find it difficult to memorize it. The verbs, based on what I have been exposed to, tend to use kun readings, and I am not familiar with those having followed Heisig's approach. How should I memorize the kanji's kun reading ?

After the first few hundred vocabulary words I have learned, I don't see how learning the on readings in isolation did me any good. Can you shed some light on the usefulness of knowing all the onreadings in learning vocabulary words containing them? I'm not a fan of rote memorization so at the moment I am utilizing mnemonic techniques in order to associate the English meaning to the kun reading and a mnemonic to associate the English meaning to the kanjis that compose a compound word. What do you think about that? Thanks for taking your time to answer my questions.

Vinh Le
Boston, Massachusetts
Mary Sisk Noguchi's response:

Dear Vinh,

Congratulations on completing Heisig's first and second volumes! In the event that it might be of interest to you as you learn kanji pronunciations and Japanese vocabulary, I would like to share my own experience in this area.

It took me about six months to finish Remembering I, and at that point I was raring to begin reading authentic Japanese printed materials! (Note: For those unfamiliar with his method, Heisig's first volume teaches the writing and one English keyword--but not the pronunciations--of the 1,945 general-use characters). I had already lived in Japan for several years, which can obviously be a huge advantage to non-Japanese striving to attain literacy in Japanese. I was an intermediate level speaker of the language, relatively familiar with Japanese grammar and vocabulary. This knowledge, coupled with what I had attained through Remembering I, enabled me to take the plunge into reading a wide variety of junior high to adult level material on topics which interested me. I have always found learning vocabulary in context to be more productive (and fun),than memorizing lists of vocabulary words.

Many of the materials I read had furigana (hiragana typed above the kanji to indicate their pronunciations), which is an excellent way to learn vocabulary IN CONTEXT. I found the Nihongo Journal (www.alc.co.jp/nj) and the Hiragana Times (www.hiraganatimes.com) particularly useful, as well as biographies and fiction designed for younger readers, (but not those for elementary school readers-- these are written largely in hiragana and feature too many talking animals to hold my interest!)

I never went through Remembering the Kanji II systematically as you have done. I did find (and continue to find, many years later), this volume to be highly useful as a reference tool for getting a grip on phonetic component characters, but only as I encountered them in my reading. (Note: Remembering the Kanji II arranges the general-use kanji into groups which share a component signaling a character's on --"Chinese"-- pronunciation. These components are called "phonetic components" and are highly useful as memory aids for remembering the on pronunciations of kanji. Please see Column #4, "Learning to predict kanji pronunciations--without the strain," for a detailed explanation of phonetic components).

My personal learning style did not mesh with memorizing the groups of phonetic component kanji listed in Remembering II. This is not to say, of course, that it wouldn't be a good way for YOU to learn on pronunciations. Each of us has to find our own kanji-learning path.

I would encourage you to continue to study grammar, enough to enable you to begin reading, as extensively as possible, materials with furigana. In addition to the books and magazines I mentioned earlier, be sure to check out Goo's furingana service for reading webpages. Joji Miwa at Iwate University has created an easy-to-use English page for accessing the service, which is linked to this site at Links. Enter any Japanese URL and the page will be returned to you with furigana added to all kanji characters. Must be seen to be believed!

By the way, the final chapter of Remembering the Kanji II describes a mnemonic system for learning kun --"Japanese"-- pronunciations, which requires the same kind of imaging that was utilized in Remembering I. I have never tried it, and am wondering if you are using it. If so, do you find it helpful?

Have any other Kanji Clinic site visitors used this memory device for learning kun pronunciations? Let us know what you think of it.

Best of luck in your kanji-learning, Vinh. You have already come so far-- even though you live outside of Japan-- and are an inspiration to us all.
True story? Tolstoy? Gairaigo gives him headaches



Note: To read four articles about gairaigo (foreign loanwords), written in both English and Japanese, and each with a quiz, go to Other Articles. The fourth article is at シリーズ1/Part 4.
Update: Kanji self-study may lead Croatian teenager to fame and fortune in Japan

Well...I want to tell you that perhaps I will go to Japan next year as an exchange student.Then I would go to Sendai. I am in contact with Croatian ambassador in Japan and he told me about it. He read the article in The Japan Times about my self-studying and decided to help me!

Dario Simunovic
Antunovac, Croatia
Note: To read a column inspired by Dario's original letter to Kanji Clinic (Reader Response, January, 2002), go to Previous Columns: Column #18, "Seize the reins and blaze your own kanji-learning trail."
Another motivated teenager dives into kanji

Well, I looked through the Kanji Clinic site, and I liked it. It has helped me a lot. Even though it is for adult kanji learners and I am 16. Still I study the Japanese language and writing system on my own without any help because I live in a tiny two street town, book stores are 30 min away, and jobs are even further for me to get money to get books! So online study sites are my only source.

When I get to collage I plan to scholar in Japanese history and culture, and that means I should learn the language as well. I do want to become a college professor sooner or later.

My time spent studying is writing 3 different kanjis at a time over and over, then quizzing them until I learn them. It is horrible for me! This site helped me just enough to let up on some of the stress in my life, just want to give a thanks for this site.

Hey, it even taught my mom a thing or two!

Stephani Schlau
New York State, USA
Musings on nice white rice

Just read your latest column on rice-related kanji (Column #28," 'The King of Grains'-- rice as an important kanji seedbed"), good as always. Points to ponder - even though the mnemonic for 禾 in grade school texts is usually shown as a rice stalk bent over with a full head of grains, I have never met a Japanese who associated 禾 with rice, whereas everyone associates 米 with rice. (Similarly, I've never met a Japanese who associates 旦 with dawn, although that is one of its meanings.)

On the use of ご飯 for meal, I was somewhat amused when I ran across that usage many, many years ago, as most westerners are. But, I didn't consider at the time that our word "meal" means coarsely ground grain; this word with this additional meaning being used for "repast" is almost certainly no coincidence. It's just that we don't eat porridge much anymore and we don't have the kanji as a constant reminder so it's not quite as apparent to us.

I usually see おかず translated as "side dish", whereas we would most often list it as the entree, so despite the importance of potatoes or bread to us, we tend to think of the starch as an adjunct (albeit an extremely important adjunct) to the main course whereas rice IS the main dish in Japan.

Have you noticed how often ライス is used as a synonym for ご飯 (in the sense of boiled or steamed rice, or even for 米) these days?

Gary Harper
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