Learning kanji with modern tools

One of the challenges that Japanese presents to the aspiring language learner is that it employs three writing systems that you really must learn. Hiragana and katakana are syllabaries in which each symbol stands for a sound. That is, they are phonetic representations of spoken words, and there aren’t that many of them to memorize – less than 50, plus some diacritical marks that modify the sounds to create additional variants.

Kanji is different. Kanji are logographic characters that were borrowed from the Chinese. “Logographic” means that each character represents an entire word or phrase. There is no longer an obvious connection between words and their pronunciation, so you must instead memorize the sound that goes with the symbol, as well as its meaning. Since there are far more words than there are syllables, there are thousands of kanji to learn. Intimidating!

Today, however, we have great technological assistance for memorizing things. Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) have become popular for learning not just languages but also subject-specific terminology in your native language. For kanji, we have wanikani. It teaches you kanji in little doses, then tracks how long it’s been since you were tested on each one and periodically quizzes you to keep your memories fresh. Anything you get wrong comes back more often, enabling you to focus memorization effort where it’s most needed.

So far, after a few weeks of daily practice, I’ve learned 60 “radicals” (common kanji building blocks), 45 kanji, and 83 vocabulary words that use those kanji. I have several more under active practice and repetition. It’s fun!

Another great tool for reinforcing your kanji is the wanikanify Chrome browser extension. Once you enter your wanikani API key, this extension converts any text in a webpage using what kanji you have already learned. Here’s an example from southwest.com:

wanikanify southwest.com

You can see that the English text was literally translated into kanji whether or not it makes sense in context. 本 means “book” as in the object that you read, not to “book” a hotel. However, just seeing the reminder of what “book” is helps! And if you mouse over the kanji, a voice speaks the kanji out loud! (Here, “hon”.) It also displays the original English text that was replaced, in case you don’t remember (or the context is so odd that it doesn’t make sense).

As you learn more kanji, more of the page will be replaced with vocabulary you should be able to decode. Effectively, you are reading English in kanji, which is how kanji came about in the first place – the Japanese mapped their oral language into the Chinese characters. To actually learn Japanese, you must also be diligent about learning the pronunciation (which wanikani also quizzes you on). These tools combined make for great practice and great entertainment!

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