Thursday, July 25, 2013

Kanji is overrated


Kanji is overrated.

Do not waste your time studying too much kanji!


Do not waste your time trying to memorize the on yomi and kun yomi.

After seeing how to write the basic kanjis, stop studying kanjis and go back to study grammar and vocabulary.
Because the study of any language is all about grammar and vocabulary.

Think about English. Don't you think it is a waste of time to spend years and years just to memorize the 26 letters of the alphabet? The letters of the alphabet don't mean anything. You won't be able to read or write anything just because you memorized the alphabet.

The same thing happens in Japanese. Instead of the 26-letter alphabet, Japanese uses hiragana, katakana and kanji. They are important, yes, you have to study them and memorize them, but THEY ARE NOTHING MORE THAN LETTERS. Individually they don't mean anything. Even if you could memorize all the millions of kanjis in existence, you still wouldn't be able to say a single phrase in Japanese.

In order to communicate in Japanese you need to know grammar and vocabulary. Vocabulary means memorizing FULL WORDS, not individual letters.
You will find out that several words may use the same kanji, in the same way many English words may use the same prefix or suffix.
But it is a waste of time to memorize all the existent prefixes and suffixes in the English language. Nobody cares about the origin of the words (except scholars) , that is not necessary for learning a language.

People get overwhelmed by kanjis because they are hard to memorize and write. And then people commit the mistake of spending all their time studying just kanjis and just forget about vocabulary and grammar.
But that mistake is fatal and may cost you years of your life.
Comments and replies

COMMENT: "Without Kanji, you won't be able to read the list of ingredients on the back of a candy. "
REPLY: You won't be able to read ANYTHING, even if you knew ALL the kanjis. Because vocabulary is not about individual letters. It is about FULL WORDS.
It doesn't matter how many kanjis you know.
It is all about how many WORDS you know.
For example Chinese people have to put as much effort to learn Japanese as any other foreigner, even though they already know most of the kanji. Because Japanese language, just like any other language , is not about kanji. It is about grammar and vocabulary. And Japanese grammar and vocabulary are completely different from Chinese ones. Actually Japanese may be even harder for Chinese people because most of the kanjis used in Japanese have different meanings, pronunciations and writings, so Chinese people have to "forget" Chinese in order to learn Japanese.

COMMENT: "Do you have references that prove your claim? "
REPLY: I am not Chinese, so I can't really speak for them. All I can say is what I heard from Chinese people I met here in Japan. They all complain about the Japanese language. Japanese grammar is much more complicated, kanji in Japanese may have several meanings and several pronunciations, while in Chinese apparently each kanji has only one meaning and one pronunciation. Chinese people have to re-learn how to read and write kanji in the Japanese way. There are similarities but they cannot rely on those similarities and make assumptions because those assumptions may be wrong.

COMMENT: "you'll see that most of the people who succeed in the high level of Japanese language proficiency tests are Chinese"
REPLY: I believe they do that by sheer numbers. The Chinese community is the largest foreign community in Japan. So it is pretty natural that the largest number of students of Japanese are Chinese people.

COMMENT: "You will not be able to read Japanese without learning the kanji."
REPLY: Yes, I agree with you! I never said not to study kanji. Kanji is important, you have to study kanji. But you don't need to memorize the entire Joyo kanji before starting to learn vocabulary. You have to study kanji at the same time you study vocabulary.  Vocabulary is more important.

COMMENT:"Which basic kanji are you referring to? Kanji learned in elementary school?"
REPLY: Yes. I recommend the following:
All you have to learn is how they are written.
Complex kanjis are just a combination of simpler kanjis.
If you know how to write simpler ones, the complex ones will be easy.

COMMENT:"Also, why only write?"
REPLY: Because you have to study kanji only to know how to write the word. Vocabulary is more important than kanji. To improve vocabulary you have to memorize the meaning, pronunciation and writing of words. That is the only time you have to study kanji, to know how to write the words. When you memorize the writing, you automatically memorize the reading.

COMMENT: "so how is one supposed to master vocabulary without learning kanji?"
REPLY: I never said to not study kanji. Kanji is important. You have to study kanji. But vocabulary is more important. You have to study kanji only to improve vocabulary.
It doesn't matter how many kanjis you know.
Vocabulary is all about the number of words you know.

COMMENT:"An individual kanji can represent a physical object like 山 for mountain or it can represent an idea, like 上 for up."
REPLY: Yes, but unhappily the same kanji may have more than one meaning or its meaning may be completely unrelated to the word. So it is always dangerous to try to guess the meaning and pronunciation of words from the kanji. So I recommend to always look up the words in the dictionary and be sure about the meaning and pronunciation.
Some examples:
歯車 (haguruma): nothing to do with tooth or car. It is "cogwheel".
頭金(atamakin): nothing to do with head or gold. It is "down payment".

COMMENT: "In my opinion, "studying too much kanji" isn't a bad thing."
REPLY: It depends on the student. I wrote that post because I feel some people out there are giving too much importance to kanji, and forgetting to study vocabulary. I often hear people asking "how many kanjis do you know?". And in my opinion it doesn't matter how many kanjis you know. Vocabulary is all about the number of words you know, not the number of kanjis. If you have a poor vocabulary you will not be able to read or write anything. It doesn't matter how many kanjis you know.
I believe some people are spending too much time studying kanji, memorizing on yomi, kun yomi, etc, when they should be focusing on vocabulary.

1 comment:

  1. Hello there, hisao!

    I just stumbled onto your blog and so far, you make an interesting point. You don't need to know any kanji to know Japanese. Likewise, you need not know any letters to know English. It's quite true, as I've gotten by for two years of learning you language without studying kanji per se.

    My argument however, is that kanji are a tool by which you may learn better. When I see the same kanji appear in similar words I start to learn the kanji. Then when I see a new word I recognize the kanji. Because of this, the new word is easier to learn.

    For example, I recently learnt that 叫ぶ means to scream. I already knew that 絶対 means 'absolutely'. When I bumped into a new word while trying to read a ranobe, 絶叫する, I instantly recognized the two different kanji and from context, I understood it as 'scream out loud'. Because I recognized the two kanji, I was able to remember the word well enough that I knew what to look for in my dictionary. I have no doubt that I'll always remember ぜっきょう as it's reading, because I already know the kanji.

    Studying kanji alone is a waste of time, but I believe there is value in learning to recognize a kanji well enough that you can learn words with it. I really can't count how often kanji have helped me recall words that I had trouble with otherwise.

    As for focusing on grammar, that is what I did at first. Although it helped me dissect sentences, it did not help me understand Japanese. At its core, learning a language is about recognition, not grammar. I will admit, grammar is very useful, but at the same time, it serves absolutely no purpose if you cannot recognize each word in a sentence.

    By learning words, you naturally draw the lines between words, so your comprehension grows much larger. The fastest jumps I've made in learning Japanese have always been at the times I learnt new words. Everytime I listen to songs in Japanese, it is clear to me that it's my vocabulary, not my grammar, that allows me to comprehend it. The grammar lets me appreciate the style, but the vocabulary lets me understand it in the first place (I learnt 20 or so words from a song I studied, after that, my ability to listen to other songs improved from hearing 'house, car, tears', to hearing 'I left the house... watched the car... cried sparkling tears'. )

    Vocabulary is what beginners need. grammar is for people with strong vocabularies. kanji fit somewhere in the middle. Kanji aren't for people still learning hiragana.