Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Do not study Jōyō kanji
Let's talk about kanji. Again.
I wrote about this before, and received a lot of criticism then.
Kanji seems to be the single biggest obstacle for learning Japanese.
And I am seeing a lot of people getting off the track because of it.
So I decided to write about this again.
Some people seem to be obsessed with kanji. They talk about Jōyō kanji, on-yomi, kun-yomi, etymology, calligraphy, kanji kentei (kanji aptitute test)... Some people seem to believe that if they memorize the entire Jōyō kanji , they will be able to speak, read and write Japanese.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Japanese language has nothing to do with kanji.
Memorizing the Jōyō kanji is useless. The language is not about kanji.
Not just Japanese, but any language in the world is made up of grammar and words.
Vocabulary is about the number of words you know, not the number of kanjis.
The grammar rules tell you how to combine those words into sentences.
For each word you have to memorize the spelling, meaning and pronunciation.
Japanese just happens to be written in kanji, for historical reasons. But it can be written in hiragana, rōmaji, or any other written symbol. Kanji has nothing to do with the language. Japanese language is not about kanji. Memorizing the entire Jōyō kanji will get you nowhere. You won't be able to say a single word in Japanese. You will waste years of your life studying something that has nothing to do with the language.
Many scholars have been defending the abolition of kanji. It is perfectly possible to write Japanese completely using only hiragana. Korea has abolished kanji a long time ago.
Korea has created its own phonetic symbols, called hangul, which is similar to hiragana, to replace kanji. Just like English, Korean is written with spaces between the words.
Some people argue that Japanese has too many homophones (words with same pronunciation but different spelling or meaning) and that kanji is necessary to tell those words apart. But Japanese people already avoid homophones in spoken language, exactly because they are ambiguous. It is perfectly possible to write a Japanese text unambigoulsy, without using homophones. Japanese people already do that when they speak.
Pre-school Japanese children can speak the language without knowing kanji.
Because the language is not about kanji, it is about words and grammar.
Children already know the basic grammar rules and the pronunciation and meaning of many words. That is why they can form sentences and speak the language. They just don't know how to spell the words.
For historical reasons, each kanji may have several meanings and several pronunciations.
It is very difficult to know the meaning and pronunciation of a kanji just by looking at words. Memorizing individual kanjis does not help you. You have to memorize full words.
It is very difficult to guess the meaning and pronunciation of words just by looking at the individual kanjis.
For example can you guess the meaning and pronunciation of 新幹線? If you look at the individual kanjis, it makes no sense. New trunk line? What the hell is that? But if you go to the dictionary, you can see it is pronounced "shinkansen" and refers to the Japanese bullet-train. But the word has become a misnomer, since bullet-trains by now are not new anymore.
What about 日本? 日 means "day". 本 means "book". What the hell is "day book"?
But if you go to the dictionary, 日本 is pronounced "nihon" and means Japan.
The reason for this is that 日 originally meant "sun" and 本 originally meant "origin".
日本 is the the word used by the Chinese people to refer to Japan, because from their point of view, Japan is the country located in the east, where the sun rises. Such a word makes sense only to Chinese people and nobody else.
It is not necessary to know the etymology of words to learn a foreign language.
Think about English. Do you know the etymology of words in English?
Most people don't know and don't care about etymology.
Why should you waste your time studying the origin and evolution of words?
Etymology may be an interesting curiosity, but it doesn't help you to learn the language.
It is completely useless. It is a waste of time.
Why are some people obsessed with Jōyō kanji, on-yomi, kun-yomi?
Does it matter if a certain kanji is Jōyō or not? What is the difference?
Does it matter if a certain kanji in a certain word is pronounced as on-yomi or kun-yomi?
You have to memorize the pronunciaton of the word. It doesn't matter if it is on-yomi or kun-yomi.
I have never studied Jōyō kanji. Sometimes people mention it, and I take a look at the list, but I am always baffled and perplexed by it. What should I do with Jōyō kanji?
I don't know many of the kanji in the list. I don't see any purpose in it.
The Jōyō kanji was created by the Japanese government just for educational purposes.
It is just a list of basic kanjis to be taught at schools.
There is a difference between kanji and word. Some people seem to think that kanjis can be used as words. Most kanjis cannot be used as words. Most words are written in kanjis, but most kanjis do not constitute words.
Sure, I agree that many kanjis can be used as affixes, either prefixes or suffixes.
It helps you considerably to memorize words.
There are many examples:
体毛 (taimō) body hair
体温 (taion) body temperature
体力 (tairyoku) physical strength
大陸 (tairiku) continent
退路 (tairo) escape route
If you know the meaning of the individual kanjis in the examples above, you can guess correctly the meaning of the word (but not the pronounciation).
But there are many other words whose meaning and pronunciation can be almost completely unrelated to the kanjis that constitute the words.
日本 (nihon) Japan
新幹線 (shinkansen) bullet-train
素敵 (suteki) wonderful
凄い (sugoi) terrific, stunning
沢山 (takusan) many
The word 素敵 is a mystery. If you look at the kanjis, it seems to mean "white enemy".
The kanji 敵(teki) means "enemy" and is completely unrelated to the word. It is possibly a mistake, a misspelling of 的 (teki) which would make more sense.
The word 凄い is a good example of complete inversion of meaning.
I think that originally the kanji 凄 should mean "terrible", "ghast", "dreadful".
But now 凄い is usually used to mean something good, stunning, terrific.
The meaning of the word changed completely, to mean the exact opposite.
The word 沢山 is literally "swamps and mountains". For some mysterious reason it now means "many". I don't know the etymology of this word, so I can only guess. Maybe it was used to mean "everywhere" which then later changed to "many".
There are many other examples of words whose meaning and pronunciation may be unrelated to the kanjis that constitute the words.
So my advice is: do not focus on kanji. Focus on words. Vocabulary is about the number of words you know. Forget about Jōyō kanji, on-yomi, kun-yomi. Forget about etymology.
Etymology is an interesting curiosity, but it is useless, unnecessary and a waste of time when learning a foreign language.