Never mind the drilling, here’s how I’ve been learning the kanji

Probably every student of Japanese out there has filled a few notebook pages with characters repeated over and over. I know I’ve got more than a few from back when I first started. You sit there and mindlessly write 温温温温温温温温温温温温温温温 until you’ve filled up a few lines, and then move onto the next one in your list.

Doesn’t work very well, does it? In the immortal words of the infomercial industry, there’s got to be a better way! I struggled with learning the kanji for probably the first two or three years of my Japanese study, and I only started to improve once I gave up drilling.

I’m not going to claim to be the absolute most proficient kanji writer on the planet. I saw a white guy on TV the other day who had passed the highest level of the kanji test (kanken), and he was very happily explaining all sorts of interesting trivia about kanji to the young Japanese woman hosting the show. If that’s your goal, then by all means listen to that guy, because I sure as heck can’t write even a tenth of the kanji that he can. However, I do know enough to do the things I need to do in Japanese, like fill in government forms, write quick notes, and things like that. If that’s the kind of skill you’re aiming for, then I think I’ve got you covered.

If you want to really succeed at learning to use kanji for written communication, you’ve got to practice using them for communication. Writing out the kanji a hundred times each won’t actually help you remember them very well, because the part of your brain that stores words works more on making connections than on so-called ‘muscle-memory’. Repeated writing only makes a connection between your hand, the pencil, and the page.

In Second Language Acquisition, we talk about making form-meaning connections. You’ve got to practice connecting the form of the character with the meaning it carries. My favorite way to do this is with cloze testing. Take a short bit of text, then blank out the word you want to practice. That’s your flashcard. For example, you could practice the character 温 with the sentence:

Then blank out the 温, leaving you with


put the character 温 on the back of the card, and you’re all set. When you practice your cards, read the sentence, and write the character that goes in the blank. Now you’re connecting 温 with one of its most common uses, as part of the word 温泉 (onsen / hot spring).

You can try to go through a vocabulary list this way, but I don’t think that’s the most efficient way to spend your time. Rather, I’d recommend making flashcards based on words that come up in your daily life. When you find yourself in a situation where you need to write a character, and you can’t, make a little note of it, and make a flashcard out of it. I keep a running list on my phone for this purpose. If you also keep a daily diary, you’ll give yourself an opportunity every day to write about things that are relevant to you. Any words that you can’t manage to write get a flash card, and you practice them the next day during your normal practice time.

To kick your flashcards up a notch, consider using a Space-Repetition System, like Anki. It’s like flashcards on steroids!

This is how I’ve learned to use kanji. Sure, I can’t write every kanji in the kanken. I can probably reliably write only about 80% of the jouyou kanji at this point. But I can dang well write the ones that are relevant to me, even some of the stranger ones. Kanji like 顎、唇、軟口蓋、論文、音韻論、第二言語習得 are old friends at this point, as are the kanji that make up the names of friends, colleagues and professors around me. If that’s the kind of writing skill that you want, then start making some form-meaning connections.

How about you? What does your daily regimen look like?


English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Learn Japanese
3 comments on “Never mind the drilling, here’s how I’ve been learning the kanji
  1. locksleyu says:

    Writing Kanji is one thing I’ve actively slacked off learning. I learned to write a bunch many years ago, but since I have no use for them in my daily life I’ve forgotten much of them, though I can read most of the Joyo kanji.

    In your daily life when you actually need to write Kanji, for something you can’t use a computer for?

    Even in English I almost never do much writing except for a quick note here or there.

    • gengojeff says:

      The main things I need to write in kanji are my address, friends and colleagues’ names, and technical terms for explaining phonetics, phonology and other types of linguistic ideas in class.

      It’s also really good for teaching the morphology of English, so I can give them a word like “democratic” and break it down into its roots on the whiteboard: demo民crat覇ic的. It helps for showing students that English vocabulary is not just random stuff that they need to memorize, but a lot of it is systematic and pattern-based.

      But you know, I’m not everybody. That’s why I think it’s good to just keep a list of the kanji that you actually need to write, and work on those. For me, I’ve got an odd list of technical terms and useful morphemes for explaining English, but other people will have different needs. If you don’t need to write stuff by hand, then don’t bother studying something you won’t use!

  2. […] Never mind the drilling, here’s how I’ve been learning the kanji. […]

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