One of the biggest reasons why people stop/never start learning Japanese is kanji. These are the characters that were imported from Chinese, and there are about 2000-3000 that are commonly used in Japan. That number scares a lot of learners if your alphabet only has 26 letters, for example! I know I put off learning and studying them for a while because I was intimidated. However, learning kanji has several benefits that can really be useful as you study Japanese.
So what do you need to know about studying these confounded characters? Well when I study kanji, I think of 3 aspects for each character:
1) its meaning
2) the ways you pronounce it
3) the way that you draw it.
The meaning is simply a word or phrase that you can associate the character with in your own language. When it comes to pronouncing each character, this is where things get tricky. The ways to say each character are called “readings” and they will most times be different, depending on the context. Take the character 人, for example. It means person and sometimes will be read as “hito”, but that doesn’t mean that every time you see it, it will be “hito”. There are several factors that determine how to say this character and that’s the trickiest part of kanji, in my opinion.
The best comparison to English that I’ve come across goes like this: Think of the letter “a”. Many times, it’s just a letter that you combine with other letters to make words. But it’s also a word by itself that means “one of something”. Kanji work in a similar way. Sometimes they are words by themselves, other times you have to combine them to make words.
For learning the readings and meanings, I’d highly recommend a great website called WaniKani. It may have game-like qualities, but it actually uses levels and a repetition-based system to learn and practice kanji. You also study the parts that make them up and tons and tons of vocabulary words. They use some pretty interesting mnemonics that make learning kanji surprisingly fun. You do have to pay to use it, but it’s completely worth it. For the third part, I have a method that has helped me tremendously by practicing as few as 5 new kanji each day (It sounds like I’m about to sell you some wonder product lol).
I start by writing some kanji, 5 times each. The next day I practice those kanji again, AND I add new ones to practice. I end up practicing each set of kanji for 4 days, 20 times each. In the picture above, I had sets of 7, 6 and then 2 Kanji, and this picture was taken after 4 days of practice. Those numbers in the second row are the number of strokes in each kanji, which serve as a guide for me when I practice. You can use any number of kanji that you feel comfortable with. After this sheet, I decided to do 5 a day.
Lastly, I’ll explain why I think it’s so helpful to learn kanji. When you learn those readings I talked about, you are forced to practice your hiragana (and katakana on most websites). It’s built-in practice with every new character. Also, when you practice reading Japanese, kanji (and katakana) help to break things up. Since there are no spaces, it can be very difficult to figure out where is the verb, where is the noun, where are the adjectives, etc. kanji in conjunction with hiragana, help you out A LOT as you learn more and more. Finally, kanji make words into stories. Many times, I look at a word and I ask someone to tell me what it means. After they tell me, as I look at each kanji the “story of the word” makes sense to me. For example 外 means “outside” and 国 means “country”. When you combine them with 人, you get 外国人 or “foreigner.” As you learn more, you really get an insight into the culture and the people of Japan when you learn the kanji.
And boom, there you have it. When it comes to learning Japanese, hiragana and katakana should be first, but I’d say right afterwards, jump into learning kanji. It’ll make things easier for you as you get deeper and deeper into the language.