Learn Kanji: The Kanji Starter Kit
Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009
So you’ve mastered hiragana and katakana and now you’re ready to move on to kanji.
Kanji is where things really start to get interesting. You’re about to begin the final piece of the puzzle as there is nothing more, in terms of written language, after kanji – except for more kanji. (^_^)
Want to jump straight in to it?
The total number is hotly debated and figures as high as 50,000 have been quoted but in reality only 2,000-3,000 are in general use. The official government kanji list – Jōyō kanji (常用漢字) – totals 1,945 but that will change in 2010 with the addition of 191 more characters and the removal of five.
Learning kanji can, at times, seem like an insurmountable goal, but if you put the time in to your studies you will get there in the end – that is guaranteed. There are roughly 125 million native Japanese and 99.9% of them know how to read and write kanji, to one level or another. So it’s doable but it’s certainly not simple.
The Japanese have the advantage of being surrounded by their language day and night and if you’re serious about learning kanji (and Japanese) you need to try and do the same.
I don’t mean every minute of the day (of course that’s okay if you can) but to learn the 1945 Jōyō kanji you will need to study daily and then keep revising those skills by reading Japanese books and websites as much as you can. Constant daily revision will make sure you lose none of the kanji super powers that you have worked so hard to gain.
Break It Down
I find the best way to tackle any large undertaking is to break things down in to bite-size pieces. This enables you to focus on a manageable amount at one time, set and meet short term goals and reduce the feeling that there is so many to learn and that you are not making any progress.
Thankfully the Japanese, being the super organised people they are, have come up with the JLPT (Japanese Learning Proficiency Test) that breaks the Jōyō kanji (plus grammar, vocabulary and more) down in to four distinct levels. Be aware that this will change to five levels in 2010 – JLPT4 will be roughly equivalent to the new N5.
There are 103 kanji in JLPT4, the beginner’s level, which covers the numerals 1-10, body parts and other basic day-to-day kanji.
The kanji at this level are mostly very simple from a stroke count point of view. The higher you get up the JLPT or Jōyō kanji list the harder the kanji get – both in meanings and stroke count.
There are four basic parts to eack kanji:
- Stroke Order
Meaning is the English wording (if you speak English) of the kanji. For example, 犬 (いぬ) is the kanji for dog.
Stroke order isn’t a way to organise kayakers, it’s actually a rule to indicate the order in which a kanji is written.
If you were looking to write 算 (meaning to calculate), you might think you can start anywhere and just get it written. Well, it’s a free world so you can do it that way if you like but the correct way (for many good reasons) is you follow the official stroke order for that kanji.
On’Yomi (おんよみ) is the Japanese reading of kanji based on the Chinese pronunciation and is usually seen in kanji compounds. Compounds are two or more kanji together that form a word. An example is 電話, which is 電 – Electricity and 話 – Talk and together that means telephone.
Kun’yomi (訓読み), is the Japanese reading, and is based on the pronunciation of a native Japanese word. There are several kun readings for the each kanji, although some kanji can have no kun’yomi.
There are chapters more information about the above topics but as this is a kanji starter tutorial I’m going to leave it at that and not confuse the issue. If you like to jump ahead – Google is your friend.
So to get you started, I have a basic Kanji Starter Kit Worksheet download available below that shows the 103 JLPT4 kanji plus one English meaning for each character.
I think it is important to have some quick wins when you first start. So by simplying the Kanji list you can quickly learn the basic meanings of 103 kanji and then build on that base later with stroke order, readings and possible mulitple meanings.
I will follow up this article with more in-depth information to move on to after you have mastered my first worksheet. This will include readings, stroke order and multiple meanings.
There are two downloads available – one with the meanings and one without the meanings so you can test yourself by writing the correct meaning below each kanji on the printed worksheet.
Any questions – please leave a comment.