Mnemonics: Learn Japanese Faster
Monday, February 1st, 2010
When I first started Japanese, I struggled to memorise certain things – some I got straight away, others took time and slowed my progress. The self-doubt then started to creep in – “Maybe I’m not cut out to learn a foreign language?”
However, the simple reality is that the way everyone learns and retains information is different.
Over a long period of trial and error, I came to the conclusion that mnemonics work very well for me. I seem to learn faster and retain information for longer as long as it is attached to some sort of story that makes sense to me. I don’t need this for everything, just some areas of my life. Thankfully I can remember things like my wife’s name without any help ^_^
Unfortunately many language students don’t get any choice about the way they are taught.
A majority of students sit in a classroom at a desk and make their way through a textbook with the help of a teacher, just as they did 100 years ago. This one-size-fits-all mentality suits some but others run the risk of blaming themselves for not learning quick enough.
So if you’re struggling to learn Japanese then perhaps mnemonics are the answer for you.
What Are Mnemonics?
A mnemonic device is a mind memory and/or learning aid. Commonly, mnemonics are verbal – such as a very short poem or a special word used to help a person remember something – but may be visual, kinaesthetic or auditory. Mnemonics rely on associations between easy-to-remember constructs which can be related back to the data that is to be remembered. This is based on the principle that the human mind much more easily remembers spatial, personal, surprising, sexual or humorous or otherwise meaningful information than arbitrary sequences – Wikipedia
Basically all that means is that a mnemonic device is a way of associating a word, picture or phrase to the item you are trying to learn.
You have most likely heard of the phrase – “I” before “E”, except after “C”.
When you correctly write “receive” rather than “recieve” or “believe” rather than “beleive” you might be subconsciously using that rule.
Another popular example is memorising the order of the planets from the sun.
This isn’t something you’ll likely need to know until the next trivia night at your local pub, however, the simple phrase – “My Very Easy Memory Jingle Seems Useful Naming Planets” allows you to reel off – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto – with ease.
The first letter of each planet corresponds to the first letters in the phrase and the key word at the end is the word “planets” so it’s dead easy for your brain to associate and therefore remember the two. Despite never having to name the planets in the proper order since leaving school, I can still rattle them off using that mnemonic device.
So now we know what mnemonics are, let’s look at how they help you to learn Japanese.
From Paper to Brain
In the kana examples above from the White Rabbit Press Kana Flashcards, we see に being represented as a human “knee” and チ as a person tilted sideways holding a flag and “chi-ring” or “cheering”.
In the first flashcard image the hiragana “に” is represented with a picture of a human “knee”. Immediately I can associate the two images in my mind (ni and knee) and with very little effort it is stored away permanently for later use.
The thought process goes something like this:
- Read に
- Ah yes, I remember that に looks like a human knee
- Knee sounds like ni
- Hmmm I’d love a Coke
- Okay back to the Japanese
- This must be the hiragana に (ni)
All of that happens in a split second of course but you get the idea.
As time goes on, the gap between seeing に and trying to identify what it is, shortens to just knowing that に is に. It’s exactly the same way we process information in our native languages – there is essentially no thought process, it’s just automatic. It still takes time and lots of practice but it works.
Remembering The Kanji
Perhaps the best known exponent of mnemonics when it comes to learning Japanese is from James Heisig, the author of the “Remembering The Kanji” series.
Heisig turned the Japanese language learning community on its head when he debuted his method of learning the kanji, which threw out the common rote learning model and replaced it with a concept that pairs a keyword to a kanji and then associates a short story to that kanji to aid in memorising its meaning.
His radical approach also removed the readings from the learning of the kanji and simply focussed on meaning and stroke order. This process has its critics but I tend to agree with the general philosophy. Having said that, I am not sure any method is “better” than each other – it again depends on what works best for you.
Confused? Let me explain with an example.
The kanji for “rising sun” is 旭 and Heisig’s mnemonic device is:
This character is a sort of nickname for the Japanese flag with its well-known emblem of the rising sun. If you can picture two seams running down that great red sun, and then imagine it sitting on a baseball bat for a flagpole, you have a slightly irreverent—but not altogether inaccurate—picture of how the sport has caught on in the Land of the Rising Sun.
On this occasion, Heisig’s mnemonic didn’t really work that well for me so I came up with one of my own.
Imagine a forklift on the left with its fork outstretched and lifting a “sun” kanji, which in turn equates to raising or “rising sun”.
That process may seem totally convoluted to some or ridiculous, and perhaps, childish to others but in the end if it works and you end up being fluent in Japanese then who cares what it takes to get you there – silly or not.
Where To From Here?
If you’re happy with the results you get from your current study patterns then there’s probably no need to think of another method.
However, if you’ve been staring at your hiragana or kanji worksheets for months on end and nothing is sticking or you’re lagging behind in class, then mnemonics may be the answer.
In the end, it’s 100% up to you to learn and your own motivation (or lack there of) is what will kill your chances of learning before any particular method will.
It’s important to note that this article is not all about Heisig’s method – you can create whatever mnemonics you like. Use whatever works for you.
Here’s a few mnemonic-based links to get you started. Best of luck with your studies.
- Reviewing The Kanji
Great website for user uploaded mnemonics and general kanji study
- Remembering The Kanji – Volume 1
The most popular of the series (I own and recommend)
- Japanese Mnemonic Blog
No longer active but tons of great articles
- Kana Pict-o-Graphix: Mnemonics for Japanese
Kana Mnemonics (I own and recommend)
- Kanji Pict-o-Graphix: Mnemonics for Japanese
Kanji Mnemonics (I own and recommend)
Disclosure: I get paid a (very) small amount if you purchase any of the books above at Amazon from these links. Just wanted to be upfront with you – thanks for reading ^_^