Saturday, June 27, 2009

How Long It Took Me to Learn to Read and Write Japanese

Photo: Shugatastic
Kids in Japan learn a minimum of 1945 Chinese characters. The characters are learned in two phases: the first 1006 kanji are introduced in elementary school, and the remaining 939 in middle school and high school. The Japanese kanji curriculum, therefore, spans over 12 academic years. Does this mean that foreigners too must devote 12 years to learning Chinese characters to become literate in Japanese?

When, in the fall of 2006, I decided to enroll in the exchange program and go to Japan, I knew that I had less than a year to get ready, so I made a big commitment to learn two to five new characters every day in addition to going over previously learned kanji. At the time I could only ready hiragana, katakana, and about fifty kanji.

So I salvaged an old, tattered kanji book (printed in the 1970s) and started memorizing several Chinese characters every day. I would review the ones I had already mastered before tackling new ones. I decided that I wouldn't press on until I had hardwired all the previous characters into my head. This became a daily routine of mine, and I ended up spending an hour each day on studying kanji. My goal was to achieve a level of proficiency so I could read and write Japanese well enough to join the advanced Japanese class for foreign students. I had less than a year to accomplish the task.

To augment my studies I started to read Japanese blogs and chat with Japanese friends on MSN. Blogs and instant messaging are outstanding supplements to your kanji studies because you keep constantly bumping into the same words and phrases, which lets you get used to recognizing commonly used kanji.

At first you can quickly absorb a lot of kanji, but I noticed that at 500-600 my pace slowed down drastically. Many characters slipped into oblivion, and it became harder to memorize radicals and complex kanji. I could feel the presence of the inevitable wall closing in... At this point (after studying for six months) I chose to shift my focus on revision and to only incorporate new characters whenever my brain would let me.

This sixth month milestone was also the point in time when I could say that I became a lot more comfortable with reading Japanese. I could read most of the content on Japanese blogs, and communicating in Japanese text also felt far less frustrating as I didn't have to consult the dictionary as frequently as before. The 600 characters I learned during the first six months are the ones I find most important. Believe me, things start to make a lot more sense after half a year.

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