Sunday, July 26, 2009

How Many Kanji Should We Know?

So how many kanji do we need to know? What is the magic number?

First, let's rephrase the first question: What do we want to read? In the case of English it's simpler because the number of characters is very limited; learn the 26 letters of the English alphabet and you'll have a good start. With Japanese, you can effortlessly read children's picture books if you know hiragana. But if you want to tackle the Civil Code of Japan in the native tongue, you'll need a lot more than that.

(I personally have no desire to explore the fascinating passages of Japanese law, but for some gaijin, that could be—and probably is—a compelling ultimate goal.)

Let's ask ourselves one important question:

When do we need to read kanji?

  • When I go out, the first Chinese character that I run across is inscibed on asphalt and says "Stop!" Others say "No parking!" (駐輪禁止) or "Do not enter!" (立入禁止) When you pass by a coffee shop, it could be labeled "Open" (開店) or "Closed" (閉店). On an elevator, there are buttons for opening and closing the doors. If a convenience store sells booze, it is marked appropriately with the Chinese character for 'booze' (酒).
  • At restaurants. Some food-related words are good to know: rice (飯), noodles (麺類), fish (魚), pork (豚), beef (牛), deep-fried foods (揚物), vegetables (野菜), vinegar (酢), etc. The prices aren't always written in Arabic numerals, so you'll need to know how to read Japanese numbers.
  • Websites, comics, magazines, books, newspapers.
  • Filling out official documents. There are many vital sections that you have to be able to recognize: last name (姓), first name (名), date of birth (生年月日), current address (現住所), head of your family (筆頭者), etc.

Out of the aforementioned examples, reading newspapers is perhaps at the top of the difficulty meter, and reading signposts at the bottom.

The textbook often states that learning the 1945 kanji for common use (常用漢字) are required to fully understand newspaper articles. But two-thousand characters is a lot to learn. I learned from my own experience that 500-600 kanji made a huge difference for me, as I could have online conversations in Japanese on Messenger, read Japanese blogs and websites, and fill out registration forms at the City Hall of Osaka.

Don't feel disheartened if you can't put your skills to effective use after learning 200 or 300 kanji. The thing is, with every new set of 100 characters you should notice a big difference in your reading skills. So make it your short-term goal to learn 500 kanji. Five-hundred Chinese characters is a solid base to build upon, and with that knowledge you will be able to manage well in Japan.


liath said...

Thank you for this encouraging post! I'm currently working on building up a decent kanji base (I'm into my 2nd set of 100) but I was feeling particularly daunted today....this was the little boost I needed to keep my chin up. 500 kanji here I come (^_^)

Eric said...

Keep up the good work! 500 should go pretty smoothly. But it gets trickier after that... How are you studying kanji?

Anonymous said...

Why not just use Heisig and learn them all in 6 weeks?

Eric said...

Good point. Heisig's Remembering the Kanji books are really good for memorizing kanji, but they don't really tell you how to use them. I suggest using different tools for different purposes.

For example, if I'm struggling to remember how to write "琵琶湖" I might use Heisig's books for effectively memorizing the steps. But if I'm learning a new kanji, I also want to learn its usage. Heisig only gives you the general meaning of a kanji (eg.
"harmony" for 和).

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