memory archive – day 16

Today’s item picked for disposal is a difficult one. It’s kanji flashcards I once made and it involved hours and hours of work. 

After about a year of living in Japan, I felt the urge to step up in my attempts to learn the language. By that stage my partner and I have had about 30 lessons with a private teacher under our belt. This hadn’t helped us to progress too well as

a) the book we used was primarily written in romaji (writing Japanese words by using the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet rather than using the Japanese characters)

b) our teacher spoke fluent English which meant a big chunk of our weekly lesson was spent with small talk about life in Japan and asking questions about cultural differences that were often a mystery to us.

c) we only spent a minimal amount on studying in between lessons

So it was around springtime 2016 – by then I had learned to read hiragana and katakana (the two, syllabic Japanese scripts) – that I realised I had to also learn kanji (the adopted Chinese characters) if I wanted to have even a tiny chance of understanding what was written all around me (the Japanese writing system is a combination of hiraganakatakana and kanji). I’ve read there are about 50,000 kanji characters, however, very few people would know all of those, between 2,000 – 3,000 characters seem to be the norm. I set myself the challenge of learning the general use kanji, which are 2,136 characters. I thought I’m being reasonable by just learning the general meaning and the way of writing per each character instead of additionally learning the different ways to pronounce each. I got the well-known book Remembering the Kanji 1 by James W Heisig which uses the method of dissecting each character into small elements and making up a unique story for each combination of elements. It does really stuck this way (for some time at least). I tried to study whenever there was a bit of time on my hand. The first weeks went well and it felt very satisfying each time I would spot a kanji character somewhere that I knew the meaning of. Then I realised more and more that in combination with other characters – this is how most kanji are used – a lot of the characters changed its meaning completely and frustration was steadily creeping in. I managed to learn just over 400 kanji before I had to give up. My brain couldn’t deal with the amount of little stories that I had already made up. I felt that only by abandoning my family and dedicating the next four months or so to studying all day long, I would have had a small chance of mastering the book. I kept the flashcards for nearly 1.5 years now, telling myself that eventually I would pick up the book again and have another go at it.

To anyone reading this who has mastered to learn all 2,136 general use kanji (or more): Chapeau, I admire you!

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