Learning to Read Japanese

A Sample Technical Japanese Sentence

Written Japanese consists of Chinese ideographs, called KANJI, imbedded within words, markers, and inflections written in a 46-character phonetic "alphabet" called HIRAGANA. A second set of phonetic characters called KATAKANA is used for phonetic representations of foreign words and other special sounds.

We focus in this section on scientific Japanese, but most of what is said applies to written Japanese language in general.

Typical scientific Japanese, with the KANJI in blue, HIRAGANA in yellow, KATAKANA in red, and punctuation in black, looks like the following:

A polished translation of this sentence is:

The free electron model for metals provides a good understanding of metallic specific heat, thermal conductivity, electrical conductivity, magnetic susceptibility, and electrodynamics.

But the following literal translation reveals more about the Japanese language:

Gold group's self-reasoning lightning-child model (The free electron model for metals) [marker indicating end of the subject of the sentence] gold group's compare heat (heat capacity), heat transmission guidance ratio (thermal conductivity), lightning-spirit transmission guidance ratio (electrical conductivity), magnet transformation ratio (magnetic susceptibility), lightning-spirit power study (electrodynamics) [for the aforementioned items] a good logic-taking apart (understanding) [marker indicating end of the object of the sentence] gives.

If you wish, you may want to look over a vocabulary list for this sentence.

Notice that the Japanese sentence has the verb "gives" at the end. English-speaking students of Japanese often find themselves working backwards through the Japanese sentence during translation exercises. Not only do they not want to wait till the end to determine the verb, the phrases that make up the subject and object seem to flow more like English when read backwards. Of course, advanced students eventually learn to "think backwards." Japanese students translating English do the same thing - English makes more sense to them going backwards!

Clearly, the KANJI form the key words of the sentence and the HIRAGANA serve primarily a supporting role. The one KATAKANA word is a phonetic representation of the English word "model" and conveys its meaning with a pronunciation that goes more like "moh-day-ru."

Learning the Characters

The HIRAGANA and KATAKANA can be memorized rather quickly by a diligent student, but the KANJI are vastly more difficult. Not only are there more KANJI (about a 1000 are needed to feel somewhat comfortable with the language found in newspapers and 3000 are required for full fluency), but the KANJI typically have multiple meanings and pronunciations.

There are, however, things about KANJI which help in their memorization. Of course when the character actually looks like what it represents, there is little problem remembering its meaning. Perhaps 50 characters obviously fall into this category. Examples are "one" , "two" , "three" , "mouth" , "tree" ,"forest" , "woods" , "mountain" , "rain" , "rice field" , and "umbrella" .

Another 100 or so characters can look like what they are if the student is willing to be extra imaginative. Examples of these are "saying" (a mouth emitting sound waves upward), "observation" (the right half is the character for "to see" and the left half might be a wall with a pair of binoculars on top), "person" (the arms are a missing detail), "fish" (standing upright on its tail), and "woman" (gracefully sitting with one leg stretched out). Some of these interpretations are actually related to their ancient Chinese origins; others are purely fictional memorization tricks. Of course, any memorization aid that works is fine, and historical accuracy is unnecessary.

Large groups of characters share certain meaning or pronunciation hints within their sub-elements. For example, the characters for "tree", "fire", and "speech" are on the left side of nearly 100 characters each. Furthermore, often the right sides have elements that indicate one of the pronunciations of the characters.

For example, the characters for "wither" , "cobalt" , "mother-in-law" , and "lake" are all pronounced "ko". This is not a coincidence; they all contain a narrow version of the character for "old" , which is also pronounced "ko". There are other character pieces that could have been used to convey the "ko" pronunciation, but the "old" meaning also fits in well with the meanings of these characters. Notice also, that the left side of "wither" is a narrow version of the character for "tree", the left side of "cobalt" is a narrow version of the character for "gold" (also meaning metal), and the left side of "mother-in-law" is a narrow version of the character for "woman".

The character for "lake" is most interesting since its left third is a short hand for water commonly used in water-related characters, and the right third is "moon" (although the same shape is also used as a simplified version of "flesh"). With "old" in the middle of "lake" providing the "ko" pronunciation, this character conveys the image of an old moon over water (or is it a moon over old water?). This "ko" pronunciation, by the way, is of Chinese origin, whereas "lake" also has a pronunciation "mizu-umi" (freshwater+sea) that comes from the pre-KANJI days of Japanese (before 700 A.D.).

Encouragment for the Student

There are thousands of other interrelations between the characters. Many of these only become apparent after nearly a thousand characters have been learned. Thus, the more characters you know, the easier it is to remember additional characters. What first appears to be a bewildering variety of chicken-scratches, ultimately becomes a set of valuable (and occasionally misleading) visual clues to both meanings and pronunciations.

The learning of KANJI can be represented in the following graph:

Here we see that initially, the student can learn to recognize about 100 "visually sensible" characters very quickly. Then the hard core learning begins and progress is discouragingly slow. It seems that as quickly as new characters are learned, previously known ones are forgotten. Since this difficult period can last several years, the student may become very discouraged. Students who extrapolate this part of the learning curve into the future (dashed line) may figure that mastery of the two thousand most common characters is unattainable. Even more discouraging is that when the student looks at actual Japanese text, the few characters recognized are usually paired up with ones not yet learned. Thus, these two-character compound words still cannot be understood! Many students give up during this period.

But wait! At about 500-700 KANJI, several factors start to finally work in favor of the student. Enough meaning and pronunciation clues have been learned so that more and more new characters "make sense". Also, since most words are represented as KANJI pairs, the probability of knowing both KANJI in a pair is roughly proportional to the square of the number of KANJI mastered. At about 600 KANJI, this pairing starts to actually help the student and allows the meanings and pronunciations of many new compound words to be guessed.

So how do we get to this KANJI nirvana? Twenty unrelated new KANJI each week? This works for masochists, but we feel it is better to emphasize the commonalities between KANJI and use of a narrow subject area for reading practice.

The University of Wisconsin Technical Japanese Program has demonstrated that by restricting one's effort to just those KANJI and grammar constructs that are needed for reading technical materials, students can progress in a one-year course from absolutely no Japanese knowledge to being able to translate Japanese technical articles in their speciality. The University of Wisconsin professors surveyed the technical literature and found that 510 KANJI covered over 90% of the KANJI found in technical materials. Just as in English, the same words and phrases are used over and over again in technical writing. In the sample technical Japanese sentence given above, two KANJI are repeated 3 times and 6 KANJI are repeated twice!. Within this restricted subset of Japanese, students can learn KANJI while being able to make clearly perceptible progress each month. This is much less discouraging than a frontal attack on the entire language!

To assist this process, Kanji-Flash Softworks has produced Kanji-Flash/BTJ, a computer flashcard companion to the University of Wisconsin Press textbook, Basic Technical Japanese. Using features that help the students sense their progress, this program assists with the most difficult part of the course - KANJI memorization and vocabulary building.

We are now building additional tools for KANJI activities that help the memorization process by stressing the visual and pronunciation links between KANJI. Also, just playing with Japanese electronic dictionaries and word processors painlessly helps the KANJI learning process.

We believe that becoming 1% more familiar with 200 KANJI each night is better than "learning" two KANJI per day. Hanging KANJI charts on well-chosen walls or ceilings, and glancing at vocabulary lists and Japanese text on the subway are two ways to accomplish this. Focus on materials where the subject is interesting to you - motorcycles, computers, astronomy, pop-culture, fashion, manga, porno, whatever makes it fun and exposes you to lots of KANJI. If you live in Japan, make sure that you are always looking at the KANJI around you as you walk around. Soak in the o-furo while gazing at KANJI - lots of them, not just the list of 10 for tomorrow's quiz. If you only look at those, you will be forgetting many that you had previously learned. Just a tiny amount of casual review helps the neurons burn in.

This page was last revised on April 13, 1996.

Kanji-Flash Softworks / craig@yosemitefoothills.com

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