Learning Kanji Without Kanji

A credible reason for why learning new kanji is generally a much easier proposition for native Japanese, has been rolling around in my head for a while.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when a Westerner encounters an unfamiliar kanji character, there’s an awful lot to learn. Not only must one learn the form and method of writing for the character itself, but one also has to associate it with a meaning or set of meanings (usually learned through association with a word from one’s native language), a few Japanese words (“KUN” readings) which themselves may be new and unfamiliar, and a seemingly random syllable or two (“ON” readings) that are frequently used in combination with the “ON” readings of other characters to form words.

For a Japanese elementary school student, on the other hand, there is no distinction between the meaning they must learn, and the Japanese words that character is used for—after all, that word is that meaning, for them. They will surely already be familiar with the vast majority of the words they encounter for a kanji, since early childhood. Meanwhile, the Japanese student will already have an assorted vocabulary including a number of words that use the “ON” reading of the new character, and so it’s easy for a teacher to point out some dozen words the student already knows, in order to illustrate how this reading lends its meaning to various words in which it appears. All that remains for the student is to match the new character to words they already know; the rest of their effort can be spent studying the actual form of the character.

In fact, well before the student even encounters their first kanji character in school, they’ll already have become familiar with the idea that certain sounds can tend to indicate one of a fixed set of meanings. They’ll certainly be familiar (as you probably are too) that the sounds “nin”, or “jin” often indicates “people” or “person” (“Amerikajin” = American; “Nihonjin” = Japanese; “ningen” = human; “tanin” = stranger; “ningyou” (person + shape) = doll; etc), or that “kai” often represents a group, association, or organization (“shakai” = society; “kaisha” = company; “kaigi” = assembly or congress). Thus, when they finally learn that “jin” or “nin” (when it’s used to mean “person”) is written as 人, and “kai” (when it’s used to mean “group”) is written 会, even if they’re only given one example word for each of those characters, a number of words containing the right sounds may very well leap to mind as words that might possibly be written with those same characters.

Not only that, but even before they start learning kanji, they may sometimes be able to deduce the meanings of new and unfamiliar words, simply because it’s constructed from the “ON” readings of characters used in other words with which they’re already familiar. If you already know the words “benri” (convenient), “fuben” (inconvenient), and “anshin” (relief; mind at ease), then chances are you may understand “fuan” as “anxiety” (not-relief, or uneasy of mind), without being told (especially if you hear it in a context that fits, such as “I’m not relieved, I’m positively anxious!”). I think it would work similarly to seeing the English word “psychology” for the first time, if you are already familiar with the words “psyche”, “psychotic”, “psychokinesis”, “technology”, “biology”, and (what the heck) “proctology”.

Kanji are not only the basic building blocks of much of the written Japanese language, but much of the spoken language as well. I suspect that a familiarity with a variety of compound words—to the point that we can begin to recognize new compound words based on the pieces from which they were constructed—will provide an excellent foundation both for learning kanji, and for improving listening comprehension.

So, I’m planning on experimenting a bit with a series of articles that explore some of the most common meanings associated with various on’yomi, along with example vocabulary, as an attempt to build up an “ear” for them (in much the same way that studying the written kanji helps one build up an “eye” for meanings). I’ve generated a list of all the on’yomi I could find for a set of some two thousand or so kanji. For each of these on’yomi, I’ve listed the most common kanji that use that on’yomi; and for each of these kanji/on’yomi pairs, there’s a list of words that use that kanji with that on’yomi. (Note that many of these words probably appear multiple times, one for each of the common kanji/on’yomi from which it’s made; also, many kanji combinations have more than one way they may be pronounced.) I plan to use this file as the basis for my series of articles.

Of course, it’s just as important to be familiar with kun’yomi, as they appear very frequently in Japanese—both alone and in compounds—and all the arguments I made for studying on’yomi apart from the kanji apply just as well for kun’yomi. However, in my opinion, studying kun’yomi is already relatively easy compared with studying on’yomi, and so merits less directed attention. In addition, learning kun’yomi is already the focus of many other vocabulary-building methods (just pick up a vocabulary-building book on verbs and adjectives, and you’ll find a wealth of kun’yomi). On’yomi strikes me as a more formidable obstacle to students of Japanese, so that’s where I plan to spend my time for now.

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