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Column #23 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, July 19, 2002
"For adults only--the component fast track to kanji-literacy"

"What are you talking about, Mom?" our second-grader asked repeatedly, and my attempts at helping him with his kanji homework ended in frustration for both of us.

I had once dreamed of sharing a mutual interest in Chinese characters with our children. In the end, I was forced to concede that my Japanese husband, who learned kanji the same way our older son Sean is now learning them, is better-suited than I to serve as his kanji guide.

During my late 20s, I had tried unsuccessfully to tackle kanji the way Japanese children do: through rote memory. Gradually I had come to realize that adult learners possess kanji-friendly powers of logic. When I succeeded in learning to write from memory Japan's 1,945 general-use (jouyou) characters, it was by utilizing textbooks that break kanji into components, rather than by attempting (and often failing) to memorize them as whole units.

Elementary school kanji textbooks do not take a strict step-by-step component approach to teaching kanji. For example, two of the characters prescribed by Japan's Education and Science Ministry for second grade are b (speak) and (active). They both contain the component , a kanji meaning "tongue," that is not introduced until third grade. When I asked Sean recently if Sensei had told him what meant, he assured me that she had not. "Don't confuse him by dissecting the characters!" my husband shouted from the next room.

More such examples: Even though (axe) is a component kanji in two second-grade characters-- (close) and V (new)--it is not taught until junior high school. (sky) is introduced in the first grade, before its comprising components, H (craft, second grade) and (hole, sixth grade). And how about the 16-stroke character (head)? Sean has been repeatedly penciling this week, but will have to wait another year before learning its left-hand component, (bean).

Textbooks designed for foreign adult beginners typically start with the characters for first- and second-graders. This is reflected in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT): Every one of the 80 characters tested in Level 4 (the lowest) is a first- or second-grade kanji. The trend continues at the intermediate level: Among JLPT Level 3 characters, only 16 of 245 tested are above third-grade level.

But if your goal is to internalize all of the 1,945 general-use characters, please consider putting aside textbooks that introduce kanji in the order used for Japanese school children, or mildly altered versions thereof. Instead, take an analytical, "from the ground up" approach. Go ahead and learn (again), which your children-- if they attend Japanese schools--are unlikely to encounter until junior high school.

conveniently appears as a component in a number of often-seen characters such as F(friend), (anti-), (accept), (give back), and E (kill). Becoming familiar with components like can help you remember the shapes of complex characters that contain them.

Here are some other handy components to add to your kanji-construction kit. All are general-use characters, but you are unlikely to find them in traditional, basic kanji textbooks--nor do they appear until Level 1 of the JLPT-- because their frequency of use as independent characters is relatively low:

(little bit, sun) is a component in t (attach), (time), (protect), (village), (exclusive), D (rob), and many other kanji.

l (dipper, to) can be seen in (subject of study), (material), (diagonal).

(measure, shaku) is in (daytime), w (station), (translation), (interpret).

(oneself, ko) is found in (wrap), I (era), z (deliver ), (reform), ` (harbor).

y (reach to, kyuu) is in (level), z (breathe), (handle).

(profound, gen) can be seen in (rate), { (livestock), (magnet).

(For a complete listing of nearly 500 kanji components, see "Kanji ABC," [Tuttle, 1994] by Andreas Foerster and Naoko Tamura).

Watching my child leave home with his randoseru (elementary school backpack) every morning, I am confident that he is headed towards literacy in Japanese, the traditional way. By the time he completes nine years of compulsory education, he will have mastered 1,945 kanji. I, however-- as an adult, non-native speaker of Japanese-- took a faster track to the same finish line. My race plan included learning components first, even when they are characters not taught to young Japanese children.

Which track will you take on your race to kanji literacy: the swift, component track suitable for adult foreigners? Or the tedious, rote-memory track for Japanese children?

To read reviews of kanji-learning materials that employ component analysis, go to book reviews.

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