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Column #3 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, May 25, 2001
"You, too, can be a heavyweight in kanji sumo"

Wang Qingli from Shanghai, and Brian McCormick, a Canadian, met two years ago in Tokyo when they were placed together in the beginning level of an intensive Japanese course. Both had difficulty with listening comprehension, grammar, and new vocabulary items, but were highly motivated and studied diligently. After several months, their teachers began to assign more and more kanji. At this juncture, McCormick's progress began to lag conspicuously behind Wang's.

Although initially clueless about hiragana and katakana, from her very first day in Japan, Wang could understand much of the written Japanese she saw all around her. Of course, she was unable to supply Japanese pronunciations for the kanji, but she possessed a stunning advantage over McCormick: She already knew the meanings of kanji in her native language, and she knew how to write them from memory.

Last December she passed Level 1 (the highest) of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and is currently studying pharmaceutical science at a Japanese university. McCormick, meanwhile, soon became overwhelmed by kanji. Knowing that he would be able to use Japanese word processing software, he informed his teacher that "learning to recognize kanji for reading purposes would be sufficient," and that he was not particularly interested in learning how to write kanji by hand.

His teacher pointed out to him, however, that in order to distinguish among the profusion of look-alike characters, McCormick would still need to develop the ability to analyze the shapes of kanji. So, he wrote characters over and over, but had forgotten many of them by final exam time.

And the pronunciations! Even Wang told him that she, too, found them daunting. A kanji in Chinese usually has just one or, at the most, two closely related pronunciations. Not so with Japanese. A typical kanji in Japanese has one to three pronunciations derived from Chinese (on readings) and another one to three pronunciations (kun readings) which are the original Japanese words with the same meaning as the kanji.

Our Canadian friend dropped out of the course after he was asked to repeat the beginning level. He decided that learning to read Japanese was probably a hopeless endeavor and turned his attention instead toward gaining fluency in spoken Japanese. McCormick was a lightweight in the linguistic sumo tournament known as kanji learning. Unlike kanji heavyweights such as Wang, McCormick and the rest of us from nonkanji upbringings face the formidable, triple task of tackling the shape, the meanings, and the array of pronunciations for each new kanji.

What if, instead of putting ourselves through the frustrating and often fruitless exercise of trying to simultaneously memorize all three aspects of each new kanji, we took a "divide and conquer" approach? This is the strategy plotted in the self-instructional text, "Remembering the Kanji I." Using James Heisig's system, learners first memorize the shape and one key English meaning for each of the total 1,945 general-use characters before ever beginning to delve into their pronunciations.

It personally took me six months to complete Heisig's book and another year to learn enough pronunciations to pass Level 1 of the Japanese proficiency test. Heisig says full-time students should be able finish his book in four to six weeks. They would then have roughly the same considerable advantage Wang had over McCormick when they deplaned at Narita Airport: Even if they do not know a single pronunciation, they can start to feel remarkably comfortable with the printed word in Japan, and their lives will never be the same again!

When they sneak a free parking space at the supermarket, and see the sign W ɂĕ܂ (This lot chained closed at 8:00), they will recall Heisig's English keywords for ("closed") and ("chain"). Like a Taiwanese business executive who may not be able to read the sign aloud but can understand its meaning, they'll be driving home instead of walking.

Eyeing _ on a bunch of bananas, they will recall the keywords "Reduced-Agricultural-Medicine" and be able to buy a safer product for their children. When seeing s on a road sign, recalling "Gradually-Go" will prompt them to drive at the appropriate, safe speed.

Having made themselves kanji heavyweights, they will next have to grapple with the most arduous learning task: remembering correct kanji pronunciations. We will contend with this, too, in next month's column. Please send comments to KanjiClinic.com.