Should I learn Katakana before Kanji

For a lot of people, kanji is about on par with natto. A huge sticky mess, difficult to consume, and not nearly as tasty as it is troublesome. Anyway, me personally, I never wanted to spend years studying kanji; I just wanted to speak well enough to communicate (read “drink beer”) with people. Funny how things work out.

Hiragana? Fine. Katakana? Piece of cake. There’s not that many of them, so whatever. But kanji? Yeah, let me get back to you on that. I mean, who wants to take the long route to learning Japanese? I was determined to find a shortcut.

If you, like me, love shortcuts and have the approximate attention span of a gerbil, then let’s jump right to the conclusion:

  1. Kanji is the shortcut to learning Japanese, even if you only care about speaking.
  2. If you know the kanji, you can make sense of every word in the Japanese language.
  3. Every word. Think about it.

How can kanji be the shortcut when it’s so impossible? First of all, you’re trying to learn an entire freaking language here, and that’s a huge task. People say learning Japanese is easy. Yeah, like swimming the English Channel is easy. It’s just swimming. How hard could it be?

Microwave and Light Bulb, Not Friendly?

But anyway, okay, think about a Japanese person learning English. They’re going to need everyday words like:

Microwave oven Telephone Light bulb

Sucks to be them, because those words bear no relationship to one another. “Light bulb” looks and sounds nothing like “microwave oven.” Learning English requires remembering a ton of unrelated stuff, using only letters and sounds. It’s like a pure memory exercise. You know how many words there are in a language? Okay, well I don’t either, but I’m sure somebody on Wikipedia does.

If only there were an easier way. Welcome to Japanese. You learn a couple thousand kanji and Boom, you’re done. Okay, not done, but you’ve got great leverage. Check out the same three words in Japanese:

電子レンジ 電話 電球

Everybody’s friendly. It’s clear they all use 電, which means “electric.” That’s because, unless you’re using two tin cans and a string, they’re all electrical appliances. And there’s the shortcut. With a six-degrees-of-separation-like magic, knowing one word immediately helps you understand and learn other words. Learn five kanji and you can make sense of ten words. Learn ten kanji and you can make sense of thirty words. That’s leverage, and Japanese is cool like that. Since all the appliances in Japan use electricity(電), you’ve just learned a big chunk of Japanese vocabulary. You’re welcome.

We Need to Talk in the Den

Let me be honest with you. If you’re trying to learn Japanese without learning kanji, you are making a huge mistake.

Okay, right, I know. It doesn’t seem efficient to memorize a couple thousand complicated kanji when you just want to have a conversation with the attractive person on the barstool next to you. All you want to do is learn to speak.

Yeah, that’s not going to work. Here’s why:

Daily-conversation Japanese doesn’t cut it. You’ll be out of material in five minutes, at which point the other person will either excuse themselves to go the bathroom and climb out the window, or start speaking English. You need vocabulary. And to learn vocabulary, you’ve got to remember stuff, somehow.

Japanese Homonyms

But Japanese has a bunch of homonyms, which means that everything sounds like everything else. You know how English has three words for one sound: “to,” “too,” and “two”? That’s nothing. Japanese has like 50 words for the sounds “sho” and “shou.” You can’t understand the language based upon the sounds. You have to see it written.

Japanese people make the opposite mistake when learning English. They focus on reading and writing when they should invest time in listening. English is an impossible language to make sense of through the writing system, because it doesn’t have enough letters. Or maybe it has too many, whatever. I don’t know. “Guess” and “Scene”? Please. You’ll never figure out how to say them by reading. To make the sounds of the English language, the letters are forced into double-duty or mashed into peculiar combinations. Then you’ve got phonics, where someone has essentially reinvented the alphabet so that it might make more sense. And you’d still probably mispronounce “epitome.”

Japanese people learning English would be well advised to put down their books and focus on listening. For English speakers learning Japanese, it’s the opposite. Both groups are trying to use the method that works best in their own language, when the languages are constructed differently. That’s a problem.

Some Monk on a Mountain Top

Japanese is a written language first, and a spoken language second. The sounds hardly even matter. Some monk a million years ago sat down in a temple on top of Mt Fuji (or such is my understanding) and worked out a thorough relationship between all of the visual characters, so that they all relate to one another in a reasonable fashion. All of the words are networked. Using that network is how you build vocabulary and learn Japanese.

English is the opposite. People just started speaking it, like in caves a thousand years ago. And then somewhere around the Middle Ages somebody said, Oh, maybe we ought to start writing this down, and then they came up with some letters in an attempt to represent the sounds they were making. But the letters don’t really even matter. That’s why you’ve got all those extra letters cluttering up so many words. It’s the sounds that matter, not the letters.

As an oral language, Japanese is hard to parse, partly due to all the homonyms. You said “sho”? Oh, I thought you meant “sho.” But it’s a breeze to understand once you see it written. And from the sounds, you’d never know that “kuruma” and “sharin” were related, but see them on paper and it’s immediately obvious: 車 and 車輪. “Car” and “wheel.” Well, there it is. Again, Japanese speakers learning English don’t get this advantage. They just simply have to remember stuff. Yeah, sorry about that.

One extra, challenging aspect of Japanese as an oral language is that it doesn’t lend itself very well to mnemonics, at least for English speakers. The sounds are so different that it’s difficult to come up with good mnemonics. Like how are you going to remember “nyuukokukanrikyoku”? Yeah, good luck. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that hiragana and katakana are going to help you either. It’s the same problem. にゅうこくかんりきょく isn’t any better. You need kanji to make any sense of the words.

Even sounds that can be easily represented in mnemonics are problematic. Because of all the Japanese homonyms, the same sounds have to be used over and over again.

Here’s the deal with learning kanji. It’s not easy. But it’s the only way to learn Japanese. Books can help a bit, like "Remembering the Kanji" by James Heisig, or "Kanji ABC" (which I prefer). You can also put sentences into Anki, and start writing things out. But anyway you approach it, it’s going to take you a long time. Which is why you should start today.

Don’t spend time learning how to speak and think you can learn kanji at a later stage. You’ll only hit a wall and realize, a year later, that if you’d started kanji a year ago, you’d be much further ahead. Even if you memorize a couple thousand words of vocabulary, it won’t be enough. You need more words. And words, in Japanese, are kanji. Enough said. Now go eat some natto, and get busy.

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