Law Thirty-Six

You gotta go with what works

Start and start again


Earlier this week, I opened up Skritter for the first time in about eight months and, not for the first time, deleted my progress and started again.

Shortly after moving house, about six years ago now, I’d decided to get serious about learning Japanese. The original though that I might learn Japanese is over twenty years old now. Both timescales are frightening when you write them down.

I signed up for evening classes at the local college, and dug through the books still sat in packing boxes in the cellar for the ones my wife had brought back with her from Japan. She had most of the basics I’d need: a selection of dictionaries, basic and intermediate text books, some books on learning kanji – one of the Japanese character sets – and a few other books that would come in useful. I started trawling the Internet for resources, and before too long, that lead me to a three volume guide called Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig.

Japanese school children have to learn around 2200 kanji characters, and the order in which they learn them is set out by the Ministry of Education and is based on how complicated the meaning of the kanji is, rather than how complicated the character itself is. Each kanji may have several different ways of pronouncing it, and may have several different meanings. The need for learning kanji is that it’s the gateway to being able to read Japanese. Without this, even if you have mastered speaking and listening, you are illiterate in the language and that stops you from fully immersing in it.

The traditional approach would be to learn multiple readings and meanings for each character more or less at once. Heisig proposed a different idea. He ordered the 2200 kanji based on their component parts (called radicals). So, you learn the kanji character for sun,日, then you learn a series of character that include that radical, such as white (白), hundred (百) or sparkle (晶). Heisig proposed that you learn just one meaning for each kanji to begin with – it might not even be the most common meaning. Instead, this meaning would act as a keyword that you would associate with that kanji. In the Heisig world, you do not learn any pronunciations when you’re learning these characters initially. Finally, Heisig provides you with images or stories to help you associate each keyword with the component parts of the kanji character, and then encourages you to construct your own stories or images for the rest. Putting all this together, Heisig’s method aims to put you on a fast track to being able to recognise these 2200 kanji, so that you can then use this as a foundation for learning everything else.

I also came across a site known as AJATT (All Japanese All The Time), written by the motivational Khatzumoto, who pushes an immersive approach to language learning. And step 1 in his guide is to learn the 2200 basic kanji.

I started off with a couple of packs of plain index cards. I came up with a way of feeding them through a laser printer without them getting lost in its innards, and printed myself out the first two hundred kanji in the sequence, with the keywords printed on the reverse. My daily commute would be spent working through the cards, committing them to memory, and then testing myself, writing them out again on square paper. From there, I progressed to Anki, a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) that allows you to say how well you do in remembering each kanji. If you do badly, it would schedule the character to appear again soon; if you do well, it would increase the length of time before the character would be presented again. When I got an iPhone, my first app was Anki for iOS. Eventually, I moved on to Skritter, another iOS app, which allows me to do away with the squared paper: you draw the kanji characters on screen. Skritter provides prompts if you’re stuck, makes sure your stroke order is correct, and also helps you to improve your handwriting.


I got used to curious fellow commuters asking me if it was Chinese I was learning, chatting briefly about how hard it was, and then asking if I was learning it for work or if I had any plans to visit Japan. Given that the answers to those last two questions were “no” and “no”, I would then receive a puzzled look, followed by the question “So why are you learning Japanese?” This was a question I should really have had a good answer for given the number of hours I put into it my studies.

After a little under 18 months’ of study, I took and passed the Level 4 (now known as N5) Japanese Language Proficiency Test, the easiest of the exams they run. On the train back from London after that exam, I probably knew more Japanese than at any other time in my studies. I’d been listening to basic Japanese conversations on my iPod whenever I could, reading paragraphs of text in a mixture of kanji and the Japanese phonetic alphabets, and had the basic grammar rules under my belt.

And I was burned out.

I’d put my all into the exam, pushing the number of hours per day I studied as far as I could, and I needed a break. It was early December. Christmas was approaching, and Number 3 son was just a few weeks’ old and more than a bit of a handful. I stopped being able to go to classes at the college, and I spent increasing amounts of time on the train trying to catch up with lost sleep. When my brain was tired, I knew it wasn’t worthwhile trying to push more Japanese into it.

I just about managed to get to the 1000 kanji mark – never did quite get to the half way stage. But then came a stretch of several months where I didn’t look at it at all. SRS works on the basis that if you keep reminding yourself about characters just at that point where you’re likely to forget them, you’ll push them gradually into long term memory. By not at least doing my top up ‘reps’ (or repetitions) on a daily basis, even if I wasn’t going to add new kanji, I was allowing all that knowledge to drift out of my head.

About a year later, I decided to pick up my studies again. I wiped my existing progress in Skritter and started again with the kanji for the numbers 1 to 10, then sun, moon, mouth and all the basics from Chapter 1 of Heisig. The first few days were fairly straightforward, and kanji I’d forgotten didn’t take long to re-learn. But it took weeks and months to get up to the 700 mark before work monopolised my time and energy, and I stopped. The daily habit was broken, and it was a year before I looked at Skritter again, by which time I needed to start from scratch again. Slightly easier to get started this time, although I still struggled with 肖 (resemblance – from one of the first Heisig chapters).

And then I stopped again.

And again.

And this week, I started once more.

Trying to understand Japanese text when you have fewer than half of the kanji characters under your control is like trying to read English when you only know the letters a to j. There’s no reading material available for people with the first 500 kanji in Heisig order, just as there are no books out there written for people who never got to the letter k. Heisig’s method is great, but only if you get to the end of it. If you’re only ever plan to learn (say) 200 kanji, there are plenty of books out there that will help you and will offer you the 200 most useful kanji in Japanese. If you’re learning for an exam like the JLPT, Heisig is no use – many of the basic kanji don’t appear until near the end of Heisig’s sequence. Heisig is for those who aspire to learning all 2200 characters.

Around about the same time I started my serious Japanese learning, Number 2 son was beginning his serious study of English. As he got older and he and I started working through Jolly Phonics flash cards, with actions to help reinforce each letter sound, I was reminded of sitting on the train with my home made kanji flashcards. Watching him struggle with identifying each letter and its sound, painfully working through a sentence letter by letter, reminded me of what it’s like when I’m trying to read even basic Japanese. These days, Number 2 son is reasonably fluent, whereas I’m still stuck with Biff, Chip and Kipper.

Khatzumoto (the man behind the AJATT website) has come up with a simple, two step plan for learning any language:

STEP 1: Start.

STEP 2: Don’t stop.

I’m getting pretty good at Step 1. I just need to work a little harder on Step 2…

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