I’m being asked one particular question quite often:
How do you practise [choose a language skill]?
I’m always eager to answer any language learning questions (especially concerning my way of doing things) when people approach me, but after some time of giving the same answers, I realised that writing a post like this might be a good idea to sum up my observations and solutions (i.e. used by me). Or, ideally, writing a few posts should serve this purpose, each entry covering a different language skill.
I will be mostly focusing on how I practise them in terms of Japanese, however, this advice is so versatile it can be applied to other languages learnt as a foreign language. In the very first entry, I’m going to concentrate on kanji, however, so it might also prove useful with languages that require memorising an alphabet distinct to the one(s) you already know. In the future, I will also discuss reading, writing, listening, grammar, vocabulary as well as speaking. I’m about to start taking conversation lessons, so I will be able to include this aspect’s pros and cons too, yet I do believe that there are other ways of practising your speaking skills which do not require attending a class.
But first – how to learn and take a liking to learning kanji?
I personally love learning kanji. I remember that when I had mastered hiragana and katakana, my sensei warned me that we were about to enter a new phase in learning Japanese and she was actually nervous if I would manage learning kanji. It was mostly because I was so reluctant when it came to learning the basic Japanese syllabaries (I memorised them 1 day prior to the deadline I was given). Needless to say, she needn’t have worried, because as soon as I received a worksheet with my first kanji to commit to memory (the ones for numbers), I was just hooked. I felt too good to learn them and somehow it was easier than hiragana or katakana. I asked my sensei to give me more on the next lesson, even though I was given 2 weeks to learn the first batch properly.
My sensei was also the first person who introduced certain methods of acquiring kanji to me. As a former university student who majored in Japanese and held an MA in Japanese philology, she was required to master large numbers of kanji every year she spent at university – it wasn’t surprising she learned a trick or two to doing so quickly. Thanks to her advice, I came up with my own system of learning and revising kanji later.
However, currently, I’ve already altered the old system slightly and have been using it for the past year quite successfully. Yet, there are some things I did notice that had worked better in the older system than they do in the new one. As a result, I’m going to present both systems I’ve used during my Japanese journey: the old one and the new one.
OLD SYSTEM (N5-N4 LEVELS)
As I have mentioned before, the core of this system was introduced to me by my first sensei but over the time I added a few features myself. However, everything revolved around one particular element: a kanji compendium.
My kanji compendium is, basically, a large notebook in which I registered all kanji I have ever learnt. Every page contained a table with 5 columns: kanji (with their stroke order marked), kunyomi, onyomi, meaning and compounds. As my knowledge of kanji grew, so did my compounds. It means that at first, I wrote the readings for kanji I hadn’t known in hiragana instead and, as I continued to learn, I could write more and more compounds without using hiragana.
Apart from the compendium, I usually kept a notebook or a notepad, though occasional loose sheets of paper also worked for the next step: writing the kanji and its kunyomi and onyomi from memory. I usually opened my compendium at the very beginning and began the revision process from there. Later, as I hit several hundred entries, I started to review them in batches. For instance, one day I would go over kanji numbered from 200 till 300, then 301 till 400 and so on.
This also worked for freshly learnt kanji – I used to skip towards the end of the compendium and began revising in the reverse order. Sometimes I revised fresh kanji for a few days straight, to make them stick. This was especially true for kanji with numerous strokes or only one or two uses (which, in consequence, I encountered rarely in reading passages) – they were much harder to remember.
There were several advantages and disadvantages of the old system. I have put them in two lists for a better transparency:
- cheap, any notebook can work as a compendium (I personally recommend a hardcover notebook, though – mine is 12 years old now and only a bit tattered, though pages inside had gotten loose – I could only imagine what a softcover would look like after such long time),
- great if you don’t have printed materials or use online resources for studying as you can compile your knowledge into a single physical notebook,
- knowledge sticks better and for a longer time (after my 4-year break I could still write and remember most readings for N5 kanji thanks to that),
- more attention is paid to kanji’s proper stroke order and its readings rather than its compounds.
- slower process of learning which requires more reviews,
- inputting new kanji into compendium takes time (you have to write the entries and the table as well),
- once an entry is written, it cannot be changed. After you learn more, some compounds you input are too easy or turn out to be unnecessary (because as you make progress, you learn what words occur more or less often; at first, I was blindly rewriting them from a dictionary or a textbook because I had no experience in deciding which one would be useful later yet. Of course, if you use an erasable pen or a pencil, that’s another story, but when I started learning, Frixon pens didn’t exist in my country yet),
- easy to input the same kanji twice or more times (for this reason, after I hit 300+ entries, I created a spreadsheet to quickly check if I had written a kanji in my compendium before).
Now, let’s put this system into a few easy steps to follow:
- Find new kanji to learn (either from your textbook, JLPT prep book, manga or any other resources you are using at the moment),
- Create an entry in the compendium (include the kanji itself along with its stroke order, readings, meaning and a few compounds),
- Practice the kanji in a blank notebook, notepad or a sheet of paper: try to recall the meaning first, then write down the readings. Repeat for as many kanji as you want or as many as you are learning in the batch.
- Repeat every other day. Reduce the time gap as it sticks in your memory.
Remember to prepare space for your compendium entries in advance to save time and not to lose focus when you are studying!
NEW SYSTEM (N3 LEVEL):
When I restarted my Japanese journey, I stuck to the old system for kanji review. It was understandable – I had such a long break that I could barely remember basic kanji. I was fine with the N5 ones, but post 150+ ones were a challenge then. As a result, I had to first remember what kanji I had learnt before and my compendium was a marvellous option for that – after all, it contained all the characters I have ever learnt.
I had never thought of including compounds in my past reviews somehow – this element appeared in the new system and was one of the reasons why I decided to change things a little bit. Another reason was that as I began N3 studies, I realised how many kanji I have to master before I could take JLPT. N5 level is a breeze, N4 is not so much worse but N3 is basically twice as many characters to learn.
After around one month of using my old system for N3 kanji, I noticed that my progress was slow and it was already May. The exam was only half a year away. There was no way I was going to make it in time if I stuck to the old system so I started making changes.
Incidentally, those changes coincided with me purchasing some Japanese kanji practice notebooks. Those are notebooks used by Japanese school kids when they learn their writing systems and contain big squares with a side rectangle to write furigana. What’s more, you can choose different sizes of the squares – I personally use the 150 size (meaning there are 150 boxes per page; the pages being B5 size) but I’m thinking of trying the 200 size in the future. In essence, the lower the number, the fewer boxes there are on the page – those might work great for young children who are learning how to write at all but if you already know how to hold a pen and write, you don’t need such large squares. Unless that’s what you fancy, of course!
At first, I just practised writing the signs in the notebook and completely ignored the furigana feature. But I soon realised that utilising it might prove useful in the studies and enhance my learning speed. It also worked well with So-matome N3 kanji prep book since the characters taught are divided based on how they work together in compounds. It’s no wonder I soon began writing kanji compounds instead of singular signs as I had done before.
Of course, when I learn a new kanji, I first start with learning how to write it properly (that is, keeping the correct stroke order) and focus on its kunyomi reading as it mostly is an existing word already (or it becomes one if you add an affix; I usually like to spare the kanji boxes and write suffixes and prefixes in furigana space).
After that, I add and repeatedly write down compounds and shift my focus to onyomi. As I’ve mentioned before, this is why So-matome kanji books work so well for me – they give you a character, its readings as well as compounds so I don’t even have to check a dictionary at first. I do later, though, especially if I’m aware that a certain kanji appears in some other words I already know or I want to further explore the character’s use.
This system also works well with the old system’s kanji revision – instead of the compendium being the base, however, a prep book was used. I tailored my reviews to how the book’s chapters were structured. The chapters also imposed how many signs I reviewed each session. Again, I could do plenty or I could just stick to the last batch learnt if it still felt too fresh in my memory.
Now, let’s summarise the system’s pros and cons.
- more attention is paid to kanji shape and stroke order, resulting in more accurate shape as well as memorisation,
- much faster, better suited for higher levels of JLPT where the number of characters to master increases significantly with each level,
- writing in a kanji notebook is immensely visually satisfying and repeating the same character over and over brings a certain pleasure,
- works well with JLPT prep books,
- takes less time to study (no compendium is kept, the studies are based on textbooks),
- easier to remember readings when you remember words the kanji is used in, rather than learning readings by heart without the context.
- More expensive as importing kanji notebooks cost more than a standard notebook you can find in the stores near you (not to mention the costs of importing them),
- Recalling readings is more difficult as they are mainly remembered and recalled through compounds (so if you don’t remember the compounds, you most likely won’t remember the onyomi),
- also requires frequent reviews, especially when the kanji is still fresh, but the learning and reviewing process is much faster,
- there isn’t any collective compendium that stores all the kanji you have learnt to serve as a general guide (however, I later bypassed this disadvantage by creating an Excel spreadsheet and inputting all the kanji I have actively learnt – including the ones from the compendium – into it).
Now, let’s put this new system into an easy step-by-step guide as well:
- Find new kanji to learn (either from your textbook, JLPT prep book, manga or any other resources you are using at the moment). If you’re using a textbook or a prep book, do the chapter first: highlight new words (be it kanji’s readings or compounds it creates) and do the exercises for the chapter. If you’re using So-matome series for this, the chapters are only 2 pages long and take around 10-15 minutes to wrap up,
- Open your kanji notebook and write down the first kanji to practise how it is written. Focus on kunyomi first (you can save boxes in your notebook by including affixes in the furigana space; I usually place a dot between kunyomi and the affix),
- Check the kanji’s compounds. If your textbook doesn’t provide many or you don’t feel content with the number it does provide, check the dictionary (either a kanji dictionary or a general dictionary such as jisho.org). Write them down with their reading in furigana space. If you feel that you know some compounds by heart, you can skip them or swap them with some new ones.
- Repeat for all kanji in the chapter.
Apart from the two systems, there were other things I have tested to boost my kanji learning. I have summarised them in the section below.
- putting kanji in Anki didn’t work, even though I tried dividing each kanji into several flashcards, each asking about a different aspect of it so that I could revise, for instance, kunyomi, onyomi, the meaning, sample compounds, and even stroke order (!) separately. The spaced repetition system was unsuitable for such kanji review because I had no power over the order in which the flashcards were presented to me. It led to absurd situations such as Anki asking me to provide the readings first and later checking if I could write the same kanji for memory – which, of course, didn’t work as it should when I was shown the very same character just a second ago.
- the same situation happened for kanji apps – there wasn’t even one I had stuck to (including the famous Kanji Tree) but it’s my personal preference to learn kanji by writing them on paper and even using a stylus to write on a screen wasn’t as appealing as writing the characters down with a pen. If you like using apps to study and you’re up to giving kanji apps a go, then, by all means, do it!
- I don’t recommend learning all kanji you encounter; focus on them either by their JLPT level or their jouyou level (order in which Japanese kids learn the kanji at school). Most of the high-level kanji are used less often than the ones from, for instance, first grades of Japanese primary school or N5-N4 JLPT levels. My compendium has always included kanji I learnt as they were introduced in textbooks or JLPT prep books. If I stumble upon an unknown kanji while reading, I tend to ignore it unless it appears multiple times over a short period of time – that’s when I check the dictionary.
However, I do not create an entry because of that. As a result, there’s a slight discrepancy between how many kanji I can recognise and how many I can recall from memory. This is perfectly normal and happens to everyone so do not beat yourself up when it happens to you. After all, it wouldn’t be fun to read a book or play a game if you had to stop every second to look up some kanji and then write them down in a notebook… Been there, done that and I stopped doing it because it killed all the fun of reading. I touched this topic in my post about reading without using a dictionary but I intend to delve into it a little bit more when I write an entry about why I skipped using a notebook entirely.
- of course, just learning kanji from general or dedicated textbooks won’t work, you have to encounter those characters in real contexts and authentic materials. Which is why I recommend implementing those into your studies from the very beginning (for absolute beginners you can find easy readers tailored to their limited experience, for example). Reading real manga, book, playing a game or even watching a show with Japanese subtitles (seriously, try the latter one, you won’t believe how effective it is) makes all the difference. Plus it boosts your vocabulary and grammar knowledge. As much as I like writing down all those kanji in my practice notebook and revise them, I can recognise many more characters thanks to how many authentic materials I snort daily. Obviously, that leads to the discrepancy I’ve mentioned above – there are lots of kanji I can recognise as I see them but I cannot write them down from memory. Anyway, suck in as much real context, not just the scientifically engineered for textbooks ones. Trust me, it will help all your Japanese language skills tremendously.