Recently my wife shared some interesting advice. My daughter’s Japanese teacher explained that if you learn enough Japanese kanji (Chinese characters) to reach a third-grade level, you can read 70% of the words in a regular book or magazine. You can’t read academic or difficult texts but things like manga, magazines and such are readable at that level.
But what does this mean?
There are about 2,200 standard, or Jōyō (常用), kanji that Japanese learn as they grow up. My daughter learns them too even though she lives in the US. Kanji are usually divided by school grade level (1st grade, 2nd grade, etc). Here are the kanji up through the 3rd grade:
If you look at the kanji above, there’s only 440 total. That’s a lot less than 2,200. This also confirms what I’ve often noticed: most kanji are only occasionally used. They’re important, and someday you have to learn them anyway, but it’s not urgent. If you can focus on the a smaller subset of very commonly-used kanji, you can rapidly improve your reading skills in Japanese.
Currently, my daughter and I both learn Kanji. She learns the typical Japanese way: she learns only the kanji appropriate for her grade, and she has learned them well. Because Daddy is studying kanji too, she seems to be interested in learning them too. It’s a good reminder that parents are an important influence on their kids. 🙂
On other hand, I use the Heisig method, which teaches the kanji in a completely different order. Plus, I learned many kanji in the past through “covergence“. In the Heisig method, I learned 旭, a pretty uncommon kanji, before I learned really common ones like 火 and 水. But as an adult, the Heisig method works a lot better for me because I can see the connections more easily. Why did I learn 旭 so early in the book? Because I learned 九 and 日, and 旭 is just a combination of the two.
The only problem with the Heisig method I see so far is that many of the really common kanji happen to be at the very end of the book because they have unique shapes and you cannot build them from other kanji you learned.
So, if you’re an adult learning kanji, here’s my advice:
- Learn the most fundamental kanji first. Learning even the first 300 or so is super-useful.
- Also, spend a lot of time learning to read basic Japanese books, like children’s books, or young manga, or something else that’s simple. Get used to reading Hiragana and Katakana and basic Kanji (with the pronunciation guides) so that it becomes second-nature. I found that Doraemon comics are very good for this, and genuinely fun to read. My daughter has lots of them around the house. 🙂
- Once you’ve mastered #1 and #2, jump into the Heisig method to learn the rest. It’s a long investment of time, but it will really help bridge the gap between learning the basic kanji and learning the entire Joyo series.
If you start from the Heisig method, it will take a quite a while before efforts pay off, so it’s better to master some fundamental kanji first, then use Heisig to finish it off. At least that’s my opinion. Also, reading in wild is hugely helpful for helping you remember them too. If you don’t do this, don’t expect to remember the kanji a year later, or even 6 months later.