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Why Kanji are Awesome
Kanji, the bane of my existence
...if you are starting to learn Japanese, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. Kanji STINK. Here's why:
- They are really hard to write. When I was first learning how to write kanji they looked like a three year old drew them in the dirt with a stick. Actually, they still look that way.
- They have way too many pronunciations. Here's an example - 人 (human, person) is one of the easiest kanji. My kanji reference lists the pronunciations as "JIN, NIN, hito." That's three different ways! How am I supposed to know which one to use and when? HOW?
- The English alphabet has 26 letters. Hiragana and katakana, the Japanese syllabaries, have 46 and 48 characters. Ok, so that's not so bad. But kanji? Thousands! Thousands and thousands of kanji! The average educated Japanese person knows about 3,000 kanji.
On the other hand...
Kanji have some serious advantages over other writing systems, though. True, when you're first learning, at times it can be impossible to know how to pronounce a word that uses kanji you already know... for instance, the word "アメリカ人" - if you know katakana, you can tell that first part of the word is "America," and we just learned that that last bit is the kanji that means "human." But do we use JIN, NIN, or hito here? There's no way of knowing! (....well, ok, there is. I'll give you a hint, it's "jin").
But here's the thing - it doesn't really matter. Because take a look at what we already know:
The first part is "amerika," which (if you learned your Japanese syllabaries) is pretty easy to figure out. And then the kanji that makes up the second part of the word, well, we're not quite sure how to pronounce it, but we know what it means - human, person.
So what does アメリカ人 mean? America + person = American person.
I'm sure you probably figured that out sixty million years ago. Since you knew what the kanji meant, you knew what the word meant - even if you had no idea how to say it!
That's the case with pretty much any kanji you'll come across. It may have five different pronunciations and be stuck in ten different words, but if you know what they mean, then your reading comprehension will be pretty good.
One more example - one of my favorites:
Ok. So let's break this down. There's two kanji here, and they're pretty easy ones. If you start learning kanji, you're probably going to encounter these pretty early on. They're stuck together to make one word here.
The first kanji is 火. It means "fire." That's pretty simple. To me it looks like a little campfire, so it's easy to remember.
The second is 山. This one means mountain. It looks like a little mountain range, right?
Ok. So now we know what these two mean, let's look at them side by side again.
Fire. Mountain. Fire mountain.
See? It makes sense! Kanji actually make sense! Granted, we technically have no idea how to say or use this word yet, but let's say you came across this word in a newspaper. You'd be able to figure out pretty quickly that it was reporting a volcano eruption.
But wait, there's more!
Ok, so there's another component to kanji that sometimes make them even easier to learn and understand: radicals, or graphemes. These are broken up in different ways depending on how the kanji are categorized, making it easier to find kanji in a dictionary. But they're good for something else, too.
Radicals are parts of kanji, broken up into smaller bites. Sometimes - not always, I'll admit, but frequently - the parts that make up a kanji can give you a clue as to what they mean, even if you've never seen that kanji before. I'll give you an example.
Guess the kanji meaning!
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Here's a radical for you:
It means "water."
Almost every time you see this in a kanji (you'll always find it on the left side of the kanji), it will mean that it has something to do with water.
So take a look at what we've got here:
- 池 - pond
- 湖 - lake
- 海 - ocean
- 滝 - waterfall
- 汐 - saltwater, tide
- 汀 - shore, water's edge
See the similarities here? They all have to do with water - and they all have the water radical letting you know.
Learning the radicals first can help with learning to write kanji and they definitely make them less daunting. Once you come across a kanji that looks like a Jackson Pollock painting with 50,000 different strokes and then realize that it's a combination of radicals that you already know, it feels like such a relief!
SO. If you've decided to start learning Japanese, don't let the fearsome kanji get you down. They're definitely not as terrible as they may seem at first!