For most Japanese learners, picking up kanji can be hard. The complicated writing system used in Japanese (including kanji, hiragana, and katakana all mingling together in the same sentence) is one of the reasons it can be so difficult for English speakers to learn. But you have to learn it at some point, right?
When Should You Start Learning Kanji?
So when is the best time to start? Should you just dive right in? Or is it better to get your bearings with speaking before you take the plunge? Let’s look at the pros and cons of both sides, because they can both work depending on your situation and your style of learning.
Learning Kanji As You Go
In most academic settings when learning Japanese, you’ll learn kanji as you learn the language. This is how I started in my first-year Japanese classes in university. We learned katakana, then hiragana, then started with simple kanji.
You can do this too as you learn online or on your own. You can use the JLPT lists as your guide, starting with N5 and working your way up. The words on the lists work pretty well with the order you will probably be learning words in.
I think this method works to help solidify the relationship between the words and the characters in your head. Japanese can be kind of tricky when characters have multiple pronunciations, so learning as you go can help you pace things and really get the simple characters down. As you learn, you’ll also start noticing the similarities between characters with similar radicals (whether with meaning or pronunciation), and you’ll start picking up characters faster.
A lot of people I’ve talked to think that reading and writing are the hardest parts of Japanese. But if you learn the characters alongside your vocabulary words, I don’t think that has to be the case. One of my friends thinks reading is actually easier than speaking because she has been so diligent in studying kanji.
Getting Used to Speaking First
The other option you have is to hold off on learning kanji until you can comfortably speak. I would only recommend this if you were in a certain situation which I happened to find myself in after one year of studying Japanese.
After one year of study, armed with my fantastic baby Japanese (I could introduce myself and ask where the train station was, and that was about it), I found myself living in Japan for about a year and a half.
I certainly could have gotten by with my scraps of Japanese if I was able to keep to myself, but the nature of my job meant I would need to speak to people in Japanese every day. And not just passing conversations. Actually speak, for extended periods of time. I even lived with Japanese people during some periods of my stay there.
This is the kind of situation where speaking ability is far more important than reading. I’d say that if you are living in Japan and more concerned about speaking, it’s alright to maybe ignore kanji for a bit.
About six months into my stay, I was comfortable enough with my speaking ability that I went back to studying kanji. Knowing simple characters from studying in university definitely helped, and actually being in Japan and surrounded by kanji really boosted my ability to pick up and remember characters.
What Do I Recommend?
Overall, I think the first method is going to work better for most people. Learning as you go will help you really tie together the spoken and written language, and that’s important in Japanese, because there can be a bit of a disconnect.
When I started learning Chinese I was surprised by how much easier it was to learn characters, just because the written and spoken language actually work together. Japanese doesn’t always have that. But if you put in the effort and really work to learn your kanji, it’s going to be so much easier as you go.
The second method works really well if you really just need speaking ability, and you need it fast. But don’t ignore kanji forever. You’re going to need it sooner or later.
There’s no reason to be intimidated by kanji. If you look at it as a whole, it can seem very overwhelming, but it’s just another part of learning Japanese. Work it into your language study and keep at it every day. You might be surprised how quickly you get used to it, and how much it will actually help you learn and remember new vocabulary.
Plus, you’re going to feel really cool when you can read things in Japanese.