As an attempt to break the monotony of review after review, I’ve decided to instead write an article that’s going to basically talk about my past experiences and thoughts on learning Japanese (focusing on kanji memorization), how I initially got started and kept myself going, and how video games -including visual novels- helped me with it in a variety of ways. Needless to say, as there’s this pesky little thing called “individual differences in language learning”, what I’m about to post here should always be taken with a grain of salt. What I’m presenting to you is simply one way out of many, so feel free to adjust it to your own needs as you see fit.
Among learners just starting out with the language, I’ve seen many people feeling lost and overwhelmed by the prospect of starting to learn Japanese. To put it in less fancy terms, this is the problem of “where and how do I start?” And by this I mostly mean kanji, as it tends to be the single most terrifying thing for newcomers. For many students of the language, sitting in front of a kanji book with all the 2000+ characters and going through them one by one just won’t cut it. That’d be like sitting down with a copy of the Oxford Dictionary and learning everything from cover to cover.
You don’t necessarily have to “brute force” your way through the language learning process, but should rather strive to make it more natural and organic. In this regard, the nature of kanji characters as the primary building blocks of the language comes in handy.
First off, some introduction to kanji and how to memorize them. My own method was to first learn the most basic kanji (starter textbooks help with this) to give me a good, solid base to work with. There are also JLPT vocab lists circulating on them internets, so looking at, say, the N5 and N4 lists should be a decent start. People tend to say different things when it comes to memorizing your initial batch – a good way I’ve found is to either relate them to some familiar image in your mind, or make up little stories of your own that somehow relate to the character in question. Or, and this also works, diligently review them week after week until you can recognize them at a glance. That first step is always the hardest, that much I admit. However, once you’re done with the initial hardships of memorizing your first hundred or so characters, it’s all about the kanji compounds and mental connections. Learning kanji generally gets easier as you progress and therefore have a larger base knowledge to build upon. At first you don’t necessarily *need* to sit and memorize each reading (onyomi/kunyomi) individually, either – you should, of course, make an effort later down the road to remember at least some of them, but as a complete beginner, your time and energy can potentially be spent on other things.
Namely, you should consider learning new kanji by associating them with things you already know. This will also enable you to familiarize yourself with the various readings over time. As I’ve said, the key is to make the learning process flow more naturally. Random example: you will learn very early that 来る (kuru) is “to come”. Then a bit later you’ll learn that 未来 (mirai) is future. Oh shit, the kanji for kuru is pronounced as “rai” in that compound! You’ve just learned a new reading, which you will also see in 来年 (rainen – next year, the “coming” year)、来週 (raishuu – next week)、来月 (raigetsu – next month) and so on. Similarly, one of the first kanji people learn is 食べる (taberu), to eat. Then, still as a beginner, you’ll come across 食事 (shokuji), which can also mean “meal”. As you can see the kanji for taberu is pronounced in compounds as shoku, as in shokuji. Then, when you see stuff like 食材 (shokuzai – food ingredient)、食欲 (shokuyoku – appetite) and so on, you’ll already know how to pronounce it. There are always exceptions, but at this stage you shouldn’t worry about it.
The Japanese language is awesome in a weird way because sometimes you can also guess the meaning of a kanji if you don’t necessarily know how to pronounce it, just by examining the kanji it’s made up from. Example: 後悔（する）(koukai(suru)) By this point you may know that 後 is generally speaking “after”, and 悔 (from 悔む, kuyamu) is to lament something. Put them together, you have a general meaning of “lament something after(wards). You guessed it, the meaning of 後悔（する） is to “regret” something. And as we know regretting is done *after* you’ve messed up.
Another cool example is 助言 (jogen), which is constructed from (助, 助ける – tasukeru – to help someone) and 言 (to remark/say something, generally related to talking/language), therefore the two put together as 助言 is literally “helpful saying/remark”. It’s not very hard to figure out that 助言 means “advice/suggestion”. And guess what, you’ve also just learned that the kanji of tasukeru can also be pronounced jo, like in 助手 (joshu – assistant, the two kanji literally meaning “helping hand”). 助言 (jogen) also tells you that 言う (iu, to say) can appear as “gen” in compounds (like 発言, hatsugen – utterance), and from joshu (助手) you can also find out that the kanji for hand (手 – te) becomes “shu” in compounds, which you will later see in other examples such as 手術 (shujutsu – operation/surgery), or 手段 (shudan – method/means/way of doing sth, handling sth), and so on. This is just the surface of things, but I think it’s clear what I’m trying to illustrate here. My point is that everything is connected to everything, so you learn new things from… well… everything, provided you pay attention and take the time to read and jot down all the words/phrases you come across. It’s all a big puzzle waiting for you to solve it, and games can play a significant role in this process.
So how do games and visual novels come into this? Well, it’s one thing to learn a set number of kanji each week, it’s another to actually remember them 6 months later. What I personally found is that kanji need to be reviewed over and over again for them to finally stick – so far this is common sense, and probably doesn’t sound very exciting. However, by playing games in Japanese, you’ll naturally encounter hundreds upon hundreds of characters, some more frequently than others. And here’s the key – frequency. The more you encounter a kanji across a variety of games, the less effort it will take for you to eventually remember/recognize it later on. Association also plays a key role here, as you will often find yourself recognizing something and going “hey, I remember this from that scene in this one game!”. Remembering a vocabulary item simply because a memorable video game character uttered it might sound ridiculous, but does actually work like a charm in many cases. This applies to anime as well.
Games -visual novels in particular- will often break away from the dry and boring world of classroom Japanese and give you a more authentic experience. Of course, it’s still going to be a script that was written in advance, but you get what I mean. You will also see frequently occurring phrases and useful idioms in their respective contexts, and will have an easier time understanding and mastering their proper usage. I also recommend starting to use Japanese-Japanese dictionaries at some point in order to better understand certain problematic phrases/words.
Naturally, selecting the right game for the job is extremely important. You might not want to plunge into a game like Valkyria Chronicles, which throws military terms at you like it was free candy. Initially picking a game with an easier subject matter and general vocabulary will make your life that much more pleasant. And since a fair number of visual novels deal with slice-of-life scenarios and high school daily life… well, you can probably tell where I’m going with this. Visual novels are also far more text-heavy than other games, and therefore among the best choices you can make when it comes to connecting study with fun. Lighter JRPGs also work here, offering a narrative with not that many complex kanji and potentially useful vocabulary (think of the usual RPG gear or item names, food names and so on). The Tales of series in particular is something I can recommend.
To add one more thought here, you also have access to ITH (Interactive Text Hooker) and Rikaichan, both extremely useful tools for study purposes – if you’re not familiar with these, I recommend a quick Google search. For non-PC games where such tools are not available (as in, you’re playing something on your DS/PSP or home consoles), you’ll actually have to take the time to look up each word. This is no wasted effort, though. Initially, you’ll probably look things up based on their radicals, which means you’ll eventually familiarize yourself with a great number of them. This is good.
Additionally, once you’re at a more advanced stage, this can also facilitate your association skills – let’s say you want to look up 実現 (jitsugen – realization of sth, actually making sth happen). Instead of immediately looking at the radical table, you might go, “hey, although I don’t know this particular compound, I know the two characters it’s made up of! Once again, you’re basically keeping your skills sharp without maybe even realizing it yourself. Not to mention the obvious positive effect of always following a game’s narrative and therefore seeing the new vocab as it is spoken by the characters in context, and not just as yet another boring dictionary entry.
One other aspect of choosing your game is determining its reliance on kanji. Some games are simply easier to read than others, and more “accessible” titles will often write certain things in kana instead of their kanji counterparts. (Example: あなたinstead of 貴方, or かわいい instead of 可愛い). This is usually a matter of style on the part of the author (for example, to illustrate certain characters’ personality quirks), nonetheless the fact that more light-hearted games tend to rely more on kana/simpler language is a useful tool in itself, as it helps to ease the learner into the world of Japanese reading/writing by not overloading his/her brain with too many characters and complex sentences. Besides, it also boosts confidence and motivation, making you more likely to tackle slightly harder games in the future. These two things aren’t talked about that often but are nonetheless extremely important during the learning process. Having a can-do attitude will make your Japanese studies a significantly more pleasant -and rewarding- experience.
The topic of reliance on kana now takes us to another important issue. Is kanji really necessary? Couldn’t we just write everything in kana? To answer both of those: yes, and yes we could but it would not be very pleasant. As all Japanese sentences are based on the harmony of kanji and their supporting kana, you will, in time, find your eyes skipping from one kanji character to the next within a sentence – in a way, they are the landmarks of the text, while kana is the road that connects and helps direct your gaze to get from kanji A to kanji B.
In simpler terms, kanji help you determine the vital points of a sentence and figure out where one segment ends and where the other begins. In a way, the flow of kanji in a sentence is also the flow of thoughts within your mind as you read. Looking at a text made up of purely hiragana will in most cases result in a slower reading speed and more difficulty in getting from A to B within a sentence. I myself struggle with purely kana texts, while breezing through certain simpler sentences in visual novels after one quick glance at the kanji present in it. So having this sort of mindset about the importance of kanji will considerably influence your speed and reading comprehension, at least in my experience.
I’ve talked a lot about reading, but what about writing? As in, with pen and paper. Opinions tend to differ on this. On one hand, in an age when most people communicate online via email, Twitter or Facebook and pretty much everyone has a smartphone (and typing in kana is automatically converted to kanji), the importance of “traditional” writing seems to be on a decline. On the other hand, actually writing down your characters deepens your understanding of their composition and could potentially improve your long-term results. Still, don’t panic if you happen to realize that your writing skills are somewhat lacking compared to your reading/kanji recognition – even the Japanese tend to have this problem from time to time, especially in today’s technology-centered age. In the end I leave it up to you to decide whether or not you wish to put time and effort into this, as it’s highly dependent on your personal goals with the language. At the very least, though, I would recommend learning to write hiragana/katakana so that you’re not completely without options when something does need to be written down in a hurry.
In closing, always keep in mind there is no “best” way to learn a language. You should generally be open to other methods in order to find the ones that you personally find the most comfortable. Regardless, I hope the above was at least moderately helpful to some of you who are still uncertain about how to go about studying and, of course, how to implement gaming into that process.