Japanese is a wonderful language. However, it is also one of the most challenging languages to master, at least for people with a mother tongue which uses an alphabet. There are multiple reasons for Japanese being a challenging language to learn. Understanding them might be helpful for designing an efficient learning strategy. If the learning strategy is furthermore augmented by suitable learning tools then the success is guaranteed.
One of the key obstacles when learning a new language is the need to memorize a lot of information in the form of vocabulary. With Japanese, this challenge is even bigger as we do not need to learn only the vocabulary but also the building blocks of words and these are Japanese characters called kanji.
Let´s now have a look at how much information we have to memorize to reach a solid level of Japanese.
Putting katakana and hiragana aside, there are 2.136 standard kanji characters (Jouyou kanji) to learn. For every kanji, we need to learn multiple pieces of information:
Writing - how to draw a kanji (including the correct order of the strokes). Let´s count this as one piece of information per kanji.
Meaning – there might be even more than one meanings per kanji, even though they might be related. To make it simple, let´s count this again as one piece of information per kanji.
Readings – for every kanji, we need to learn both, the KUN and ON reading. When looking at the commonly used readings only, one kanji has usually between 0 and 4 KUN readings and 0 to 3 ON readings. Based on my calculations, on average every kanji has 2.25 different readings (including both, KUN and ON readings).
Taking all this into account, we might conclude, that there is on average 4.25 pieces of information to memorize for each kanji (writing, meaning and 2.25 readings) which represents approximately 9.000 pieces of information for Jouyou kanji to store in our brains.
If we add the information about vocabulary we want memorize to reach a decent Japanese level, which might be 5.000 or 10.000 words then the total amount of information to memorize lands at about 14.000 or 19.000 pieces of information, depending on the level of language knowledge we want to achieve.
Of course, there is also a need to learn grammar and to practice speaking and reading skills. However, this is not the main focus of this post.
Thus, we can conclude that one of the main hurdles when it comes to learning Japanese is the high volume of information we have to push into our long term memory. For a decent level of skills it amounts to at least 14.000 pieces of information.
Having understood one of the major challenges when it comes to learning Japanese – the need to memorize high volume of information – we can start searching for a learning strategy which would help us to reach the goal. Such a strategy might include following components:
Prioritization of what we learn by using the information about frequency of use of kanji and words
Creating network of the individual information pieces
Reading real life texts
I will talk in more details about these items in my next post.