Often, the progress that you make when studying a foreign language is dependent on the tools that you use to maximize your study time. In Japanese language study, the tools that you use to study kanji are a serious choice.
When I first started studying, my girlfriend’s father gave me a kanji dictionary as a gift and although I appreciated it, it was far to difficult for me to use. I struggled with it for a while, but the lookup technique that it required took nearly more time than actually studying the characters themselves.
I finally began to memorize kanji by using the brute-force method; I would simply write the kanji out by hand in a series of ten. This worked for maybe the first 200 kanji, but then I plateaued. I just couldn’t learn more than 200-250 kanji and remember them for any length of time. Then I found this blog post at Nihonshock (which you should definitely read) and, even though it seemed insane, it worked and I built up to knowing around 1000 characters within a few weeks.
The method relies on having a good kanji dictionary. I recommend The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary for a few reasons that I’ll explain below:
- The SKIP lookup method
- The word frequency chart
- The fact that commonly used compounds are listed and defined
Because this dictionary uses the SKIP method, you can look up kanji much faster than with a traditional dictionary. Take my word for it, you want to learn this method. There is a good tutorial on the SKIP method here, but the dictionary itself contains an easy to follow explanation.
The frequency chart in the index allows you to focus on words that you think that you may need to know and to study them in order. The frequency chart is derived from words most commonly used in Japanese newspapers, so I found that there were a lot of words about sumo and baseball but it’s still the best approach to studying efficiently.
The most important thing I’ve learned about kanji is that they are very seldom learned or understood in isolation. Although simple words may only use a single kanji, you’ll have a lot of trouble reading anything above the 2nd grade level if you can’t parse compounds. You’ll read a bit and then “BAM!” you’ll hit a block of compound-filled text that makes no sense to you. So, you have to learn compounds too. Also, the Nihonshock method that I referred to above relies on using compounds to help you associate kanji meanings.
So there you have it. Without a doubt, this is the best dictionary you can get for the money when you’re learning the first 2000 kanji. You can get it here from Amazon (in case you missed my other links above!).