Learning a Kanji’s Meaning Separately from its Readings

For anyone interested in Kanji Kingdom, or RTK, or anything that splits up kanji learning into multiple pieces, I often get asked the following:

“Where is the reading of the kanji? If I only learn its meaning, how will I learn the kanji?”

This person asking the question gets worried, asks a Japanese person or someone who studied kanji the more traditional way, and hears something negative and “how real kanji learning should be done.”

Learning a Kanji Meaning But not its Reading

For millions of years, kanji was taught in Japanese schools as follows:

Traditional all-in-one learner

1. Introduce a kanji (based on objective frequency of use)
2. Learn what the kanji means
3. Learn what words it appears in
4. Learn how to write the kanji (thousands of time over until your hand bleeds kanji blood)
5. Learn the major readings for the kanji
6. Repeat 2000+ times

That’s a lot. All at once.

But Japanese kanji learning has diverged into two new major ways to approach this unending army of monsters.

Go-with-the-flow Kanji Learner

Learning a Kanji Meaning But not its Reading 2

A lot of people start off like this. I did too. You learn kanji naturally as you move through beginner/intermediate textbooks. You see kanji everywhere as just a part of every Japanese word and sentence. So you learn the kanji as you find them. Look them up, their readings, and figure out how they are used.

The Split-Learner

Learning a Kanji Meaning But not its Reading 3

If there are so many steps to learning just 1 kanji, separate them! That’s the split-learner motto.

Part 1

Kanji Meaning
Learn to write the kanji (optional)

(This is what Kanji Kingdom, RTK, and any other tool that does this is about)

Part 2

Learn the kanji reading
Learn what words the kanji appears in

(This is done through any beginner/intermediate textbook material)

By separating each part, you can focus on that alone, and combine the parts later. You get smaller achievable goals that will eventually lead to large victories. This is better than larger unachievable goals that lead to no victory…

Learning a Kanji Meaning But not its Reading 4

Which kanji learner are you?

All three learners can succeed just fine. Some people don’t like making kanji a separate task. Some people don’t even like to think about kanji at all. But if you have hit a plateau in your kanji acquisition, it may be worth it to try a new kanji learner path.

Which kanji learner type are you? All-in-one learner? Go-with-the-flow learner? Split-learner? Or maybe something entirely different that you would like to share with us?!

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Learning a Kanji’s Meaning Separately from its Readings — 11 Comments

  1. I’m a combination of go-with-the-flow and split learning. I’ve completed RTK 1 several times, but haven’t ever made a point of explicitly learning the readings and jukugo for RTK kanji after that. I’ve preferred to absorb readings and vocabulary through reading a lot. I’ll look up certain kanji if I’ve never seen it before and have no idea how to read it. There’s a lot you can do without a dictionary or textbook, though!

  2. I tried to follow the jalup walkthrough for learning kanji but I was feeling a bit anxious so I decided to study through the whole RTK first before starting Jalup Beginner. That worked pretty well for me because now I can advance on a very good pace in the jalup series (currently intermediate stage 3) and I don’t have to worry about finding unknown kanji for now.

  3. I was and have always been a go with the flow learner.
    It allows me to learn things in batches. When it was first learning from textbooks, you would learn kanji according to vocabulary lists: parts of the body, directions, school campus buildings, foods, etc. It makes it easier to learn for me ‘case I would have these big pockets of information (kanji/vocab). Then with reading, going with the flow fills in the middle; the kanji associated with verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.

    That way later on when you read a manga or novels about different worlds or time periods, you continue to learn those pockets of corresponding kanji/vocab while solidifying the middle connector kanji/vocab.

    That’s what has worked best and what continues to work best for me.
    At one time while considering taking the JLPT and while doing some serious Jpn study to advance at a fast rate, I did study kanji specific textbooks which helped show connections to learn kanji faster. Like the 月 radical for organs and body stuff: 脂、心臓、肺、胸. Having that during my intermediate phase was a perfect add-on.

  4. Split learner. I actually have to use this technique at work all the time. Take a big task, break it down into smaller pieces and just work on the smaller pieces until I’m done. It’s quite handy for large tasks/processes.

  5. I used a combination technique. At first I started with RTK, but I got frustrated, after about 500 characters, at not being able to improve my Japanese while studying. So I combined the go-with-the-flow style with RTK to get the best of two worlds. Haven’t looked back since.

  6. I learnt the RTK method first, which was a really helpful in giving me a good foundation. But I’ve found that the Kanji really sticks in my head when I end up learning it naturally alongside vocabulary. Kind of like how I might learn a word from flashcards, but really start to understand it when I use it in spoken conversation.

  7. I was starting off as an all-in-one learner, or rather all but vocabulary learner, but it became very time consuming to go at the pace I wanted to go at, 15 cards a day, exacerbated by the fact that my reviews were piling up due to pressing hard or again, so I decided, it. I’m going to just do Kanji Kingdom and learn the readings through the Jalup Textbook series. This is day two, and it is so much nicer. Thank you so much for creating such fun content that is actually motivating!

    • I’m happy to hear that doing the split method through Jalup has been enjoyable for you. I hope it allows you to go way faster than before.

  8. So, how does Kanji learning work with Jalup NEXT?

    I’ve started with the Kanji Kingdom and am focusing solely on learning the meaning of each kanji as suggested, but there appears to be helper kana and other aids baked in to help with reading.

    Is there a point in going through one of the decks where I’ll go back to the Kanji deck for this? Or how does it work?

    • These kana and helpers are there for later, as you learn the readings of the kanji through the other decks.

      So in the beginning you are just learning the meanings through Kanji Kingdom. But as you go through Jalup Beginner, Intermediate, etc. you begin to learn the readings, then you start to draw the connection with them in Kanji Kingdom, and it adds a new layer of review.

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