Every serious learner is going to have to learn kanji one day whether you like it or not (you’ll like it eventually, trust me). While there are plenty of ways to learn kanji depending on your tastes, they fall into 2 categories.
1. Learn kanji separately (ex. Kanji Kingdom, RTK, WaniKani, etc)
2. Learn kanji naturally, as part of whatever Japanese you are learning (through vocab/sentences)
Category 2 always looks like the more appealing of the two. Taking 2000+ characters and learning them by themselves sounds awfully dreadful. But is it a good idea to take this route?
Let’s get something out of the way first. Splitting up the kanji using category 1 works well. You are splitting up your targets (which you have a lot of in Japanese). But I’m not here to talk about the benefits of this. You tried it, and don’t want any part of it anymore. You would rather just pick up the kanji as you go. Learn a new word/or sentence and learn the readings of those kanji used. With this you’ll eventually learn all the kanji.
Go for it?
Yes and no. Before you jump into it, there are a few things you’ll want to consider.
1. Your desired fluency level
Some people want to be good at Japanese. Others want absolute fluency. Some people want to read light manga. Others want to read deep literature.
If your destination isn’t very far, you may not find it as valuable to learn all 2000+ kanji separately.
2. Have you tried it?
Before you even start to make a decision, did you give kanji separation a try? Splitting up kanji is a major method used by many learners in a variety of different ways. Part of learning Japanese is figuring out how you like learn. Before closing the door on it, see how you like it.
Tried it? Hate it?
3. How much do you hate it?
Is it merely annoying? Frustrating? Or do you dread every moment of it? Doing what you hate will burn you out. It doesn’t matter how good it is supposed to be for you. When you feel dread, you stop. Getting to fluency is way more important than how or how long it took you to get there.
4. Try the natural kanji route
You made the decision and are now learning kanji naturally through words/sentences.
How does it feel? Is your studying more enjoyable? Do you look forward to it? If you still feel the same way you did as when kanji was separate, you may have deeper problems with how you study that you’ll need to deal with.
Let’s assume you like it better (which most people that make this decision do). Your answer is clear: study kanji this way.
However you have one final and important step.
5. The future
You can and will improve without studying kanji separately. You will not lose in some major way. Don’t spend time needlessly worrying whether you make the right choice. Your final crossroads will come later.
Everyone who studies kanji (whether separate or natural) will struggle with it, especially as you move towards intermediate level. For the natural kanji learner, you will approach a second decision as you reach this level.
- Continue the natural route till the end
- Now switch to separate kanji learning
You don’t need to choose your lifelong kanji study route right from day 1. That’s just not realistic to make such a heavy decision with such limited knowledge. Many successful people have switched to separate kanji studying at intermediate or higher level. I did so myself.
My advice is that when you reach this level, and are not satisfied with your kanji ability, it’s worth it to give the separate kanji route one more try. You may now find you like doing it separately, and the timing is perfect.
If not, just continue doing what you’ve been doing.
“You must learn kanji separately if you ever want to truly learn kanji!”
You’ll occasionally hear this, especially from the die hard kanji separators (ex. hardcore RTK users). I don’t agree with this. There is no master-list requirement to learn kanji. I’ve met plenty of people who have very high levels of Japanese who never separated their kanji learning. As long as you take the time to consider the above steps, you’ll be fine.
Always remember: burning out and quitting is the worst possible outcome.
Going the natural kanji route
Have you decided to quit the separate route? How is it going for you now? Do you have any advice to other people who are considering doing the same?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.