Kanji Mnemonics Are Made To Be Forgotten

For the uninitiated, this article is going to be talking about mnemonics. In particular, I'm referring to kanji mnemonics as popularized by Remembering the Kanji (RTK) (The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Course (KKLC) and Kanji Koohii are others you may be familiar with).

Many people struggle learning Japanese vocabulary in the beginning because kanji look like random squiggles that are impossible to remember. Therefore, as a precursor to learning vocab, they choose to first do some amount of independent kanji study, often in the form of an RRTK Anki Deck.

This style of learning works by equating each kanji with an english "keyword" that is a rough approximation of what the kanji itself means. For example, the kanji 終 might have the keyword "end" or "finish". By equating each kanji with a keyword like this, you not only get the benefit of being able to distinguish individual kanji, but you also gain the ability to make a decent guess at what a word might mean just by looking at the kanji that make it up.

While this is a nice skill to have, the usual argument against RTK/RRTK is that the time investment needed is just way too high. In fact, this is something I agree with, and something I lament a bit when thinking back on how I chose to start learning Japanese. A person could easily waste several months on kanji study alone without learning a single word of Japanese. This is a problem.

However, this article isn't (entirely) about the time investment of RTK, it's about something a bit more fundamental to how kanji mnemonics work and are thought about.

The Big Picture

Let's take a step back and look at how kanji mnemonics work on a more fundamental level.

Suppose there was a kanji with the RRTK keyword of "Prince". However, through your immersion, you learned 20 words with that kanji in it that all had something to do with sausage. At that point, it's probably better to just forget the keyword "Prince" and start considering the kanji to be something related to sausage.

Of course, english keywords aren't usually that off of the actual meaning of kanji, but what I mean is that the only important thing is the meaning of words that the kanji is used in. Or in other words, the only way to get an accurate intuition of a kanji's meaning is by learning a bunch (more than 1) of words that use that kanji.

"Intuition" is the most important word in that previous sentence (and something I've talked about several times in the past). RTK is meant to give context to what you're reading in the absence of intuition. However, it can never be a substitution for intuition. That's something you'll have to cultivate with thousands of hours of immersion and study.

RTK/KLC keywords are just bridges towards the kanji, but don't actually matter that much on their own (and shouldn't be taken too seriously).

The end goal is to integrate kanji and their abstract meaning into your subconscious. However, going from random scribbles to that is a difficult feat. So mnemonics are an intermediate step to ease the process — but never forget that the end goal is for the kanji to end up in your subconscious.

It's not quite possible for kanji knowledge to be subconscious if you're consciously recalling an English keyword every time you see one. So in that sense, the end goal of mnemonics is to forget the mnemonics.

A Practical Approach To Learning Kanji

This brings us to something of a dilemma. Recall the following:

  1. Japanese is difficult to learn with 0 kanji knowledge
  2. RRTK takes a long time (sometimes months)
  3. Eventually you will forget pretty much everything you learned from RRTK

This means there's a fine balance the beginning Japanese learner must endeavor if they're striving for the least amount of time wasted.

Skipping RRTK might make vocab acquisition too difficult, or at least so unenjoyable that they quit. However, doing too much kanji study wastes time that could have been spent learning actual Japanese (fact: even if you study 8,000 kanji, if you don't know vocab, you don't know Japanese).

The solution that I, as well as members of the Perdition discord server came up with is the following:

  1. After learning kana, start trying to learn vocab (with something like Tango N5, Core 2.3k, or Core Anime).
  2. If you find that vocab is too difficult to learn as is, go through the RRTK450 deck. After that, go back to vocab study.

Two important points were considered when coming up with this advised learning pathway.

  1. Every person has a different level of "pain tolerance" when it comes to language learning. For some, ambiguity can cause figurative or literal headaches. For other people, they're able to push through seemingly effortlessly despite the difficulties. Therefore, it's worth testing to see which kind of person you are. If you can handle it, skipping kanji study entirely will save you a lot of time, and you'll be able to use that time to learn vocabulary faster. If you can't handle it, you can just pause vocab study, do some kanji study, and come back where you left off without really losing any time.
  2. RTK is way too much to be worth doing, and so RRTK was made as a way to cut down on wasted time (not only does RRTK cut out kanji production, but it also cuts out ~1k kanji). Still, even the ~1200 kanji RRTK deck is likely too much to really be worth doing. By cutting down your kanji study to the ~450 most common kanji, you learn enough to make basic vocab acquisition tolerable without wasting a significant amount of time. After learning that basic vocabulary, your intuition will be strengthened enough to not need further kanji study.

This method doesn't guarantee a painless learning experience, but honestly anything that does is probably a scam. The beginning is gonna suck pretty much no matter what you do. All this approach does is minimize wasted time, and abate some of the pain of early vocab acquisition.