Japanese learning

How does kanji learning work?

Learning kanji consists of three components: orthography, phonology, and semantics (Shimizu & Green, 2002, p. 229).

What learning methods are there?

The conventional strategies are rote, contextual, and mnemonic (Shimizu & Green, 2002, p. 230).

Mnemonic methods

The keyword method

The learner can associate a keyword in the source language with the word to be learned, perhaps according to superficial similarity (Wang et al., 1992, p. 520):

The keyword mnemonic is well known in the educational literature for its effectiveness in accelerating learning speed and in boosting immediate recall of second-language vocabulary. A keyword is a familiar word that bears an acoustic resemblance to a novel word. For example, to remember the English equivalent of the French word eglise (church), one might use egg as the keyword. The mnemonic benefit is provided by generating an interactive visual image linking the two words (e.g., a church built of eggs). Presumably, subsequent presentations of the novel term will elicit the keyword, which permits access to the image incorporating the translation equivalent.

Keyword Mnemonic and Retention of Second-Language Vocabulary Words (1992), 520

What methods work best?

The component analysis method is superior to the whole-kanji method (Shimizu & Green, 2002, p. 238).

The keyword method is not so good

Long-term forgetting is greater for the keyword method than rote rehearsal (Wang et al., 1992, p. 520).

How many kanji must be learned?

It is not necessary to know every word used in a text to understand it. Gains in comprehension are fairly uniform between 90% and 100% coverage (Schmitt et al., 2011, p. 35), but chances are best with >95% coverage (Laufer, 1989, p. 319; Schmitt et al., 2011, p. 35).


Laufer, B. (1989). What Percentage of Text-lexis is Essential for Comprehension? In C. Lauren & M. Nordman (By), Special Language: From Humans Thinking to Thinking Machines (pp. 316–323). Multilingual Matters.
Schmitt, N., Jiang, X., & Grabe, W. (2011). The Percentage of Words Known in a Text and Reading Comprehension. The Modern Language Journal, 95(1), 26–43. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2011.01146.x
Shimizu, H., & Green, K. E. (2002). Japanese Language Educators’ Strategies for and Attitudes toward Teaching Kanji. The Modern Language Journal, 86(2), 227–241. https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-4781.00146
Wang, A. Y., Thomas, M. H., & Ouellette, J. A. (1992). Keyword Mnemonic and Retention of Second-Language Vocabulary Words. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(4), 520–528. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.84.4.520
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