Sunday, June 18 2006

How my mind works…

My struggle for Japanese literacy continues, as my kanji writing practice catches up to the new textbook we start on in July. I’ve now practiced 238 of the 302 kanji in the first volume of the text, writing out each one at least 20 times in correct stroke order, along with all of the standard readings (dictionary-style: on-yomi in katakana, kun-yomi in hiragana, to keep up my practice with both). These aren’t the only ones I know, but they’re now the ones I know best.

I’d wanted to be a lot further along by now, but between work and the demands of my other Japanese class (which involves the opaque writing of Daisetz T. Suzuki, the wretched haiku translation of Harold G. Henderson, and my ongoing struggle with brush calligraphy), not to mention the physical pain of writing lots of complex characters for the first time, progress has been slow.

[side note: the top review of Henderson’s book at Amazon says that his translations “push the envelope of what good translation of poetry of all kinds should be”. I agree, but not in a good way. Not only does he impose his interpretation on the work, but his need to make haiku rhyme adds words and concepts not present in the Japanese text (which he at least provides in romanized form with a usually-accurate literal translation as a footnote, unlike most English-language haiku books).]

One of the things that makes writing practice so important to kanji literacy is the relatively small number of elements that are combined to create thousands of distinct characters. The authors of our textbook assume that they can simply show you a bunch of vocabulary words repeatedly with furigana, and somehow you will learn to recognize them as something other than blob-blob, blob-blob-blob, blob.

Sorry to burst their bubble, but without any knowledge of structure, strings of kanji just look like an explosion in a serif factory, especially when printed small in a Mincho typeface, as opposed to the Kyōkasho fonts used in actual Japanese schools.

Not all of the graphical elements in a kanji encode meaning, or even pronunciation, but some do, and even false associations can be extremely useful for composing and decomposing a character. There are a number of books that actively encourage the student to create such associations.

I’m not using any of those. A while back, I gave up on learning kanji in any sensible order and extracted them from our textbook, lesson by lesson. Until I have at least a thousand under my belt, I can’t really read Japanese text that’s not artificially constructed for students, and I have to read our textbook anyway, so that’s the most useful order to learn them in.

I am creating mental associations, however, and today I caught myself making one that was downright silly, for : “it’s the grass-headed robot from kan, next to the bottom-right corner of ”. That is:


Oddly enough, this will improve my memory of all three.