Why is studying kanji so hard?

If your brain can handle all kinds of tasks without tiring, why is studying kanji so exhausting?

A good study system will allow you to learn kanji on automatic, without questioning your methods or becoming frustrated.

You pick up your flashcards and study a few you know - so far so good. You hit a card that you've studied a dozen times before, but now you can't remember it, and doubt kicks in. You stare at the card for a minute, wondering if you are studying the right way. You set it aside, planning to write it out later.  You study a few more cards, then hit one you remember well, but aren't sure about the meaning. You search for the word on-line, but the meaning still isn't clear. You make a mental note to research it later. Back to the flashcards, you find one that is similar to another word, but you aren't sure whether you remembered that other word incorrectly. Then you find a flashcard with a mis-drawn kanji. Should you fix it now? You drill five cards in a row that are super easy, and wonder if you are wasting your time. You spend time making flashcards from your lesson, but run out of time to review them.  The result of an hour of studying is this: you are exhausted and filled with doubt. 

If your mind doesn't get tired, why is studying kanji so exhausting?

Your brain runs on automatic most of the time.  Breathing, blinking, even digesting are processes that you brain oversees continually without getting tired.  After training, your brain can do other tasks without mental exertion, like brushing your teeth or driving a car.  Why does learning something new tire the brain out? For me, part of the reason I get tired when I study is that I am worried about the process. Instead of switching to auto pilot and reviewing one hundred kanji at a sitting, I over exert the process-oriented section of my brain. "I have to do this right, gosh darn it!" That's my philosophy. In order to study, I must have white flash cards, all oriented the same way. I must understand the Kanji and also the answer. I must have a glass of water. I must not be too hot or too cold. I...I could go on and on. I am trying so hard to "fast-lane" the process that I barely even get to a crawl.    When you activate that analytical "how can I do this better?' part of the brain, it uses energy. When you activate that "this is frustrating, but I need to push myself to continue, why am I not smarter" part of the brain, that is exhausting too. 

Wouldn't it be great if you could learn kanji on automatic, without having to tweak your system or get overly frustrated?

One of my biggest problems with studying kanji is the expectation that I should be able to learn quickly. I thought I could learn a word over a few days, with a few sessions. With simple Kanji, sometimes that works, but with more complicated words, I have found that I must go through the following steps:

  1. Study a list of Kanji, paying particular attention to new words, their meaning and pronunciation
  2. Drill the word, along with others, until I get it right once.
  3. Come back the next day and review it
  4. If necessary, come up with a recall pattern

For harder words, you may need a hook, or a way to remember the word, which is step four. Brute force memorization may work, but it is sometimes easier to find a way to remember it. Here are a few tricks:

  1. Find the word on a photograph, book or article. Make a visual memory of the word in that spot."
  2. Tell yourself a story about the Kanji, or get a book like "Learning 300 Kanji through stories."
  3. Use the word in a sentence with a teacher or native speaker.
  4. Write the Kanji repetitively (if ten times isn't enough, write it eleven times, etc.)
  5. Find a similar word (or opposite) and remember the set.
  6. Create a group of the words you struggle with, and study that group.  

Number six, studying a group, is the one that is the most repeatable for me. 

If you use KanjiFlashCard.com, you can go to the dictionary, look up a word, and add it to a group that you create right then.  Continue to add words to this group as you want, and review them at your convenience.

So how do you study kanji without exhausting yourself?

  1. Reviewing cards is easy. Do that first to warm up.
  2. Drill cards as many cards as you can.
  3. If you can't get a card correct, mark it as "Hard." It will drop out of your review that day, but will be added to the list of "Your Hard Cards" page for you to review.   
  4. If you come across a card that you simply cannot get, delete it and move on.
  5. Time box each card (limit the time you spend on each card)

The idea is to keep studying cards without seriously questioning your study method.

Want to try out this process on KanjiFlashCard.com? You can create a login and begin drilling the group "Easy Kanji" within minutes, for free.  Click here to get started.

Written by Charles; Learn Kanji

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