Chinese kanji is the Chinese writing system. Kanji is a name for the “pictures” they use in their writing system. As with all learning systems, there is a right way to learn things, and there is a wrong way. However, determining which way is best for you is a question that is up for debate. You could take a class, but that is the wrong way. Here’s why.
When you’re learning Chinese, you’re undoing just about everything that was taught to you when you were learning your first language (if your language was English). Through self-study you can learn more conversational Chinese in your first week than you can in three months of university study.
The homework will be easy, but this is not how to teach this language. It is widely accepted that, when learning a second language, you start basic. Why teach what words to say if you don’t know what the words mean? That might get you through China as a tourist, but not if you want to learn the language. Learning the language means learning the people and culture behind the language. This is why so many language courses begin with a lesson on the history of the people who speak the language.
China is one of the four civilizations of the ancient world, and the only one that has remained a country, besides Egypt. It has a long, colorful, and interesting history. However, this is not a Chinese history lesson. Let’s dive right into the Chinese writing system.
Chinese characters are simpler than they look. There are thousands of kanji characters in the Chinese language. Each one represents one word. There is a common misconception that, in order to learn Chinese, you need to memorize each and every one just to have a basic conversation. If this were true, even the Chinese would have a difficult time understanding each other.
The easiest way to learn kanji is to realize that they are made up of radicals. Radicals are the “Chinese letters” that make up the “picture”, much in the same way you put two or more English letters together to make a word. It doesn’t end there. You don’t need to memorize a long list of radicals; that would almost be as bad as having to memorize 20,000 characters. You just need to realize that the radicals exist. After that, start learning them as you see them. Once you realize this, you’ll start recognizing radicals that have appeared before, building on previous knowledge and experience.
Every learning experience comes with a learning curve. Once you start recognizing radicals and see how they are put together, the more you skim a newspaper looking for them, they’ll be a part of your vocabulary. Learning the characters is important, but not as important as realizing how the words fit together on a page.
An excellent and suggested method when you start studying Mandarin Chinese is to utilize flash cards. Enter “skritter” into your favorite search engine. Skritter is an interactive, retention-based flash card system that uses algorithms to make sure you practice what you need to, when you need to. One person claims by practicing for 10-20 minutes per day (no days off), he learned several hundred characters in under a month.