Demystifying Kanji

October 24, 2013—If you are positive about learning, are you more likely to succeed? Associate Professor of Japanese Yoshiko Mori assumed the answer was yes, but she wanted to study if students’ perceptions affected how they learned kanji, one part of Japanese’s complex writing system.

As the coordinator of Georgetown’s Japanese Language Program, Mori often sees students who feel daunted by the task of learning kanji characters. “The Japanese writing system is unique in the sense that we use sound-based characters—hiragana and katakana—and the Chinese [kanji] characters, which are meaning- and sound-based characters,” Mori said.

Over centuries, the Japanese language adopted kanji characters from Chinese but with a key difference. “We dropped the tone system and that created lots of homophones in the kanji characters,” she explained. “Many words sound the same but have different characters. The character and sound correspondence is not regular, and that’s one of the reasons [why] English-speaking students find Japanese reading difficult.”

Students also rely on the trusty system of “sounding it out,” which they learned from an alphabet based on sounds rather than meanings. “They are so used to trying to get the sounds from printed materials, so they sometimes don’t know how to deal with meaning-based characters,” she continued.

These major differences between English and Japanese can lead some students to certain perceptions about kanji characters. Some students believe that they will need to learn thousands of characters or that learning kanji is just too difficult. According to Mori, 200 of the most frequently used characters covers about 50 percent of the characters in common printed materials. But she was less interested in if students’ perceptions were true, but “how their perceptions related to their actual learning behavior,” she said.

After the first year in Georgetown’s Japanese program, students know about 200–300 characters. By the end of the second year, they are introduced to about 500 characters. Over the years, Mori has investigated how students react when they encounter unknown compound characters, which consist of two or more characters. “I wanted to know how do the students use their existing knowledge when they try to handle unfamiliar words,” she explained.

Mori found that students typically took one of two approaches—“guessing meaning from the characters [or its parts] or guessing meaning of the whole word based on the context,” she explained. Mori saw a correlation between students’ perceptions of kanji and which approach they chose. Students with a negative view of kanji would go straight to the context, trying to avoid the characters, while students who loved studying characters focused on the parts and ignored the context.

Overall, students with a more positive approach to kanji and the task of identifying unfamiliar characters were more likely to be successful. Although there are many factors that influence a student’s success with a particular learning task, Mori hopes students understand that their perceptions do play a significant role.

Mori is also studying how individual perceptions influence heritage language learners—children who speak the native language with a parent or at home but attend an English-speaking school. “[Heritage language learners] are exposed to the target language when they are little, but it’s very rare that they learn to read and write,” she explained. “They have unbalanced language proficiency,” she continued.

So while their own perceptions are a factor in their success, so are their parents’ perceptions of the language. For heritage language learners, the community, Mori says, also plays an essential role. “The language they use with their siblings and peers is more important,” she said.

All of Mori’s research informs her own teaching. She understands that each student comes to her classroom with different needs and different perceptions, and she sympathizes with students who are intimidated by starting Japanese. “I want students to have positive feelings about learning Japanese because it is so different from a Western language,” she said. “I want them to get interested and to think that learning Japanese is fascinating.

“The way you think about a challenging situation or task influences the final product. If you have positive perceptions and approach learning in a constructive way, you’re likely to be successful.”

—Elizabeth Wilson