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Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby mps » Thu 01.24.2008 5:36 pm

I'm not sure about the theoretical argument, but I know that I (an int-adv Japanese learner) have a much more difficult time reading text in all kana than text that uses kanji. The kanji make it easier to identify the intended word and to find word boundaries. It seems to me that using kanji beyond the beginning level makes Japanese both easier and more useful. Seeing a completely kana-ized (or romanized) page definitely makes my eyes hurt.

That being said, I don't think it is the best use of time for a beginner (e.g., first semester of college Japanese).
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Thu 01.24.2008 5:50 pm

Yes, that's a common thing for people to say -- the reason is that you lack the proficiency in the language to fully grasp the contexts of the passages and the words involved, and also you lack experience reading kana. Native speakers would not require kanji to know where words start and end because of their mastery of the language, although spaces are generally used in all-kana text to make it easier to read. Neither are arguments for why kanji are necessary (or even useful) to represent Japanese, they're just statements that learners often find kanji useful in a number of ways (although I think some of these are really only due to computers and the Internet.)
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby Harisenbon » Thu 01.24.2008 9:10 pm

Native speakers would not require kanji to know where words start and end because of their mastery of the language,


I'm curious: Have you ever timed a native reading an all kana versus kanji-kana mix? Reading speed when reading aloud would not change, but in the (small) tests I've done with my Japanese friends, having kanji in the text actually does increase their reading speed by a fair amount. Change the hiragana out of katakana, and the reading speed gets even slower.

I'm also starting to get kind of tired of the "Kanji isn't useful in representing Japanese" argument. I work in an advertising and development firm, and the amount of care that goes into choosing whether to use kanji vs hiragana vs romaji vs katakana is staggering. I've been involved in hour-long meetings to determine which was the best to use for a certain word in a certain ad.

Whether or not Kanji is "necessary" for Japanese is not up for debate. It isn't. Neither is HIragana, Katakana, or even romaji. I could rewrite all of Japanese in braile, or use a series of rock formations to represent the language. However, to say that Kanji is not USEFUL in Japanese just feels like a knee-jerk reaction tainted by a dislike of Kanji itself.

I saw an ad the other day for Kyoto that said (さいきょう). Without having any kanji there, is it possible to understand why they would choose to use that word and what it means? Do you think that a native speaker would see さいきょう and think "Oh, it's a play on words! 最京!" or would they just look at it and say "The hell is that?"

* Sorry for the rant, but this really has been bothering me for a while...
Chris, I respect you deeply as a student and professor of Japanese, I just don't understand why you hold such disdain towards the use of Kanji in Japanese?
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby furrykef » Thu 01.24.2008 9:28 pm

Harisenbon wrote:
I'm also starting to get kind of tired of the "Kanji isn't useful in representing Japanese" argument. I work in an advertising and development firm, and the amount of care that goes into choosing whether to use kanji vs hiragana vs romaji vs katakana is staggering. I've been involved in hour-long meetings to determine which was the best to use for a certain word in a certain ad.


On the other side of that coin, one could argue that if Japanese had only one script, then that whole issue wouldn't have existed and that hour could have been spent on something else. ;)
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby ss » Thu 01.24.2008 9:30 pm

Harisenbon-san wrote:
* Sorry for the rant, but this really has been bothering me for a while...
Chris, I respect you deeply as a student and professor of Japanese, I just don't understand why you hold such disdain towards the use of Kanji in Japanese?


Harisenbon-san, I have the same thought, in fact, I’m actually quite bothered too.

I also don’t understand why Yudan-san is so stubborn on this Kanji issue. I showed this thread to my sensei, he just sighed and didn’t feel like giving any comments, but he said:"If you want to learn Japanese, you just have to respect what we are as Japanese and our deep-rooted culture."

I'm also getting tired to see the argument on "Kanji isn't useful in representing Japanese" thing.
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby Oracle » Thu 01.24.2008 9:37 pm

Agree with Harisenbon. I have similar experience with friends in Tokyo who work at an ad agency and I've sat in on a few impromptu meetings at their place over ad campaigns and coming up with slogans etc. The choice of hiragana, katakana or kanji (or to deliberately use romaji sometimes) is very, very important. Each script has its own character (no pun intended) and each communicates something to native Japanese speakers at a deep psychological level - more 'atmosphere' than meaning. Could they do without kanji? Sure. But it would be stripping the language of a huge amount of nuance and subtly which they currently have.

( I can't help but think sometimes that kanji vs hiragana/katakana/romaji/whatever is a little like choosing a different font: why do people ever use different fonts? The basic meaning stays the same, but different fonts give a text a different 'flavour' )
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Thu 01.24.2008 9:38 pm

Harisenbon wrote:
Native speakers would not require kanji to know where words start and end because of their mastery of the language,


I'm curious: Have you ever timed a native reading an all kana versus kanji-kana mix? Reading speed when reading aloud would not change, but in the (small) tests I've done with my Japanese friends, having kanji in the text actually does increase their reading speed by a fair amount. Change the hiragana out of katakana, and the reading speed gets even slower.


This is to be expected; as I've said before, people read what they are used to faster than what they don't. I would be surprised if a native Japanese could read all-kana as quickly as the normal kanji/kana mix, but I would be even more surprised if they practiced reading all-kana for a year and still were unable to read it as quickly as the normal system. This doesn't have anything to do with the theoretical advantage of one over the other.

I'm also starting to get kind of tired of the "Kanji isn't useful in representing Japanese" argument. I work in an advertising and development firm, and the amount of care that goes into choosing whether to use kanji vs hiragana vs romaji vs katakana is staggering. I've been involved in hour-long meetings to determine which was the best to use for a certain word in a certain ad.


Well, the fact that these different methods of writing something exist in the writing system means that something like an ad firm would have to take into account how to use them. Things written in different scripts do have different visual effects, but this device tends to be used primarily in things like advertisements rather than in normal writing.

I'm not sure if I have actually said "kanji are not useful in representing Japanese"; if I said something like that what I mean is that the unique things you can do with kanji are not worth the colossal difficulties that the writing system cause, and they are not utilized to the extent that people often claim they are. People often claim that writers of literature "play" with kanji (or use it for expressiveness) to such an extent that their literature could not be represented in all-kana or romaji without significant loss; in my experience this is not true.

So if I do say that kanji are not useful, it's primarily this "expressiveness" idea as well as any claims that kanji are faster to process than kana (because they "go directly to meaning"). I don't mean to say there's nothing kanji can do that other writing systems can't.

I saw an ad the other day for Kyoto that said (さいきょう). Without having any kanji there, is it possible to understand why they would choose to use that word and what it means? Do you think that a native speaker would see さいきょう and think "Oh, it's a play on words! 最京!" or would they just look at it and say "The hell is that?"


Perhaps "What the hell is that?" It is possible to create visual puns that depend on kanji, and they do exist in places ads. They're fairly rare in actual writing, though. These sorts of visual games are done (in different ways) in American advertising as well.

* Sorry for the rant, but this really has been bothering me for a while...
Chris, I respect you deeply as a student and professor of Japanese, I just don't understand why you hold such disdain towards the use of Kanji in Japanese?


You may be overstating my level of dislike for kanji. But perhaps you have to be a teacher and watch students struggling every day with the difficulties of the writing system -- students who would be fully literate already if Japan used an all-kana or romaji system. They can write and read anything they can say in kana or romaji, but they are almost functionally illiterate because of these thousands of symbols they have to learn. They will struggle with the writing system for as long as they study Japanese.

James Unger's books The Fifth Generation Fallacy and the script reform book mentioned earlier have a lot of detail on the practical (negative) effects that the Japanese writing system has in Japan, particularly related to computers and the business world.

I don't take personal offense towards kanji. I actually kind of like learning them; I took the Kanji Kentei up to level 3 in Japan and I'm hoping that when I go back I can pass 準2. But my personal feelings towards kanji have nothing to do with whether they are necessary or useful for representing Japanese.

The reason why I argue this point a lot, other than my personal interest in this topic, is that I think misconceptions about kanji have a big effect on the way people study them and study the language in general. I think the overemphasis a lot of people put on the study of kanji (to the exclusion of grammar, reading, etc.) is at least partly due to the conception people have that kanji hold an integral, even foundational, role in the Japanese language.

I know that some people are offended or upset, and it's sometimes perceived as sort of a Western cultural attack on something that is culturally Japanese. But I don't think just saying that something has a place in Japanese culture automatically means that it should be preserved at all costs -- at one time, it was an essential part of Japanese culture that a lot of writing was done in classical Chinese instead of in the vernacular, for instance.

My main point is not that kanji are evil, just that they are (a) not necessary to represent Japanese, and (b) are used in very few unique ways that would be lost in a transition to kana/romaji. I usually stay away from the points about kanji actually being worse than kana/romaji (for reasons that are covered in sources such as the Unger books I listed above), and I'm not trying to call for the abolition of kanji because I realize that there are significant political and social difficulties in changing a writing system.
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby Oracle » Thu 01.24.2008 10:17 pm

Yudan Taiteki wrote:
Things written in different scripts do have different visual effects, but this device tends to be used primarily in things like advertisements rather than in normal writing.


They're fairly rare in actual writing, though. These sorts of visual games are done (in different ways) in American advertising as well.


Chris, what's the linguistic definition of "normal writing" or "actual writing"?

I think the overemphasis a lot of people put on the study of kanji (to the exclusion of grammar, reading, etc.) is at least partly due to the conception people have that kanji hold an integral, even foundational, role in the Japanese language.


I'd agree to the extent that I've seen many beginners mesmerised by the complexity/exoticness of kanji and as a result putting an inordinate amount of time into studying them - much more emphasis than grammar, reading, etc - in the mistaken belief that they are "the words" in Japanese. It is of course still essential to know kanji to be functionally literate in modern Japanese.
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby Harisenbon » Thu 01.24.2008 10:39 pm

Yudan Taiteki wrote:
I'm not sure if I have actually said "kanji are not useful in representing Japanese";


in the post above mine you stated:
Neither are arguments for why kanji are necessary (or even useful) to represent Japanese

Although Perhaps I took that a little stronger than you meant it. ;)

Yudan Taiteki wrote:
You may be overstating my level of dislike for kanji. But perhaps you have to be a teacher and watch students struggling every day with the difficulties of the writing system -- students who would be fully literate already if Japan used an all-kana or romaji system. They can write and read anything they can say in kana or romaji, but they are almost functionally illiterate because of these thousands of symbols they have to learn. They will struggle with the writing system for as long as they study Japanese.


Perhaps the same could be said about English. My wife has been studying English for many years and there are still a number of words that when she sees them for the first time, she can't pronounce them. If English had a better structure for the pronunciation of it's words (such as using a phonetic alphabet) she could be perfectly literate by now.

Every language has it's quirks like that, and attacking a language for having a non-sensical element seems rather over-critical.

But ah well, it just feels good to get that all off my chest. ;)
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Thu 01.24.2008 10:54 pm

Ah, I see, that was sort of a misstatement on my part. What I meant to say is that the arguments the poster was making were not even valid arguments towards the idea that kanji are more useful for representing Japanese than kana or romaji (which I consider a weaker statement than saying they're necessary). I didn't really mean to say that kanji were not useful at all for representing Japanese. Obviously they are useful or the script would never be used at all.

Perhaps the same could be said about English. My wife has been studying English for many years and there are still a number of words that when she sees them for the first time, she can't pronounce them. If English had a better structure for the pronunciation of it's words (such as using a phonetic alphabet) she could be perfectly literate by now.


Indeed.

Every language has it's quirks like that, and attacking a language for having a non-sensical element seems rather over-critical.


Well, it can get you tenure. :D
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby nukemarine » Thu 01.24.2008 11:10 pm

Yudan Taiteki wrote:

You may be overstating my level of dislike for kanji. But perhaps you have to be a teacher and watch students struggling every day with the difficulties of the writing system -- students who would be fully literate already if Japan used an all-kana or romaji system. They can write and read anything they can say in kana or romaji, but they are almost functionally illiterate because of these thousands of symbols they have to learn. They will struggle with the writing system for as long as they study Japanese.



Something seems off here. You have students that are fully literate in Japanese that can't use Kanji? In other words, doing the native test listed above (fully kana pages) your students would have full comprehension of what's written?

If that's the case, doesn't that go back to the original point of this overly long thread: Newbies should be learning the Kanji. Your students now have to expend large amounts of effort to not only learn to recognize (and hopefully write) these thousands of kanji, but now attach them to words they already know. The question would be then will they have a tougher time of it than someone like me that went the other path (Kanji first, then sentences and vocabulary learning pronunciation and grammar by osmosis).

I think the next few years will be revealing given there will be a rise is self taught Japanese learners.
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby ss » Thu 01.24.2008 11:14 pm

Yudan wrote:
But perhaps you have to be a teacher and watch students struggling every day with the difficulties of the writing system -- students who would be fully literate already if Japan used an all-kana or romaji system. They can write and read anything they can say in kana or romaji, but they are almost functionally illiterate because of these thousands of symbols they have to learn. They will struggle with the writing system for as long as they study Japanese.


To be fair, I think everyone will have to struggle to a certain degree for learning a foreign language. I sometimes think my father must be a だいばか because, even now, he still struggling over some hanzi. And me, a little ばか, because I also have gone through those. ;)
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby AJBryant » Thu 01.24.2008 11:19 pm

nukemarine wrote:
If that's the case, doesn't that go back to the original point of this overly long thread: Newbies should be learning the Kanji. Your students now have to expend large amounts of effort to not only learn to recognize (and hopefully write) these thousands of kanji, but now attach them to words they already know. The question would be then will they have a tougher time of it than someone like me that went the other path (Kanji first, then sentences and vocabulary learning pronunciation and grammar by osmosis).


This is exactly why I strongly advocate doing kanji from DAY ONE (okay, once hiragana are down...) and giving them kanji with all the new vocab they learn. Whether they actually learn to write them from day one, at least they start seeing them right away and start recognizing them.

Ideally, I'd like kanji learning to begin right away and go hand-in-hand with the new vocab.

F'r chrissakes, that's what students of Mandarin have to go through, and they have a BUTTLOAD more hanzi to deal with and NO benefit of kana at all.


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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Thu 01.24.2008 11:25 pm

Something seems off here. You have students that are fully literate in Japanese that can't use Kanji? In other words, doing the native test listed above (fully kana pages) your students would have full comprehension of what's written?


Well, I may have overstated the case a little -- like most people, they're not used to reading all kana so they might have some difficulty, but if it's something they can say, they would be able to read it in kana.

our students now have to expend large amounts of effort to not only learn to recognize (and hopefully write) these thousands of kanji, but now attach them to words they already know. The question would be then will they have a tougher time of it than someone like me that went the other path (Kanji first, then sentences and vocabulary learning pronunciation and grammar by osmosis).


I don't know if a fair comparison can be made because what they've been focusing on is intense oral/conversational ability. The theory is that ability to speak a language helps in learning to read it much more than the reverse. I'm not familiar with any of the research dealing with this so I'm not prepared to argue the point or back it up, but that is what lies behind the program.

Although what we do in the reading/writing classes is a lot more than kanji; it's also reading comprehension and writing ability (the ability not to write just individual kanji but a note or letter, for example).

In the end it's really circumstance and opportunity -- your method would be very hard to implement in a class (I think -- I vaguely remember Heisig himself talking about how his books aren't good for classes), and what we're doing in class would be very hard to do for self-study. As long as you reach your goals in the language, it's not important the path you take to get there.

(As for Mandarin, I'm currently taking a Mandarin class and we didn't start learning any hanzi until week 7 of the quarter.)
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RE: Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!

Postby HarakoMeshi » Fri 01.25.2008 12:05 am

To get back to the original question... "Why Are Newbies Learning The Freakin Kanji?!"

Before talking about kanji I'll talk a bit about language learning in general.

There is a school of thought that understandable input in the target language is the most important factor in language acquisition.

Now I don't know how much people around these parts agree with this, but there are studies that apparently show the importance of input over and obove other parts of study.

Grammar: Studies apparently show that explicit grammar study has some impact, but a small one on language acquisition. In practice appying grammar rules are too slow to use to a great extent consciously in both speaking and listening, and can cause hesitation in people who rely too much on it. They are great in one area: passing grammar tests :D.

Speaking: Studies apparently show that speaking has little effect on language acquisition, too.

Writing: Like with speaking its the same story. It is apparently good to develop composition skills, but not to acquire language.

Listening: It is great for language acquisition, so long as it is understandable. There is difficulty if the level of speech is too hard or too fast to get any useful meaning from it.

Reading: Like with listening it is great for language acquisition, but more so because you have more opportunity to stop, think, check and understand what you're reading. Also studies show that good reading precedes good writing.

Now all that doesn't mean to do just input and completely ignore grammar & speaking, but it does hint which areas should get the most attention, which are understandable input through listening & reading.

It makes sense, since most of us receive much more input than output in our lives. We were not explicitly taught grammar before we learned our language. We can understand much more words and sentence patterns than we ever use in our speech.

So why learn the 'frikin' Kanji? Obviously, to help start to read as much as possible. Based on the above, reading is going to be one of the best things you can do to take your Japanese to the highest level.

If you're studying on your own and not in a class where you're getting lots of input that's been orchestrated so you can understand and acquire it, then you have the option to try something like Khatzumoto advises on his AJATT website: get input by reading & understanding lots of real Japanese sentences.

Now... you can probably start that without kanji too, but I don't know how it would compare.

All I can say is that after doing RTK1 it works well. You can kill two birds with one stone - read Japanese, plus learn to read it in full Japanese script at the same time. Since the kanji are already familiar there is nothing intimidating about learning to read real Japanese. Its actually pretty motivating to learn how to read kanji words, and then to put that to use later to read real Japanese.

One side effect is that just by reading (kanji script), you actually mix vocab 'production' into the reading process. When reading kana we just have to recognize words, but when reading kanji we also have to produce the sound while reading. Its kind of reviewing vocab production without doing English -> Japanese reviews.
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