Natalie Hamilton is a translator and teacher. She turned her focus to Japanese study while living and working in Japan’s rural Oita Prefecture on the JET Programme. She was awarded a Master of Japanese Translation in 2014, which included a linguistics dissertation entitled Cracking the ON Yomi Code. Her new kanji textbook The Kanji Code has been an Amazon Top 10 Best Seller in Phonetics and Phonics since April 2019.
A few readers have asked me for advice on the best way to learn the phonetic components, kana-kanji connections and visual patterns in The Kanji Code. My usual reply is, ‘Whatever method works for you.’ But recently I asked a good friend of mine for the recipe to a delicious dish she had just cooked. Her reply, ‘There’s no recipe, you just do it by feel’ left me feeling deflated. Of course, once you have cooked a dish 20 times the recipe becomes second nature and you don’t need to refer to it in print, but the first, second or third time I make a dish, I usually need to refer to a recipe.
So, if the lack of explicit and detailed instructions on how to learn The Kanji Code’s content has left you feeling frustrated, please accept my sincere apologies. If you are looking for a ‘recipe’ on how to learn it, please read on for how I would tackle the task. Let’s start with the phonetic components.
Disclaimer: I didn’t actually study the phonetics in an academic sense, because the work involved in collating the lists, then revising and editing the book over the course of nine months was sufficient exposure for the content to seep into my subconscious. I can reveal that I made a lot of lists in Excel and did a lot of sorting and drawing – particularly of visual patterns.
How should I approach the phonetic components?
Watch my tutorial on basic kanji structure for a primer on phonetic components, radicals and keisei moji (形成文字). Even though the phonetic components (PCs) are parts of kanji, I think it’s important to remember that they are quite different from kanji. I wouldn’t try to tackle them in the same way, learning the meaning and readings. In fact, the beauty of the PCs is that they each have only one reading. (Well, some have two but let’s ignore that for now).
They are basically components that correspond to a particular sound. And while most also have a meaning, or at the very least a name, this should be treated as supplementary information. After all, the purpose of learning PCs is to take the guesswork out of reading kanji for sound; namely, ON readings. So, forget about the meaning and simply concentrate on the symbol and the sound. In this way, they phonetics funtion in the same way as hiragana and katakana (which I refer to collectively as ‘kana’).* It follows that whichever method you used to learn kana should also work for PCs.
How I would learn phonetic components
First, isolate each PC and the sound it represents. Here are some examples of the sound to symbol correspondence of PCs:
An added bonus is the fact that you don’t really need to learn how to write PCs; unlike with kana, recognition is enough. In fact, you could say that learning PCs is actually easier than learning kana. It’s very similar to learning phonics for English reading. Once you can recognise that E makes the sound ‘e’ and CH makes the sound ‘ch’, you are able to start reading words. The only difference is that sometimes the PC is a little bit hidden within the kanji, particularly if the kanji has a lot of strokes. For this reason, it helps to know the abbreviated versions of different radicals and components. e.g. Can you see the 竹 within 築 . That’s right, it’s squashed up on the top, as if the ‘stems’ of the bamboo shoots have been cut off.
Make your PC cards
You will need my list of phonetic components. I recommend making physical cards for this, but if you prefer to use an anki deck or app, go for it! Take a trip to your local Daiso or 100 Yen shop and buy a set of 130 flash cards, or just buy any firm index cards. You want them to be thick enough that what you write on one side will not show through on the other side, so experiment with thickness of cards and darkness of pen. Pick up a nice, thick nib character writing pen and a couple of thin pens (I like Artline, no referral commission!).
Front of card
- Phonetic component: This is not only good writing practice, but it helps you learn the form of the component more deeply than if you just copy it electronically or print it out. Muscle memory is everything with kanji.
- PC number (optional)
Back of card
- ON reading (romaji, hiragana or katakana)
Write the pronunciation of the PC in whatever script will be easiest for you to memorize it. I realise that in choosing romaji here I am a bit of an outlier, and I have been lectured to by more than one Japanese learner about the importance of ditching romaji. This blog post explains why romaji works best for me when memorizing ON readings.
2. Example words: include a couple of example words that contain the phonetic.
Fortunately, I’ve done the work for you and listed a few common kanji compounds for each phonetic component in The Kanji Code. You will need a fine tip pen for this as you want to write them as neatly as possible. I recommend using a different colour for the phonetic, so buy a set with the same fine tip in a variety of colours.
If mnemonics are your thing, you could add one here on the back as a way to help you. The most obvious option is to associate the component with a particular word. e.g. Most intermediate Japanese learners know that CHUU (中, middle) appears in 中国 CHUUGOKU (China), so you could use that knowledge to prompt your memory.
If you can’t associate the PC with a particular word or kanji, you may want to come up with your own mnemonic. As James Heisig suggests in Remembering the Kanji, the more visually exciting, impactful or weird your mnemonic is, the more likely you are to remember it.
e.g. for CHIKU (which means bamboo) you could imagine a little baby chick sitting in a nest made of bamboo. Then, when you test yourself and you see the bamboo, it should jog your memory – oh, there’s a chick in the bamboo nest – that’s right, CHIKU! This method obviously requires you to invest some time in learning the radicals, so you know that 竹 means bamboo. Read more here on the benefits of learning radicals, and see my list of radicals in subject order.
Full disclosure: Even though I generally LOVE making up mnemonics, I didn’t bother with this step when learning the phonetics, I just rote learned the sound that goes with each PC.
4. PC type – refer to my list or the book (kanji, radical, creative component)
Is there a Kanji Code Anki Deck?
A couple of people have asked me if there is an official Anki deck for the book. I haven’t made one but you are welcome to create one. If you want to share it publicly please just cite my name and the book’s title, and provide a link to the book page. If you have made a Kanji Code anki deck and are willing to make it public, please get in touch and I will share it.
Decide on your PC sets
Once you have made your PC cards, you will need to decide how many you want to learn at a time. Remember that according to Miller, seven is a ‘magical number’ because it is the maximum number of items most people can store in their short term memory in one go. So, chunk the PCs into meaningful groups of seven or less.
As you know, kana are taught in sets of five (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko) and are chunked by the first letter i.e. k. I have listed the phonetics in kana order (a, ka, sa, ta, etc.) so you can chunk PCs with the same ON reading together as a set. For example, there are five phonetics with the ON reading KA. And there are four PCs with the readings KAN, KI and KYOU. When you come across a few PCs that don’t naturally group together, you could group those together if they appear close together in the list, e.g. from 59-64 could come as a set (SHOKU, JI, SHAKU, SHU & JUU).
Of course, it makes sense to learn the most frequently appearing PCs first. I have added the label ‘Power Phonetic’ to 10 PCs that appear in at least five commonly used words. Learn these first to maximise your reading power in a short space of time.
How long will it take me to learn them?
There are 150 PCs in total including the rhyming phonetics. Let’s exclude the rhyming ones for now, since they are an added bonus and apart from HOU/BOU are relatively minor. That leaves us with 130 PCs. Compare this with the total number of kana. There are 46 hiragana and 46 katakana symbols, making a total of 92. As you can see, it’s not a huge increase from 92 to 130. That’s a ratio of about 7:10 Kana: PCs. To calculate how long it should take you to learn the phonetic components, multiple the time it took you to learn kana by 1.42. If it was 6 months, then it will be 8.4 months. If it was 2 weeks, it’ll take you 2.84 weeks. See, they are not as time consuming as you may have thought!
How many PCs should I learn a week?
Next, decide how long it will take you to learn each set of PCs. For example, one week or one fortnight. I know there are people who claim to have learned all the kana in a single afternoon. I tend to be a bit dubious about whether these remain in their long term memory down the track. Still, there are some people with amazing memories, and some may be bringing knowledge of PCs from other languages, so adjust this time to something that is achievable and realistic for you. I think I would be doing it as one set of 5-7 PCs per week. This works out quite neatly as 26 weeks or six months to complete the 130 standard PCs. If you did one set a fortnight and it would take you a year. If you are juggling work or study this might be a more manageable timeframe.
Of course, you will need to revise previous sets every so often, to make sure you haven’t forgotten them. You could set an ‘all PC’ revision session once a week or month. The beauty of using cards is that you will quickly work out the ones you are having the most trouble remembering, and revise those ones more often. Spaced repetition software will do this for you too, of course.
Planning is key
In my teaching studies I have learned how important metacognitive strategies are for learning in general. That is, how you plan and schedule your learning has a big impact on your overall learning achievements. In light of this, I recommend creating a learning schedule and setting achievable targets. For example, you might decide you want to learn eight sets in the first eight weeks, and write up a study schedule like so:
Goal: Learn 8 sets of PCs by April 21
Week 1 Power Phonetics Group A
Week 2 Power Phonetics Group B
Week 3 KA
Week 4 KAN
Week 5 KYOU
Week 6 KEI
Week 7 KEN
Week 8 KOU
Tip: Do your PC drills at the same time each day. For example, you might want to flip through your current set once a day on the bus to work or with your morning cup of coffee. By creating a regular ritual, you are more likely to keep up with the process. I find I don’t need to be too awake or alert for rote learning, so I prefer to do it first thing in the morning. There is even a theory (of mine) that doing drills early when you are still ‘half awake’ lets you access your subconscious more directly, and is therefore more effective.
Drill the cards
Now you simply have to drill the cards at the same time each day. You will gradually memorize more and more PCs, just as you did with hiragana and katakana. Once you can recognise the phonetics and remember the sounds that goes with them, you will be able to take that knowledge into reading any authentic Japanese text: manga, subtitles, newspaper articles, social media posts, the list goes on. You will find that you become very good at making educated guesses about the ON reading of kanji in unfamiliar compounds.
Sharing is Caring
Let me know how you go, and please share a picture of your cards using the hashtag, #kanjicodecards
*Useless trivia: one of the working titles of The Kanji Code was ‘Kanji Kana’.
Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0043158
P.S. Here’s an article that explains Miller’s Magic number 7 theory in more detail: