japanese mnemonics


The textbook we're using for the Japanese class provides little mnemonic images to remember each of the hiragana kanas (a bird's beak saying "ku" for く, chopsticks with a long NOOdle for ぬ, etc). I'm finding them tremendously useful, since I'm a heavily visual learner. But I'm wondering if it's a bad thing to be too dependent on these image/character relationships.

I'd be interested to hear from people who've studied Japanese whether, over the long haul, they found it helpful or detrimental to use these as methods for remembering kana? Is it likely that with repetition, I'll stop needing them?

Many thanks to Boris, by the way, for his link via my comments to the Nuku Japanese kana tutor software for OS X. It's been a wonderful way to quiz myself on the kana, and I really like that you can set it up to quiz you only on specific columns of the hiragana chart.


You'll use the kana so frequently that there's no risk of forgetting them. Kanji is another story. They are a lot harder to remember. I used a flash card program I wrote called Flash'em which let me memorize the pretty quickly, but to be honest, I also forgot them pretty quickly. The only way to remember them is to continue to use them.

My pleasure. :)

Now while I haven't actually "done" it, I have two books that are meant to teach you the kana. One does the visual mnemonics you describe above, the other, the monkey one, actually shows you how to "draw" them while providing useful meta data (heh ;) .. I think this approach is better since it doesn't clutter the mind with even more images and concepts...

beaks? noodles on chopsticks.. what?!

my 2yen ... ;)

Actually, come to think of it, there is another, even more compelling reason I prefer the "Jimi's Book of Japanese" approach: brush strokes.

As I mentioned, the Jimi book (I call it the monkey book) teaches you Hiragana by having you draw out the characters, learning the proper brush stroke sequences (while enunciating the sound it represents out loud). Never mind that this is probably closer to how you may learn it if you were a young japanese kid who already speaks the language, as opposed to creating translation tables in your mind, but knowing the brushstrokes is important too.


An example. The hiragana for "i" (pronounced "ee") most often looks like an opening parenthesis and smaller closing one. - ( ) - But I have seen fonts and signs where it looks like a flipped and slightly twisted "N". If you know how the character is drawn, you'll figure it out much quicker that this is the same character... If you don't lift the brush enough when transferring from the first stroke to the second, you get a connecting line...

It gives you a whole new appreciation for asian calligraphy/poetry... and I imagine kanji to be a whole other nightmare... ;)

No worries: as soon as you don't need them, you'll forget them. Like training wheels. Also good for developing vocab. There are millions of foreigners wandering around Japan saying "Don't touch my mustache" (どういたしまして). I know there are similar classics, but none come to mind.

I came up with elaborate mnemonics, not only for kanji (which, after all, are extremely well suited to that: e.g., parents like to stand in trees looking for their kids), but for everyday phrases. Mnemonics are a friend to a Japanese student, and while I never used them while studying French, I certainly did for 日本語.

See you Thurs...

(I can't seem to type Japanese here, using Safari on OSX -- it all comes out as "???". Is anyone else having that trouble?)

Learning by silly visuals is fine, IMHO. I never found myself getting confused because of the associations, as you quickly move past the mnemonic and concentrate on the sound/wordform relationship. Very early on, you'll find yourself staring at a kana and saying "which is this?" and remember the mnemonic, but once you've really learned it, that all falls away.

As you learn hiragana and katakana, start to divide them into a couple of groups. First, the ones you have no trouble remembering, like KU. Then keep a group of the ones you always confuse. "A" & "U", for example, confused me for far longer than they should have.

Write them, read them, knock them out with a lot of repetition and drills. Get comfortable picking them out of sentences written in Japanese and find words written typically in hiragana. (You can even learn a few kanji by sight at the early stages, but really don't focus on that too much.)

Most important, though, is to get a handle on those annoying ones that just won't let themselves be learned.

When I started to learn to read Japanese, it annoyed me to try and read a sentence composed completely of hiragana, with no spaces to break it up. Don't worry about that - it rarely occurs in the wild. Typically, you'll have a kanji or two, then a hiragana or two to finish the word, some more kanji and so on.

Visiting my fiance�L's nieces a few months back, they had a card game with Hiragana and a picture -- "NE" with "neko" and a picture of a cat. The cards were laid out face up. One player would call out a letter and the other players would have to slap the correct card. It was pretty embarrassing to get beaten by a four year old, There's a similar kind of game linked from this page:

Jim, when we were in Japan in February, my son played that same game with a 4yo; she beat him in two out of three games, but the adults were pretty impressed that he managed to win one. I blogged it here, though the photo I posted was of a different game that they played.

No related to Japanese, but we have used Picture Me Reading with our children with much success. We've got a whole family of visual learners.

I purposely have not been looking at the mneumonics in the text while studying the hirigana, because I want to learn them without the additional 'clutter' in my brain. So far I've had no trouble. Truth is though, I have been associating them with one another to remember them (e.g. I & Ko; Ki & Sa; Ha & Ho; Nu & Ne; etc).

What a find! I stumbled upon your blog and found a trove of "learning Japanese" sites. Myself, I hardly know a word, but I will be living in Japan for at least the next year, teaching English in the towns of Nita and Yokota, in Shimane (if you're ever in the area, drop me a line), an opportunity provided to me by the JET Program. And I leave in about six weeks.

I've asked around, but there don't seem to be any Japanese language classes held in Syracuse during the summertime, which is a pity. I've been recommended a personal tutor, but in any case I'll definitely check out the sites linked to from your blog.

Many thanks to Liz and Friends.

It's true -- whatever you use as a memory aid will fall away once you don't need it, so use what you like. I liked the "a is for apple" (or ? is for??? ) approach myself. But your friends are right: stroke order is key.




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on June 8, 2004 11:08 PM.

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