The Japanese writing system and the difficulties it poses for second language learners

This month we are publishing The Japanese Writing System by Heath Rose. In this post, Heath reveals how his own struggles with studying the written language inspired him to write the book.

The Japanese writing system has fascinated me since I first began learning it as a high school student in rural Australia. This captivation remained with me when I became a teacher of the language, and later as a researcher of it. However, my relationship with Japanese is somewhat multifarious; while I have always appreciated the beauty in its complexity, I can be simultaneously frustrated with it and enamoured of it. Still to this day, I do not know any other language that mixes so many types of scripts within a single writing system. Japanese consists of two phonetic scripts (hiragana and katakana) that represent syllables in the language, a character-based script (kanji) that represents meaning-based units, and an alphabetic script (Romaji).

When I first learned kanji, I found the writing system to be a great source of motivation to study. There was beauty in the physical form of the scripts and I could see progress being made in my learning of the hiragana and katakana scripts, and the first few hundred kanji. This motivation slowly dissipated in later years of study, as I realised that I needed to learn many more thousand kanji, which seemed to represent the language in a haphazard manner. A learner must know more than 2000 kanji to be literate in the language, and many more thousand to develop a high level of expertise in it. What was once a source of joy, had developed into a laborious task of memorization that extended over a decade of intensive study.

I was fortunate to be able to live in Japan for eleven years. While I saw my spoken Japanese improve effortlessly during this time, my written Japanese still required formal classes, and daily self-study. When I lacked the time to devote to reviewing kanji, my proficiency was adversely affected. At that time it dawned on me that the written Japanese language and the spoken Japanese language were completely separate beasts; it was possible to advance in one and decline in the other.

My interest, as a researcher of the processes by which second language learners acquire written Japanese, grew from my own struggles with learning the language. In my research, which spanned a decade, I discovered patterns in learning that were indicative of good and bad practices. Some successful learners applied strategies to memorize kanji, such as making associations with their shape, components, or meanings. However, I concluded there was no definitive “magic” strategy for success. Rather, successful learners tended to cope with the magnitude of learning via successful self-regulation of their learning goals, and their learning behaviours.

I sum up my research (and the research of other linguists) in my new book titled The Japanese Writing System: Challenges, Strategies and Self-regulation for Learning Kanji. In this book research is discussed in terms of their implications for second language learners, teachers and researchers alike.

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Second Language Writing Systems edited by Vivian Cook and Benedetta Bassetti. 

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