Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
How to learn kanji in a truly efficient and effective way is one of the most known problems that any serious Japanese language learner like you must face sooner or later, whether you are in a Japanese language class at your local College or University, or you decided to learn on your own using online courses, textbooks and other material. Whatever the learning scenario you are in, an unfortunate repetitive aspect of traditional Japanese teaching is the perpetuation of the most common method of teaching the Japanese characters, which I will refer to as "grinding".
The "grinding" process (it might be familiar to you already) consists in being presented with a given kanji's stroke order and readings, and memorizing them through "brute force" repetition, usually in the form of doing kanji drills (writing each kanji over and over again) and/or reviewing the characters using paper kanji flashcards or plain flashcard software.
Although sometimes presented with some small tweaks and worked with some complements (like radical lists, pictograms, etc), the method of grinding over kanji is almost assumed as an axiom of learning the Japanese language; it is assumed as a "necessary evil" that any learner has to get through in order to ever have the chance of being able to read in Japanese, and believe it or not, it is used in native schools in Japan as the main process of teaching kanji to Japanese teenagers and children.
As you might know by now (if you are currently learning Japanese), grinding is not exactly a fun nor rewarding process. No matter how many times you grind through a particular kanji, you can't even remember part of it unless it's a non complex character, or you "cheat" and remember it by relating it to something else, like a pictograph or even a story.
After literally years of grinding, many Japanese students quit out of boredom and frustration, without getting even slightly close to really knowing a small percentage of the Joyo kanji (2136 general use kanji). Some really strong students do manage to get through these years of hard and dull kanji grinding after a good ammount of pain and perspiration. And a small number of them, also serious about learning the language, ask themselves: "Isn't there a better way to learn the kanji?"
The truth is that there ARE better methods for learning kanji, that are not only A LOT more effective for long term memorization than plain grinding and drilling, but also enables you to learn a lot more kanji in a smaller fraction of the time required by such a methodology. One of these methods, developed by professor James Heisig, works based on the following principles:
1. That the writing and the reading of kanji should be learned separately; not in conjunction as it is traditionally taught.
2. That our imaginative memory is far more powerful than our visual memory, and should be used to our advantage.
The goal of Heisig's method is to make you able to recognize and write any kanji, while also recalling the "meaning" of any of them. All of this, before knowing the real Japanese reading of each kanji and kanji compound. The method works as follows:
First, each individual kanji is constructed using building blocks called primitive elements or "primitives". Each one of these primitives may be composed of one radical, a conjunction of radicals, or even a complete kanji. Each primitive is given a name, based on its relationship to other primitives, its pictographic representation, or even arbitrarily. Also, each kanji is assigned a unique keyword or "meaning" in English, like 'practice', 'farm' or 'horse'. Once you already know the primitives that make up a given kanji, you create a mnemonic story that interconnects each one of the primitives to the keyword of the kanji.
For example, let's say we have a character with the keyword 'elbow' (the kanji itself can't be shown, unfortunately), and its primitive elements are 'flesh' and 'glue'. Thus, if I want to be able to recall the kanji as 'elbow', I can come up with a story like this:
"There is no 'flesh' being 'glued' to your elbow; if you touch it, it is just your skin and your joint".
As you can see, unlike relying on rote visual memory, this method makes primarly use of imaginative memory to actually remember each character. Creating a story involving the few primitive elements that conform any given kanji (which are usually from 2 to 5) is far easier, fun and more effective than trying to memorize 20+ almost unrelated strokes.
SO, by following this method for learning kanji, you'll be able to recognize and write virtually any kind of kanji from memory. And after doing so, you have to learn the actual reading of the kanji, but given that you already KNOW each kanji, learning their Japanese readings will be piece of cake. Think about a person from China trying to learn Japanese; that is the same advantage you will get once you work with Heisig's method.
Now, if you really want to know in depth how you can fully implement this method for your own learning process, then check out this Squidoo lens on how to learn kanji using Heisig's method! It's the time to stop the horrible drilling, and start to learn kanji for real! http://www.squidoo.com/how-to-learn-kanji