Chinese and Japanese: At the same time?

In February 2010 I finally got the chance to go to Japan—a place I have wanted to go to since 2002. I reflected back on studying Japanese in high school and university: Kanji (Chinese characters) was something to be feared; it wasn’t introduced until chapter seven in one of the textbooks I used. It was initially intended to not intimidate students, but it had the reverse effect. This brings to me to why textbooks made by white guys for white guys suck: they teach you to fear kanji and rely soley on the kana system. It made us view the kana systems of Japanese as a crutch: kanji became this huge, intimidating monster, that, in the world the textbook presented us with, we didn’t really seem to need.

But then I started Chinese in 2005 and I realized there is no alternative to studying Chinese characters because, well, there is no alternative. It’s that simple. Many many years later, in Japan, I realized that they do use kanji—and quite a lot. It was also then that I realized, not having a fear of kanji, seeing a necessity to study kanji, actually made reading it a lot easier. Studying Chinese and using the Heisig method for learning characters helped immensely too, and with that background, I was easily able to understand my surroundings, despite having stopped Japanese classes in 2007.

Before I left to go to Japan, I bought: “開始在日本自助旅行 [Start Self-Traveling in Japan]” from a bookstore near my apartment in Taipei. I bought it because a) it was entirely in Chinese and b) it had travel Chinese<—>Japanese sentences and vocabulary.

[Mining these kinds of travel books, which I’ve seen plenty of people mention before, is a GREAT idea. There is a danger here, though. Sometimes they actually get it wrong. Unfortunately, I’ve seen Japanese sentences with the wrong furigana for kanji. So, be careful.]

Regardless, leaning a L3 though a L2 is a great way to work on both. I’ll touch on this more later as I get thorugh some actual results.


4 thoughts on “Chinese and Japanese: At the same time?

  1. I like the laddering idea too, and eventually would like to learn Chinese by way of Japanese. I’d want to be pretty competent in Japanese first though so that won’t happen for a bit of a while.

    Question though: how much confusion would the differences between kanji and hanzi cause? I’m guessing since you’re using traditional hanzi instead of simplified, they are closer to the kanji?

    • Interestingly, Japanese kanji is closer to the simplifications used in mainland China. Most simplifications are based on ‘short-hand’; so people in Taiwan will use Traditional but when they write, for sake of speed and convenience, they’ll write simplified without thinking “this is simplified”.

      As far as confusion between the two, I had the same fear. But the more you read in your target language, the more you get the feeling of “Oh that’s very Japanese” and “That’s very Chinese”. There are times when the characters are EXACTLY the same, like for Meiji Restoration (明治維新). There, it’s all on context.

      Anyway, I think once you learn one set–in your case kanji–it’s easier to go to another language. You’ll be able to differentiate them. But DON’T ladder the kanji. Ladder sentences, but never Heisig/RTK/whatever Kanji learning method you’re doing. THAT will cause more confusion. Laddering Simplified/Traditional Chinese is OK but don’t mix Japanese with Simplified/Traditional. Does that make sense?

  2. That does make sense, thanks. I guess to an extent it’s something one would have to actually do to properly understand. That feeling you talk about, that internalization, would come only with time and exposure.

    • Yes, which is something I never expected would really actually “happen”. It’s a very weird feeling when you hit that plateau. Just takes time to climb up it!

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