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Even when I think I've memorized how to read a particular kanji, 人 (ひと) for example, and try to read other words I find that it's also pronounced じん...and I'm sure it probably has many other readings.

Should readings just be taken on a case-by-case basis / word-by-word basis? Is there any point to memorizing a single kanji reading and applying it else where or is there some structure to when each reading is used?

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This question appeared originally to be off-topic as written because it is about methods of learning Japanese rather than the language itself. I've taken a crack at editing into something more on-topic. –  jkerian Jul 7 at 8:45

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

Most of the time, kanji are used to write words or parts of words—prefixes, suffixes, and so on. To know which reading is appropriate, you have to know the relevant Japanese words or parts of words.

For example, look at the following:

 にほんじん  'Japanese person/people'
アメリカじん  'American(s)'
がいこくじん  'foreigner(s)'

Here, we have a suffix じん meaning "person". As you can see, it attaches to nouns that denote places people are from. That's not the only way じん can be used, but it's a pattern you need to learn. And once you know this pattern, you can read the following:

  日本   にほんじん  (not *にほんにん)
アメリカ  アメリカじん  (not *アメリカにん)
  外国  がいこくじん  (not *がいこくにん)

There are two ways you can learn this sort of pattern:

  • Explicitly: You can be taught that じん is used this way, and that it's written 人 in kanji.
  • Implicitly: You can learn words like the above and read new words by analogy:

    Hmm, what's this word? It says フランス, but I haven't learned that word yet, so how do I know which reading to use? Well, I know the words 日本 and アメリカ, and it's じん in both of those. I bet this word is フランスじん!

You'll probably do a combination of both as you learn. When you do, you'll be learning facts about the Japanese language—not just about kanji or readings, but about how words and parts of words fit together and what they mean when they do.

There are certain overarching patterns you'll notice pretty early on in your studies, and you can fall back on these patterns when you aren't sure:

  • Kun readings tend to go with other kun readings.
  • On readings tend to go with other on readings.
  • Foreign words tend to go with on readings.

These rules are far from absolute! Although most compounds are kun-kun or on-on, mixed compounds (called 重箱読み and 湯桶読み) are still relatively common—much like how in English, we have hybrids like television (Greek-Latin) and biathlon (Latin-Greek).

And there are overriding factors:

  • Some words or parts of words are productive, meaning they form new words or compounds readily. Our example of じん above is very productive; you can invent a place name and combine it with that name, if you like. Others are less productive, or not productive at all. For example, 一人 is ひとり, but り only appears in a very small set of words that you'll have to memorize. You can't form new words with it yourself.

  • Occasionally words are suppletive, meaning they take the place of an expected form. Although にん as a counter for people is very productive, the suppletive words ひとり and ふたり generally take the place of the expected forms いちにん and ににん. You have to memorize these words as exceptions.

  • Sometimes different readings have different meanings. For example, 塞 has two on readings, そく and さい. The former is used when it means ふさぐ 'obstruct', and the latter when it means とりで 'fortress'.

So you can't simply memorize a set of readings for each kanji, I'm afraid. You'll have to learn Japanese words and parts of words, to learn how those are written, and to make educated guesses based on what you've learned so far when your knowledge falls short.

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I wish somebody had told me this early on - took me three years of study before I made the connections you mention here. –  William Jul 7 at 18:02

Both strategies have their place, depending on which set of readings you're studying at a given time.

音読み

When you're studying 音読み【おんよみ】(the Chinese-derived readings), it's best to learn the sound first, and then learn a couple of words that use it with each reading so that you can get a sense of when it's used.

To use your 人 example, learn that it's pronounced じん, then find words that use じん—things like 日本人【にほんじん】 and 人類【じんるい】. Then move on to the next reading (にん) and do the same: 人間【にんげん】、上人【じょうにん】, etc. The words don't have to be exotic; as a matter of fact, picking ones that you commonly use is ideal when possible.

The great thing about this strategy is that it enables you to make educated guesses at new words if you haven't seen them before, but know the character's meanings and probable readings. You won't always get it right on the first try, but the skill refines itself over time and practice.

訓読み

One of the biggest mistakes I made with 訓読み【くんよみ】(native Japanese readings) was to start out learning many of them as just readings, devoid of distinct meaning. Let's take an example:

見:み・る、み・える、み・せる

The character 見 has a collection of general meanings regarding vision ("look", "see", etc.). But if all you know about it is that it has to do with seeing and you have 3 possible verbs to use, how do you tell which one?

In cases like this, it's best to suck it up and put in a bit of extra effort to learn the actual meanings of the words associated with the readings. In this case:

  • 見る【みる】: to see
  • 見える【みえる】: to be seen; to appear
  • 見せる【みせる】: to show

As you can see (forgive the pun), the general meaning of "see" isn't completely off the mark, but the choice of which verb to use depends on which dimension of that meaning you're trying to convey.

Another thing to be aware of is that sometimes some 訓読み are more commonly used in conjunction with something else, instead of as standalone words. Moving back to your 人 example, we have the following:

人:ひと、り、と

In this case, 人【ひと】 can stand on its own, meaning "person". The other two mean "person" as well, but in slightly different contexts:

  • り is used as a counter for people when using Japanese numbers (ie. 一人【ひとり】、二人【ふたり】. These usually switch over to 人【にん】 appended to Chinese numbers starting with 3: 三人【さんにん】、十人【じゅうにん】, etc.)
  • と is used in some words that combine two 訓読み readings to refer to "one who does something". For example, 狩人【かりうど】 combines the verb 狩る【かる】 ("to hunt") and と (slurred into ど) to create "hunter". It also appears at the end of some names (e.g. 隼人【はやと】).

Prioritization

Just because a reading is listed under a kanji doesn't necessarily mean you're going to find many examples of it out in the wild, especially as a foreigner. 生 famously has about 20 readings, but many of them (such as な・す、む・す、and お・う) really don't come up often, while others overlap with contextually more specific characters (活ける【いける】、産む【うむ】). Likewise, KANJIDIC (which is the source of most free online kanji dictionaries) has occasional errors or archaic/hard-to-find readings (e.g. it lists 二び【ふたたび】, which is a valid reading, but rather obscure).

In short, if you're having trouble finding examples of a reading in use, don't stress over it; move on to the next one on the list or ask a native speaker to help provide you with an example.

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One more note: 隼人 and 狩人 (and 弟 and 妹 and 商人 and 素人 and 玄人 and 若人 and 仲人 etc.) contain ひと etymologically, not just と. –  snailboat Jul 7 at 13:19
    
I'd assumed that was the case for just about any case where 人 is read as と (which is listed as a valid 訓読み per KANJIDIC). If you know of one that uses it directly, however, I'll gladly make a substitution. –  Kaji Jul 7 at 13:21
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KANJIDIC isn't terribly well-edited, I'm afraid, and it contains mistakes here and there. The entry for 氦, for instance, is listed as meaning fluorine, when it should be helium instead. This character isn't even used in Japanese, for that matter, and is a relatively recent Chinese coinage. Fluorine should be listed as for the Chinese coinage, or for the Japanese kanji used in compounds. Confusingly, KANJIDIC does list 氟 correctly as fluorine. –  Eiríkr Útlendi Jul 7 at 17:06
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Flawed references aside, the ひと > うと shift (as in 素人{しろうと} amateur, from しろひと) and びと > うど shift (as in 仲人{なこうど} mediator, go-between, from なかびと) is relatively well documented as a kind of 音便{おんびん} or sound shift. In this case, it's an ウ音便 or "u" sound shift. The Japanese Wikipedia article on 音便 has a section on ウ音便 that shows examples. –  Eiríkr Útlendi Jul 7 at 17:10

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