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What is the learning curve like for learning Japanese writing?

Are you able to use what you've learnt as you're progressing, or are you only realistically able to start reading real text once you've learnt about two or three thousand kanji?

Related question: What are the advantages/disadvantages of writing in romaji instead of kanji, hiragana, and so on? has a few answers on the merits of learning Japanese writing.

Edit: By "real text", I meant text you'd encounter in real life, not learning text that has had its grammar artificially dumbed down. As an example of "dumbing down", I've heard that texts deliberately made up entirely of kana is only for children too young to know the kanji. By contrast, signs and menus, even if they're not literary masterpieces, haven't had their grammar artificially changed. Would learning the kana be enough to identify a few gairaigo items in a fast food restaurant menu, for example?

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"Real text" is rather a broad term. Newspaper articles are also real texts yet they are most probably easier to read than, for example, scholar theses. –  Lukman Aug 8 '11 at 12:49
    
Brave question! Bravo! –  Louis Aug 9 '11 at 0:12
    
@lukman: it depends on the field, but I read a scientific thesis with a lot more ease than the economy pages of any newspaper… –  Axioplase Aug 9 '11 at 1:40
    
@Axioplase: Are you joking or serious? If serious, what language was the thesis and economy pages in? –  Andrew Grimm Aug 9 '11 at 2:07
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@Zhen Lin: I'm glad my area of work (programming) is rich in gairaigo. –  Andrew Grimm Aug 9 '11 at 3:25
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5 Answers

First, I think you would agree with me if I say that there is no silver bullet for learning Japanese writing. It takes practice and determination. There is also the factor of individual; different people may need different amount and kind of efforts to be invested to achieve the desired fluency in reading and writing in Japanese. That said, here I share some methods I used to improve reading/writing:

  1. First and foremost, don't be afraid to read Japanese texts, whatever they are. If you have a set of choices, pick from the one with the most difficult-looking kanji, and later downgrade to the one with less kanji if you get tired. But try to not get tired too fast!

  2. Just like learning any foreign languages, dictionary is your friend. Especially now that we have dictionary softwares and websites, looking up kanji words you do not know won't probably take long. Take special note when looking up verbs whether they are transitive or not, nouns if they are na-adjectives or not etc.

  3. Write them down! I found it easier to remember the shapes and strokes of kanji if I copy them down. Some kanji characters differ just by small radicals, so having your body memorize the strokes makes it easier to detect the difference.

  4. Know the grammar. Of course if you don't know the grammar, words are just words. There won't be any meaning unless if you know how the words relate to each other; how the verbs describe the nouns with the help of particles etc.

I guess my points (1) and (2) above answer your question "or are you only realistically able to start reading real text once you've learnt about two or three thousand kanji", which is no. You don't have to wait till you remember thousands kanji before you start reading, because how are you going to remember those thousands kanji if you don't start reading?

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What is the learning curve like for learning Japanese writing?

About the same as English. Chances are you didn't start learning to read English by pedaling your five-speed Schwinn (with the baseball card in the back tire) to the local library and checking out Pride and Prejudice with your shiny new card. You had to start with the Easy Readers, wherein you discovered, I hope, Dr. Seuss stories with all those wonderfully rhyming monosyllables. Along the way you learned that the letter C is a mystical letter of many sounds, and someone had to tell you that the Cs in cake, cell, and cello all sound different. You also learned about heteronyms, those quizzical words which have identical spellings and different meanings. Eventually you reached the point where you can pick up the latest New York Times and understand every sentence (even if you don't understand the story behind the sentences).

Japanese is no different. You start with the kana and gradually tunnel through Kanji Mountain. As you go you pick up on the rules of the game: this kanji is pronounced this way when it's part of a compound and that way when it's alone, or this compound looks like an onyomi compound but it's really kunyomi, and so on. For a long time the dictionary is your closest companion, but the longer you study the more your reading range expands, and the less you need to rely on your trusty indexed friend. If you stick with it, you'll eventually be able to comfortably read a letter from your electric service provider or browse the new fiction in the bookstore without immediately needing a dictionary. It takes years of study, but so did English, and it's highly rewarding.

Are you able to use what you've learnt as you're progressing, or are you only realistically able to start reading real text once you've learnt about two or three thousand kanji?

What is "real text" to you? A newspaper? A Murakami novel? A graduation thesis? If you restrict yourself to these "grown-up" materials, you will likely end in frustration. Nothing is stopping you from reading anything, but the lower your reading ability, the more of a grind it will be to slog through the unfamiliar kanji and grammar in high-level texts. Progress always depends on studying things that are just above your level. If you're working on grade school kanji, read material targeted at grade schoolers: the kids' section of newspapers, manga for kids, and so on. (This is why I personally recommend studying kanji in the same order used in Japan.) When the material you're reading becomes too easy, move on to something more difficult. It's all "real text", and everything is a stepping stone to get you to what you really want to read.

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+1 for "what is 'real text'" and "Progress always depends on studying things that are just above your level." I have found this to be very true. –  Amanda S Aug 8 '11 at 17:58
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I guess there's no such thing as Pride and Prejudice content with Dr Seuss grammar? –  Andrew Grimm Aug 8 '11 at 23:29
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@Andrew Grimm: I'm afraid not. :) But it's way awesome when you finish your first novel of that sort and set it on the shelf so you can show it to people and say, "See that book? I read that." It's akin to the feeling of accomplishment you get from reading Hamlet in the original Klingon. –  Derek Schaab Aug 8 '11 at 23:38
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Can I assume the "Murakami" you mean is "Murakami Haruki" from 1Q84? –  YOU Aug 9 '11 at 1:22
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@YOU "Einstein was a genius." "You mean Albert?" –  Aerovistae Jul 12 '12 at 15:03
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I'd like to add to Derek and Lukman's excellent answers my usual plug for young adult manga as a learning resource. Since all but the most basic kanji have furigana next to them, you don't have to know hundreds of kanji to read them, and it's easy to look up the meanings of new words and learn the readings of new kanji. While the content of most young adult manga may not be on the level of Pride and Prejudice, there are some diamonds in the rough, and you can end up learning a lot of language from even the most vapid text.

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My learning resource was Karaoke. Like Amandas answer, most of the kanji have furigana which makes it great to read.

One plus to karaoke is that it will also improve your listening, speaking/pronounciation, reading speed and speaking speed.

The downside is that music is poetry in a sense and thus you'll find outdated grammatical structures, not correct furigana over kanji (there is a question already on this), and the words that you learn will be limited to the kind of music you like. I ended up learning all the different ways and kanji to say love and meet (not really useful).

As an aside, by doing this, you can impress Japanese people by being able to sing along and sing your own songs in karaoke. I also had weird after-effect of remembering a lot of the songs where I learned words. Like ダブダブ from morning musume, ~ぬ grammatical form from Aqua Times, etc.

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I also have a similar feeling but in the opposite direction: sometimes immediately after learning a new word, songs with that word in their lyrics come rushing in. What was once an unintelligible set of sounds now has meaning, so I guess the dusty old pattern matching engine is doing its job! The most striking example of this for me is when I learned the word 引力, which is repeated a lot in a catchy Perfume song of the same name. This strange feeling strengthens the memory of that word, so is yet another example of how listening improves reading skills. –  sartak Aug 9 '11 at 2:48
    
For anyone coming across this from Google, Wikipedia's article on furigana mentions that furigana is the addition of katakana or hiragana characters near kanji characters. –  Andrew Grimm Aug 9 '11 at 3:13
    
Does karaoke of English-language songs use Romaji or katakana? (Not that I'd cheat by reading the katakana of text I already know!) –  Andrew Grimm Aug 9 '11 at 3:21
    
Karaoke of english songs are in english with katakana furigana –  Mark Hosang Aug 9 '11 at 3:31
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Having picked up about 2,000+ characters from Chinese, I feel like I am sometimes working in the opposite direction to most students of Japanese. Often I can get the gist of a text just by looking at the kanji. So while it may sound circuitous, don't be afraid to do as I did and study a good deal of Chinese first off. Personally, I found hiragana and katakana really boring and couldn't see any other way to do it. As it stands, I can and do learn by reading 'mature'-level texts like the translated/recorded stories by Akutagawa and Soseki, and Japanese RPGs.

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