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I've been learning Japanese with Memrise's program (for about 6+ months at 2 hours a week on average) and have managed to learn all the hiragana characters. They don't teach katakana (I guess they assume that all words using katakana are English cognates that I'll automatically understand what they mean?) and move straight to kanji.

This is where I struggle, especially with characters that combine multiple kanji into one. My understanding is that less common kanji are accompanied by furigana (hiragana that are placed in small print over kanji to help others pronounce the character), but I can't quite understand whether or not a word is, by standards, "uncommon" and if I should devote as much time to words like these where I'm not expected to remember how to pronounce them.

How can I better assume which words will be paired with furigana without personally experiencing these words on the streets?

  • I vote NO for the English-natives understand Katakana words. What does "Koppu" means to you? That Katakana word is borrowed from Dutch "Kopje" – user20428 Apr 1 '17 at 5:31
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    Kanji flashcards are good, Japanese elementary students also do. One I suggest for you with a picture, sometimes they are bilingual, another is for a person like you. This idea is brought from a Japanese woman who immigrated to somewhere and teach Japanese for her son. – user20428 Apr 1 '17 at 5:52
  • I removed the part about study methods, as such question are off-topic. (However, they might be on-topic on LanguageLearning.SE.) (I also converted @SadaharuWakisaka's answer addressing this part of the question to a comment.) – Earthliŋ Apr 1 '17 at 6:04
  • Keep in mind that furigana usage is affected by the intended audience. Newspapers only print furigana for non-jouyou kanji, while kids' manga will print furigana over every kanji. – Sjiveru Apr 1 '17 at 15:57
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First of all, what is "common" or not "common" has a clear definition in terms of readings; by extension, words could be defined to be "uncommon" if they are written with characters whose readings are not "common".

The "common" readings are those defined in the list of 常用漢字 jōyō kanji. Most of them are (on and kun) readings for a single kanji: The list of jōyō kanji contains 2136 characters with one to eight readings (see 下 or 生) per character. It also contains 116 words consisting of jōyō kanji, but with readings that cannot be obtained from the "common" readings of the individual kanji.

(Note that this definition of "common" may or may not agree with the actual frequency of readings in a large enough sample of written Japanese. I would expect there to be a strong correlation, though.)

The jōyō kanji list (e.g. on Wikipedia) contains another piece of information for each kanji: the year (or range of years) when the character is learned in school:

jōyō kanji list

The numbers 16 indicating the year of primary school and S signifying secondary education.

Now to your question. I think upon seeing a new word, you should look up the individual kanji and their "grade" (16, S) (for example on http://jisho.org) and decide on this basis which of the kanji you should try to remember. (If some/all of the kanji are not contained in the jōyō kanji list, you might want to consider moving on.)

(I expect that standard textbooks for second language learners introduce kanji loosely in this order. The official textbooks in Japan introduce kanji strictly in this order.)

Further reading

  • I don't think textbooks for foreign learners really follow that order particularly closely. I recall 宇宙 being in a text in a textbook in my second or third term of Japanese, which seems a very early point to correspond to year six. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 1 '17 at 7:23
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    @JanusBahsJacquet That's why I said "loosely". It's difficult to write texts relying only on kanji from year one or two and for foreign learners it doesn't help to write a word in hiragana. If for the content of the lesson you have to introduce a word, it may make sense to introduce it in kanji straight away, even if the kanji are more advanced. – Earthliŋ Apr 1 '17 at 7:40

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