The Rules of Mastery pt. 1 [ 2,062 Kanji Update]

Cheers! This update focuses on my thoughts on currently memorizing 2,062 Kanji without using any software. If this was ten years ago, before the Japanese government increased the Jouyou Kanji list to 2,136, i’d have “finished” all the Joyou Kanji, because the previous list ended at 2,043 if I’m correct. The 75 Kanji I have left to learn are all hard nouns with Kunyomi readings, so I’m going to explain my strategy around those. But first let me do a quick recap of the demands of this learning task.

GOAL: Learn to read and write 2,136 Kanji and all 297 Onyomi readings. By proxy during this process, learn about 1,000-1,500 words.

Utilize a “multi-modal” strategy to ensure that all memorized terms trigger high stimuli, operate within a familiar loci (memory base) and anchor to previously stored long-term memories for vastly enhanced retrieval.


My parameters for defining ‘memorization’ are as follows: (1) to be able to write any of the 2,136 Kanji from memory by seeing the keyword. (2) to recognize the Kanji in print and extrapolate its potential reading. I emphasize this because for some, the idea of memorizing something is simply being able to recognize it on paper. However I have found that recognition based memorization is a one-way street that gets darker the more you learn. Studying with an Anki deck for example, will tell you that you have “memorized” hundreds (or thousands) of words and phrases, but for many learners they cannot use these words or phrases because they haven’t really practice recalling them, only recognizing them. As I define it, if you cannot recall what you are memorizing, then it is not fully memorized. These are terms I set for myself after studying many Anki decks over the years and realizing that the idea of “memorizing” with Anki is somewhat illusory, relative to one’s use of what what is memorizing. Anki is very good at allowing one to track one’s progress and work within a pre-defined subset of information, but is better used for the reinforcement of information you are working to actively recall. In my experience, in the context of intitially learning Kanji, Anki doesn’t challenge recall in the way that writing does, nor does it imprint with varying stimuli the neural connections between what i’m learning and what i’m trying to memorize. “In a sense” we could call it memorization within a narrow parameter but at the same time (for me) it felt like a false indicator of my ability to process the language. I make sure to emphasize “Learning Kanji” here because Romance languages are a bit different in the sense that we already have a familiarity with the base alphabet, phonetics and associated words. With that said, I used my experience with other languages and the gains made from certain actions then to assist in my current endeavors.

Unlike my past attempts I can actually claim to have fully memorized 2,062 Kanji as I can write all of them from memory provided the Keyword. By proxy, I am also able to read these Kanji (on yomi) and make educated guesses at the various readings since some Kanji have multiple readings. I will be creating another video writing all these Kanji in due time, but I have already made a video demonstrating writing 1,000 Kanji that I memorized in just over 30 days.

The Perfect System

I have realized over the years trying many systems out for language learning, that there generally is no “perfect system”, however, many systems integrate or overlap perfectly to assist in acquisition. It is my belief that my personal curiosity has always been to figure out these gaps and overlaps, versus trying to create a one size fits all system. The limitation for the majority of us, (even those who creates these systems) is looking at the vast amount of data we must learn.

By approaching this data in a different manner, I’ve created a different psychological approach to the memorization of large types of data utilizing systems that overlap. I call what I do “training”, which means that there will be different approaches to different tasks based on different methodologies, but it is not infinitely complex, but actually easier as time passes. When we understand that a certain subset of data can be mastered and acquired using a strategy that gives predictable results, we can then focus on other strategies that give predictable results in that data set.

To make this less “science talky” let’s take the subset of Kanji we must learn 2,136 with 297 readings. Let’s just call this PHASE ONE. For me, Phase one requires learning how to read and write these Kanji using a specific technique that will give me mastery of both recognition and recall. Those are the only two metrics I need at this time. Since each Kanji has 1.8 words, there is a minimum of 3,844 words to be learned within this subset. A Japanese child will learn one to two Kanji at most per week, for ten years. This means they can slowly acquire and master one Kanji and these 1.8 words per Kanji. After ten years they will easily master thousands of words.

The fault of a new, adult learner from a foreign country, is to attempt to learnt this information in tandem with learning the Kanji, which will not be done in this very slow and staggered manner of ten years. We do not have the luxury of this time and want to go faster, which sets up a problem. Whatever path we choose to learn will have great demands on us psychologically,  because as the number of Kanji increase, so too do the demands on memory and inevitably stress that settles in when the person thinks of the thousands of words they need to learn. However, if we work in a modular sense and only train and master what will make the next step more effective, then we are not only helping ourselves psychologically, but also strategically. I ignore the raw numbers and just break it into three simple subsets based on the general goals of the average learner.

Most language learners have the goal of being able to speak their target language. This only requires ONE action, which is the recall of everything you have learned. Irregardless of the methods you use to learn thousands of words or grammar patterns, everyone ends up at the sam finish line, which is being able to recall from memory with reasonable speed all this memorized information. 

With that said, there are three general components to getting this ability (before methodology).

We must (a) be able to READ our target language, as all vocabulary and grammar is written in our target language. We must then (b) be able to RECOGNIZE our target language, by training our ear in the unfamiliar phonetics, by both using the language and listening to it for several hundred hours. We must then (c) be able to RECALL this information (in the form of recognition and production of our own speech).

Romance languages have a very low barrier of entry because their alphabets (with the exception of Russian) are quite close to English and take little time to learn and master. Japanese has a very high barrier of entry because almost no words and grammar can be learned without learning three sets of writing systems. However, it doesn’t not take must time to learn the first two, hiragana and Katakana ,with each set having about 46 characters each. These can be learned quite quickly, in as little as a week. The challenge is Kanji, but as I’ve demonstrated, as “difficult” as this looks perceptually, one can learn all these Kanji in 8-12 weeks with a guaranteed level of memorization. So in our first 60 or 90 days, we will be able to mark off the first component, which is READING.

Once we do this, we are now able to more comfortably go after vocabulary and grammar, as these things were blocked to us only by our inability to read the material, not our ability to understand it. We as learners have a very dangerous psychological activity we do, where we see something we do not understand and get “upset” with ourselves for not understanding it. This is quite illogical based on the following universal rules, which I will emphasize heavily in my upcoming course (which isn’t just method but focuses heavily on psychology).

  1. You can’t know what you’ve never learned.
  2. You can’t read what you’ve never seen.
  3. You can’t recognize what you’ve never heard.

It doesn’t matter how many times a person says to me 大変だな!(たいへだな!)(taihen dana) I will never understand it if I do not know the language and have zero context with which to attempt an extrapolation of the meaning. These 3 rules keep me quite grounded because any frustration based on information I have never seen is unwarranted. How can I feel “stupid” not being able to read a word I have never seen? How can I feel “frustrated” being unable to use grammar patterns i’ve never seen or looked at even once? This is why I’m a proponent of avoiding the psychological maze of early speaking as for many learners it can trigger too many psychological feelings of inadequacy do to functional inadequacy, not ability-based inadequacy. Attempting to speak with a fluent French speaker after one day to me is completely wasted effort unless you have the odd mindset that keeps you going and you are fueled by a sense of failure (which is a very very small subset of people. Most people just feel bad and stop).

What i’m saying here is extremely important. For many learners, they conflate functional inadequacy with ability-based inadequacy. Let me break those two down:

Functional inadequacy simply means you are not equipped to do your task because you don’t have the right tools or information. A man who knows nothing about plumbing is functionally inadequate to fix his broken pipe. This doesn’t mean he cannot learn plumbing and eventually solve these problems, but in the situation, he doesn’t possess the skills or knowledge to solve his problem. This is a truism, yet some people not possessing these skills or knowledge will attempt to “be a plumber” and despite not having the skills or ability, make the process personal and think their lack of ability to solve the problem is ability based. 

Ability-based inadequacy is where on cannot achieve certain results because of one’s personal aptitude. Let us say you are a 400M runner and you train just as hard as your colleagues but cannot seem to cross the 60 second barrier in high school. That is an “ability based limitation”. You may judge yourself harshly by it and even create an entire personality around this inadequacy. Some ability-based inadequacy is absolute, as obviously not all of us are elite athletes, genius mathematicians or extremely socially savvy people. With the exception of things that require genetic advantages of height and strength, the majority of all ability based activity can be increased to an extremely high degree with unusual dedication. 

But before we go to deeply into that, understand that as a learner, quite possible the most dangerous thing you can do is to think your lack of progress is ability-based inadequacy. Once you think that “you” as a learner are unable to do this “impossible” task, you have signed your own death warrant. It is only a matter of time before you burn out and stop from sheer frustration (as I have many times). However, if you simply look at thing based on functions, that is, the actual tools you have, then your entire outlook changes. The simpler we look on large data, the more palatable it becomes. Whether it is one word or ten thousand, the rule holds.

If I cannot READ what I see, I cannot RECOGNIZE it. If i cannot RECOGNIZE it, I cannot MEMORIZE it and therefore I cannot RECALL it.

Each link in the chain sets up a logical truism that guides the entire process. We cannot expect one without the other, yet most of us do this quite illogically. We listen to our target language, “expecting” to understand words we have never heard, and grammar partners we have also never heard or used. We dive into conversation unarmed with words, vocabulary or proper pronunciation “expecting” to make gains from our attempts then are surprised (even shocked) that we can’t. I’ve done this way more times that I liked and as time passed it dawned on me that the majority of my issues were never about methodology, but mostly a mixture of preparation and psychology.

These three concepts READ, RECOGNIZE and RECALL set up all three phases of language acquisition and can actually be learned (independent of speaking with native speakers but that’s another post). In terms of Japanese it looks like:

READ = 2,136 Kanji + 297 Onymoi readings  @8-12 weeks.

RECOGNIZE = 3,844 words + grammar (based on target level) studied and trained @8-10 weeks + listening

RECALL = speaking at length for 8-10 weeks to solidify all previous data.

Naturally these numbers are adjustable, but from a “top-down view” this is the logical and psychological true path that everyone takes. Even the crazy guys who do it in 90 days, or do aspects of this in shorter time. Some people skip reading, learn less words, focus on other grammar, etc. The point is, this is the way and there is no way around it. 

Romance languages are different. It doesn’t need to take more than 2 weeks to master the phonetics and alphabet adjustments for most of them. Japanese requires a minimum of 8 weeks at 35 Kanji per day to hit 2,136. 

But let’s look at French for example:

READ =  learn french phonetics and pronunciation fully @ 2 weeks

RECOGNIZE = 3,500-5,000 high frequency words for 92-98% + grammar (number based on target level)

50 words/day = 1500 month  = 3.5 months to 5,000

RECALL = speaking at length for 8-10 weeks to solidify all previous data and ensure mastery.

We see here that we will massively shortcut reading and explosively go into reading and grammar learning quite quickly. Also in French, we already know thousands of words that we can recognize but have different pronunciations. I’m doing Japanese now, but based on my data, I think with this information it is quite possible for me to reach a very advanced French ability in about 8 weeks  based on what I know now. This top down approach is designed to give an easy look at the demands and then each phase (READ, RECOGNIZE, RECALL) has its strategy broken down specifically. It took me about 4.5 months to be able to start listening to German TEDX type speeches without problems (before a deeper understanding of what i’m saying now).

So currently, me being able to READ Japanese means that when I’m studying vocabulary and grammar (recognition phase) I will focus solely on this task, which was heavily built on my first exercise. As I learn words I will hear them and recognize them. I cannot “worry” about words I have never heard, or patterns I have never used. When you hear anything frequently enough, the brain understands it, period.

So the “work” is consistently and being able to predict where you will land when you fall. When everything gets jumbled up it presents several tricky psychological problems of perception that can be avoided when some aspects are made simpler.

Obviously people will say they want to speak quickly, or “dive right in” etc. But all three phases, READ, RECOGNIZE and RECALL won’t go away. If you dive into speaking, you can want to speak and fluently as possible as quickly as possible but you’ll still have to learn a minimum of 3,500-5,000 words to gain a certain level of mastery.

Meaning, if I grind myself to the bone practicing “speaking” and only have a limited vocabulary, I won’t be able to say much. Do you get this? There is NO AVOIDING LEARNING THOUSANDS OF WORDS.

Do not be frightened by this. “Thousands” is nothing to the brain which has near limitless storage capacity. Learning lots of words I call “exposure”, which is not “raw memorization”. Exposure deals with more of a “familiarity” than “memorization” which eventually leads to memorization. 

I’ll focus on this in part II.





About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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