Thinking in Kanji

Sheet with reference lines and kanji

Learning the unique Japanese writing system taught me a very interesting lesson about how differently humans think. I’m not talking about opinions or culture, but the process of thinking itself.

The Japanese writing system

This is a highly simplified overview, you can just skip to the next part if you know the basics of Japanese writing.

Sheet with reference lines and kanji
Kanji practice sheet with characters related to learning

Japanese uses three kinds of characters: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Any word in the Japanese language can be written in Hiragana or Katakana (collectively called Kana), because both are syllable alphabets with different symbols for identical sounds: e.g. “to” can be written as と (Hiragana) or ト (Katakana). Kanji are different, because a Kanji does not represent a sound but an idea and can be pronounced differently depending on context. For example, the character 好 means “like” or “love”. The adjective for liking something is 好き (suki, note that the second character is the Hiragana for ki), and 好物 (koubutsu) means “favorite food”. The same Kanji is pronounced “su” in one word and “kou” (ou is a long o) in another. Many Kanji have more than two pronunciations. In real texts, all three kinds of characters are mixed, and many words use two kinds of characters.

What’s easier to read?

While in Japan, I was chatting with Nicole, a friend in Germany who’s also learning Japanese, and she was sending me some Japanese text written in Latin characters instead of the Japanese system. I found this very difficult to read, while she thought it was a lot easier, especially compared to Kanji. On the contrary, I actually prefer to have words written in Kanji (provided I know the relevant Kanji).

Obviously these different opinions are not a matter of right or wrong. They show a different way of thinking, which in turn got me thinking about how I actually think.

Two ways of learning, two ways of thinking

I’ve always liked maps, graphs and so on, and when thinking about a complex concept I’ll often make or at least imagine a sketch. In a more generalized way you could say I tend to think in visual patterns. This helps me a lot with learning Kanji, because a Kanji is just that: a graphical pattern, often consisting of multiple sub-patterns (the scholarly term is “radicals”). I just have to remember the connection between meaning and pattern. The biggest difficulty I have with Kanji is the sheer amount necessary to read advanced texts: A Japanese high school graduate should know about 2000.

Learning new words is a lot easier for me if I already know the Kanji, too. Not all Japanese words are written with Kanji, but for those that are my favorite way of learning the correct pronunciation is to have them written in Kanji with Furigana (Furigana are small Kana written next to Kanji to give their pronunciation), because that way I can mentally connect the sound to the pattern. For other words I still prefer to learn them from writing, while I find it difficult to learn from sounds alone.

Quite the opposite, Nicole has surprised me multiple times by learning words without any writing – just by hearing them with context or translation. From this I guess that her learning is based more on sound instead of my visually oriented thinking, and because of that it is easier for her to express the Japanese sounds in more familiar characters. Experience makes me believe that the difference extends to other areas of thinking as well, but I can’t really imagine what it’s like.

Noticing this difference in the ways of thinking themselves was quite an eye-opener for me. Everyone tends to assume their own way of doing things is natural, but that’s not always true, not even for such a fundamental thing as thinking. In the end it boils down to the old lesson of “Don’t assume that other people are the same as you.”

Certainly differences can cause misunderstandings, but wouldn’t the world be boring without them? I would’ve missed many interesting and beautiful things without friends to point them out. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Thinking in Kanji

  1. Hey, that’s so true, people just think differently ^^
    Learning through hearing has many disadvantages, like a bad spelling ^^* but also makes things easy in a way but for learning Kanji it sucks -.-*** Hiragana, katakana, ok, but Kanji is reaaaally bad *drop*
    hmmm does this also gange my way of thinking? Let’s see when I learn songs I need to hear them, just seeing notes doesn’t work for me so well. And I rarely think in pictures which might be surprising since I draw a lot and one might think I need to have a picture in my mind to draw ^^*

    Oh but ways of thinking are different according to culture! This is totally reflected in language, the way people express themselves reflects their way of thinking. e.g. metaphors, there is a reason why they are not universally used. The concept of certain words in a culture is shown by the way they are used.

    ok so much for now ^^

    1. When writing this post I was really wondering how you can draw so well without this kind of visual thinking, but apparently it works somehow. 😀

      The connection between language, culture and thinking is very interesting as well, but was too much to squeeze into this article. 😉

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