Dear Dario Simunovic,
Arigato for your e-mail from Antunovac, Croatia. Your high level of English ability at age 14 demonstrates a knack for languages, and you are also tackling Spanish. Congratulations! You have learned hiragana and katakana on your own and are now interested in learning kanji.
The beauty of written Japanese is what initially attracted you to the language. You hope to become a Japanese/English/Croatian translator. The Japanese Embassy has informed you there is not a single Japanese class being conducted in Croatia. You have several Japanese e-mail pen pals, but only one dictionary and two textbooks. You asked me for some advice.
Foreign residents of Japan, including speakers of Japanese, occasionally tell me “they would love to become literate in Japanese if only they could find the time to take an intensive course.” For such people, the structured learning and motivation a class provides are essential. In classes, the important decisions are left to the teacher. Self-directed learners, by contrast, must make these decisions themselves and pump up their motivation, as well.
Dario, perhaps self-directed kanji-learning sounds like a heavy load, but consider this: Unless you have the time, money and opportunity to sit through many years of classes, it is extremely unlikely that classroom instruction will be able to teach you all of the 1,945 general-use kanji that Japanese junior-high graduates (and Japanese/Croatian translators) should know.
In my experience, the most useful literacy tool a classroom teacher of nihongo can give to students is the ability to learn kanji on their own. Sooner or later, serious Japanese learners (other than those from China) must jump in the saddle, bid farewell to sensei and guide themselves on a solo kanji journey.
I recommend that you acquire both a kanji dictionary and a self-instructional text. The two volumes should serve different purposes: Be sure to select a text that gives users a step-by-step plan for effectively learning characters, and not simply a list of characters and their various features.
Translators must know more than just kanji — you will have to learn Japanese grammar, vocabulary and culture, too. Keiko Schneider’s Web site, Bookmarks, ( www.sabotenweb.com/bookmarks/languages ) is a comprehensive site for Japanese-learning resources. Also, you might locate an online language mentor, a knowledgeable Japanese speaker to answer questions and encourage you. (Any volunteers?)
Not everyone has the willpower to be entirely self-directed in their kanji learning, but let me introduce you to someone who has taken responsibility for her own learning and achieved a remarkable level of success.
Although she has never attended a formal Japanese class, Cate Swift earns her living as a Japanese/English translator. Like you, she first became fascinated with kanji as a teenager. “I saw kanji on scrolls in an art museum and the draw was instant and magnetic. I couldn’t bear not understanding them.”
She mastered spoken Japanese by locating a mentor who allowed her to wander freely through the language. She takes a “scattershot” approach to learning and always keeps a stack of kanji-related books by her bed. Every morning, upon waking, she tests herself on the previous day’s kanji before digging into whatever looks interesting at the moment.
Cate, who spent 16 years in Japan and now lives in Colorado, regularly schedules work trips to Japan around testing dates for the Kanji Proficiency Exam (Kanken). She has passed Level 3, which requires total mastery of 1,600 characters and has a pass rate of only 50-60 percent — among mostly Japanese test-takers. Because the Kanken provides motivation and a systematic way to assess her progress, Cate calls it her “gold mine.” (Kanken information and practice tests are at www.kanken.or.jp ).
Literacy aspirants like you, Dario — even those unable to travel to Japan to take tests or browse through textbooks in Japanese bookstores — can still be successful independent kanji learners. Readily accessible self-instructional tools, including those found online, can enable you to take up the reins and begin blazing your own trail toward literacy in Japanese right there at home.
Good luck, Dario-kun! We’re rooting for you.