Approaching Logographic Writing Systems

When I started learning languages in my late teenage years, I began with French and Persian. French, like most European languages, uses an alphabetic writing system, whereas Persian, like many languages in the Middle East uses an abjad writing system. I later also learned north Indian languages which use abugida writing systems, and last year I began learning Japanese which makes use of both syllabic and logographic writing systems.

If you’re reading this article you’ll be familiar with alphabetic writing systems, where individual symbols generally represent both vowels and consonants. With abjad writing systems, each symbol generally represents a consonant and the responsibility of determining the correct vowels between those consonants falls with the reader, though modern abjad writing systems such as the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets have optional diacritic marks or symbols that can represent some vowels.

Abugida writing systems represent consonant and vowel combinations as a unit, usually with the consonant being the anchor symbol and the specific vowel notation being appended to it in some way. In contrast to abugidas, the symbols in syallabic writing systems cannot be split into discrete consonants and vowels, but instead have different symbols for specific consonant-vowel combinations.

The importance of reading in language acquisition is something that Alex Strick and others have emphasised for some time now, and it has definitely been reflected in my own language learning experiences. When I began learning Japanese last year, after getting a handle on the basics of Japanese grammar with the Michel Thomas audio courses, I set aside some time to learn the Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries, and steadily began to increase my time spent reading Japanese.

Written Japanese typically consists of a mixture of the two syllabaries, the occasional word written in the Latin alphabet, and words or parts of words written using logograms. Logograms in Japanese are called Kanji, and they are essentially logographic characters that have been adopted from written Chinese throughout history. The primary difference between logographic symbols and symbols in other writing systems is that logographic symbols represent concepts, not sounds.

There are many introductory resources where Japanese readings are given using only the Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries, and those are the resources that I initially started reading with. Once I was comfortable reading Japanese texts written in Hiragana and Katakana characters, I started working my way through the first volume of the famous Genki textbooks. For a while things were going well, with various Kanji characters being introduced as lessons progressed with syllabic readings given alongside them, but very quickly the lack of breadth in my knowledge of Kanji characters became a bottleneck to my progression through the textbook.

I had never been faced with a bottleneck like this before with any of the languages I had previously studied. Exposure to reading had served me incredibly well when learning languages which used any other writing system, by reinforcing my command of the symbols in the case of abjads and abugidas, or reinforcing my understanding of orthographic conventions in languages using alphabets, as well increasing my familiarity with idiomatic sentence structures and expanding my vocabulary.

At first I tried going through resources with a specific focus on learning Kanji characters such as the Remembering the Kanji series, but I found that the disconnect between the order in which characters were introduced in these courses and the order in which characters were introduced in readings geared towards those yet to reach an intermediate level was having an adverse effect on both the rate of my overall language acquisition and also my level of motivation.

Soon thereafter I came across WaniKani, an online Kanji learning platform, where the focus is primarily on learning to recognise the characters rather than learning how to write them as well. I began to integrate multiple daily sessions on WaniKani into my Japanese learning schedule, but towards the end of 2016, both due to the of the lack of progress in bypassing the Kanji bottleneck and increasing work-related constraints on my free time, I burnt out and set Japanese aside for a number of months until recently picking it back up again in February.

The main lesson that I have taken away from last year’s experience with Japanese is that I need to reach a certain breadth of Kanji knowledge before I will be able to progress beyond the point at which I burnt out. With this lesson in mind, I have decided to put the entirety of my current Japanese study efforts into increasing my character recognition abilities before continuing on with Genki or indeed any other Japanese textbook.

I have continued using WaniKani since clearing my review backlog and now I encounter between three to five new characters a day. I also have enough of a grammatical base in the language to be able to look at isolated example sentences using those characters and understand them, and more crucially, recognise idiomatic usage of the characters that I’m learning in context.

I’m not sure at this point how much longer I’ll spend focusing solely on Kanji. I will review a random selection from the Genki readings that I was previously struggling with every three months or so to try and gauge where I’m at and how far I have left to go, but I think that I could stand to benefit from setting specific benchmarks and goals which would provide a clearer indication of when I’m ready to return to the textbooks and start working on graded readings aimed at introducing new grammatical concepts again.