An actual sign in Nara, Japan. Beware of dear ninjas?
We were planning on spending a month and a half in Japan later on that year, and I knew that having a basic understanding of the language would greatly improve my experience in the country.
It is very common to encounter street signs or restaurant menus that are only in Japanese, especially when you leave the bigger cities.
For a westerner, learning Japanese is hard… very hard.
The (only) good news is that The Japanese don’t exclusively use Kanji (similar to Chinese characters: 勉強) but rely significantly on two syllabaries: Katakana and Hiragana.
Katakana is used for all foreign words. For example, インタネット is i-n-ta-ne–to. Get it? Intaneto -> Internet.
Crashing and burning
I set out to learn both syllabaries. I made a list of the characters, printed out some sheets, and failed miserably to commit the characters to memory in the first days. I couldn’t learn more than 3 or 4 per day because everything would fade together when I’d try to recall the characters the next day.
Frustrated by this obstacle, I remembered a memorization technique I had heard of in the past: mnemonics.
There are many types of mnemonics, or mnemonic devices, that help you find ways to encode difficult-to-remember information in a way that is a lot easier to remember.
You probably used mnemonics when you were a kid without knowing. You learned your ABC’s in a song right? Using melody to remember a series of letters is an example of a mnemonic device.
For visual situations such as learning new characters, the idea is to create a vivid mental image that will help you recall the shape you are looking for.
Those guys in the Guinness Book of World Records that remember full card games in a matter of minutes? They use mnemonics (a more complex variant).
Using Japanese Characters To Make Up Stories
I started over. For every Hiragana and Katakana character, I took the time to figure out some sort of visual story I could link to the symbol to help commit it to memory.
こ:”ko”. I imagine two arms and fists – one on top one on the bottom – in a karate stance. I see a big K.O. written next to it, since that dude just Knocked Out his opponent. I know that character is “ko”.
は:”ha”. I see a profile. The back of the head on the left, the eyes/eyebrows and a mouth (bottom right). In my mind the person is not feeling well, maybe even throwing up. (vivid images are better). So I imagine a guy that is totally hung over, moaning “haaaaaaa”. I know that character is “ha”.
Finding a mnemonic for each character and committing it to memory can feel like a long process. Every time you see a knew character, you are tempted to think “this one is easy, no need for a mnemonic“.
Every single time I regretted it.
When I’d wake up the next morning and go through what I’d learned in the past few days, the characters that had a weak mnemonic or that I had simply ‘committed to memory’ were always the hardest ones to remember, and I drew a blank most times.
Forcing myself to spend the necessary time to find a good mnemonic always ended up being the most efficient strategy.
I went from having trouble learning 3 or 4 characters in a day to memorizing 15 to 20 on any given day with a near perfect retention rate.
What about me?
Since you probably aren’t planning on starting to learn Japanese tomorrow, you might be wondering how the heck this is going to be of any use to you.
Try this: the next time you find yourself in a situation where you usually forget, take the time to build a vivid image instead of trusting your memory yet again. Sing a song, draw a comic, make up a story. Find out what works for you.
On this note, I’ll leave you with Samuel L. Jackson’s use of mnemonics in “The Long Kiss Goodnight”: