Should I be thinking of the kanji when I hear a word?

Hey guys, I had an interesting question that I thought about and I didn’t see a specific discussion about it so if there is already a thread with good information then let me know.

Anyways, I am learning kanji on WaniKani of course, but before I started this I was just looking through Tae Kim’s guide and learning some grammar. I am still pretty much beginner though at Japanese, and mainly I am learning vocab through WaniKani, and that means I am learning it through the kanji. This is great but I haven’t heard them actually being used.

So my question relates to how I think of the vocab word when I hear it. Easiest way will be to give an example. If I were listening to a show or whatever, then I hear 主人 (shujin) in my head I will think “oh what kanji is that?” and then I might be able to get to 主人 pictured in my head, and from there I’m thinking “okay what do those kanji together mean?”

Now, if I had never learned or used kanji, and I just learned through hearing and speaking, I would never think of the kanji and instead since English is my native language, I would just probably try to picture the romaji in my head “shujin” and think about what that means.

So I guess I am just trying to figure out if I should be thinking about what kanji it is and then thinking of the meaning? Or if I should be able to hear “shujin” and go right to the meaning (without ever thinking of the kanji). I’m sure either way I will eventually get faster but I feel like thinking about the kanji adds a whole extra layer to my thinking of the word, and I’m not sure if I should be thinking of it that way or not.

(On a side note, I have been using the WaniKani self study script, and it has an option for audio quiz, and that helps a ton because it is much more difficult than the regular WaniKani reviews)


If you don’t already know the word that has been said, the chances you will be able to guess which kanji are used are extremely low, unless it’s very clear from the rest of the context what the word means and it’s one of those words that “does what it says on the tin.”

If you do know the word, but you are having trouble remembering the meaning, jogging your memory with the kanji could help I suppose.

I guess I just don’t see how this would work in a practical sense.


I understand that I wouldn’t get the kanji if I don’t already know it, but for words I do know, I’m saying should I be trying to figure out the meaning just based on what I’m hearing, or does it make sense to think “oh shujin that’s these kanji 主人, and those kanji together mean head of household” ?

If you know the word, you know the word… I guess I don’t see how the kanji come into it unless you need to write or read something.

If we think about it from how Japanese people are doing it, they learn kanji after they are already fluent and know thousands of words. They typically are matching kanji to words they already know and recognize when they learn kanji, and I think trying to involve kanji in a listening exercise is doing too much, unless you’re just doing it for fun. Japanese is quickly spoken language, so I think adding more to your thought process is only going to hamper your listening comprehension.


Yeah that’s what I was trying to get at. I don’t know these words before learning the kanji. So I am learning them through the kanji, which is why when I hear it I’m thinking of the kanji.

Should I not be learning kanji? Or should I just try to think of the word without the kanji?

I’ve never been a huge fan of the idea of learning kanji before vocab/grammar. It just seems like a slow way to pick up Japanese and your time is probably best spent elsewhere. If I learn a new word and I hear it in Japanese or English I do occasionally try and picture the kanji though - invariably I can’t and I don’t worry too much about it for now as I don’t really intend to write too much without a PC. At a lower level of Japanese, when most words are new, thinking of the kanji is probably impractical although there’s no real harm in it.

I’m not trying to discourage you from learning kanji, but I just mean that typically kanji are just not part of listening. For most Japanese, for many years, kanji aren’t part of Japanese for them at all.

i believe you’re wasting processing power by doing it.
do wk normally, and you’ll have a good base for picking up stuff by reading. no need for crazy stunts that only bog you down and slow you.

you don’t think of spelling when speaking english either.

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If you don’t already know the word that has been said, the chances you will be able to guess which kanji are used are extremely low, unless it’s very clear from the rest of the context what the word means and it’s one of those words that “does what it says on the tin.”

I … somewhat dispute this, in that knowing kanji has definitely helped me pick up vocab from conversations. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a new word and been like, “Oh, is the ___ in that the ___ in this other word?” And when they say yes, I’ve basically got the meaning. Obviously it depends on context being a guide too, but … you’ll always have context while listening to something, so…

So, to the OP: No, it’s not weird, and having a backlog of kanji sounds and meanings does help a lot even when encountering new vocabulary in the middle of conversation. Eventually you’ll be able to think of the word without thinking of the kanji in it, once it works its way further into your passive or active vocabulary, but it can be a really helpful starting point.

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Well, I did say that if it’s clear from the context, that’s not what I’m referring to, but in my experience guessing is often a crapshoot. Perhaps different people will have a tendency to remember their hits or misses more than others though.

Well, that’s not the question I was answering, so I’m not trying to suggest the OP is weird if kanji spontaneously pop into his head. But I don’t think you should be trying to pair kanji with words as a rule of listening comprehension or something, as it seemed to be posed.

I guess that’s fair. Just wanted to point out that unless you’re genuinely listening to words in a vacuum, knowing kanji really can be helpful, and it never hurts to reinforce connections. (I remember specifically learning 任期 in the middle of a conversation about politics, and I never would have been able to do that so quickly if I didn’t already know 任 and 期 to help guess at the meaning. Like, “Oh. We’re talking about election frequency. This word could be made up of those two kanji. It probably means term limit!”)

That’s a case where I probably could have gotten it from context anyway, but being able to guess the kanji made it about three times faster. I feel like that sort of situation happens a lot.

Edit – But yeah, re: OP: It shouldn’t be your first method of attack unless you already have context for the word. Especially with Japanese having tons and tons of homonyms. I can see what you were getting at.

I thinks this makes perfect sense because of the way you learned the vocabulary. For me, words that I have picked through sentence training/shadowing are more recognizable in spoken context than those I have learned in WaniKani. With that said I do find that my ability to recognize vocabulary that I have learned through WK always improved by the master stage. Also I find that creating practice sentence with new WK vocabulary helps to reinforce my learning and comprehension of the word in context.

I’m not sure if this is similar but for me I find that it takes me a bit longer to get to the Japanese meaning for fresh words I’ve learned through WK. For example I learned the word 人形 though a vocabulary training app iknow. When I was taught this in WK I learned the meaning of the individual characters but when I see 人形 I instantly think にんぎょう whereas for the word that I learned through WK like 大会 I first think of big meeting then the Japanese reading. This gets better as I work through my reviews but I find the differences in study method interesting.

I don’t think you should TRY to reverse engineer spoken words in that way. For one thing, if you go through that many mental steps, you won’t be able to keep up with what’s being said.

However, I don’t necessarily think it would be unusual for you to visualize the kanji of a word you hear. I do that too, and with english as well I visualize the words I hear, sometimes. But I wouldn’t make doing that my goal.

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So I used the self study script and did audio again, and I tried to just come up with the answer based on what I was hearing. I actually did surprisingly well. Maybe I am overthinking this whole “thinking of the kanji first” thing. If there was one I really didn’t know though, I would try to think of the kanji and that would get me the answer. But for the most part I got them without thinking of the kanji! The only issue I had was those homophones. There is no context or anything so sometimes I just had to go through every one that I knew had that reading, and eventually I would get it.

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