Do you ever find yourself having trouble recalling both meaning and reading for some Kanji after a batch of lessons? Sometimes I find myself instantly remembering the mnemonic for the meaning, but the reading one just doesn’t want to come with it.
Why does this happen? One of my classes in university this year has been learning & memory, and since it helped me find a strategy to overcome the meaning + reading struggle, I wanted to share this ☆ also writing this is a great way to procrastinate studying for my finals. anyways
How does remembering and forgetting work?
When forgetting something, the information isn’t simply gone. Unlike a computer, a brain can’t delete information. So when you know you learned a Kanji but can’t recall it, the meaning and reading are still saved somewhere in your brain. The problem is probably connected to the retrieval cue!
This retrieval cue in the case of learning Kanji is the symbol of the Kanji itself that appears during reviews. During the lessons, you’re actively linking the retrieval cue to the contents you’re learning, aka meaning and reading. Mnemonics support building this connection. Remembering something stands and falls with the successful retrieval of information, which is what you’re doing during reviews.
This is just a very rough overwiev to dive into the topic. Pls forgive me for not going into more specific scientific detail
Interference Theory: Why it's hard to remember both meaning & reading
Today, scientists still stand at the beginning of unraveling the mysteries of The Brain™. There’s still uncertainty going on about how the long term memory and forgetting actually works. However, there are theories explaining forgetting that are supported by empirical evidence, and we’re going to look into one of those: the Interference Theory.
As you can probably guess from the name, this theory is about two bits of learned information interfering with each other, making the recall of one of them or even both harder. Interference happens when these two bits of information are connected to the same retrieval cue, which is in our case, can you guess? The Kanji!
During lessons, you’re building two associations for one Kanji:
Kanji ➜ Meaning
Kanji ➜ Reading
When you have this pattern of learning A ➜ B and learning A ➜ C right afterwards, interference happens. There are two types of interference:
Proactive Interference happens when the learned association learned earlier (A ➜ B) is blocking the recall of the association learned afterwards (A ➜ C). In WK terms, you remember the meaning but struggle with the reading which you learn right afterwards during lessons. This is a result of the older representation (Kanji ➜ meaning) being stronger than the newer one (Kanji ➜ reading).
Retroactive Interference is kind of the opposite: it happens when the association learned more recently (A ➜ C) is blocking the one learned earlier (A ➜ B). In our case, this means recalling the reading while struggling with the meaning. This might happen because relearning (Kanji ➜ reading) undermines the older association (Kanji ➜ meaning), because the automatic retrieval of Kanji ➜ reading might be hard to suppress, or simply because there’s not enough capacity for recollection (aka being tired and unfocused).
There are several empirical studies on this topic showing that subjects who learned both A ➜ B and A ➜ C have higher error rates than control subjects who just learned one of these representations. Obviously, we still want to learn both since we need to know meaning and reading of a Kanji. (duh). So, how do we go about this?
A loophole for avoiding interference
One of the things that make WaniKani amazing is that we don’t just learn simple associations between Kanji and their meaning and reading. Instead, WaniKani provides us with Mnemonics to semantically strengthen the links between learned associations. Taking this into consideration, the learning pattern looks like this:
Kanji ➜ Mnemonic A ➜ Meaning
Kanji ➜ Mnemonic B ➜ Reading
The issue here can be that sometimes, mnemonic A and B respectively are both linked to the Kanji (in a way that the story matches the Radicals), but have little to do with each other. This brings us back to the pattern of A ➜ B and A ➜ C, (B & C being two entirely different things,) which causes interference. However, there’s a way to overcome this.
To avoid interference, you can actively change the learning pattern during lessons (without much of an effort) to look something like this:
Kanji ➜ Mnemonic Compound ➜ Meaning
Kanji ➜ Mnemonic Compound ➜ Reading
The difference here is that looking at the Kanji makes you recall one single Mnemonic Compound that acts as a retrieval cue for both meaning and reading. To create a Mnemonic Compound, you can simply link what’s happening in the story for the reading mnemonic to the story for the meaning mnemonic which you learned right before. Or you adjust the meaning mnemonic to match the reading mnemonic. Or, if you dislike both, you think of an entirely new story to create a mnemonic. The point here is telling it to yourself as one coherent story. In detail, the pattern here looks like:
Kanji ➜ Mnemonic Meaning ➜ Mnemonic Reading
That way, you will have the same retrieval cue to activate meaning and reading, which are both part of the same story. In the beginning, you might have to remember the meaning first to get to the reading, but it will act as a bridge to get there. After a few reviews however, the dirt tracks you have for links in the beginning will become paved roads and – you know how it is – the retrieval will be seemingly automatic.
[TL;DR] During lessons, you learn two representations for the same Kanji: meaning and reading. This causes interference, which can make it harder to remember one of them. Instead of learning two separate Mnemonics for meaning and reading, try to connect them into one Mnemonic Compound by putting them together into one coherent story. This way, you can avoid interference and turn two separate retrieval cues needed for sucessfull recollection into one.