What’s the use of learning a kanji basic meaning and pronunciation?

In principle I agree with the basic premise. This is one reason I find WK to be better than RTK, because it teaches kanji in the context of vocabulary (and the vocabulary in context of example sentences).

But personally I have found it immensely helpful for guessing the reading of unknown words (eg to look them up) and for remembering new words. It’s just easier to remember that “skin” + “meat” is sarcasm than just two abstract symbols that mean nothing to me.


I don’t know that I agree with this. In fact, I think I see it exactly the opposite way.

When I was a child, I read far above my level. I encountered many, many words in written form long before I ever heard them spoken. I didn’t know them. But I got on fine by figuring out what they meant from context. So, to me, what you refer to as “guessing”, I call “inference” and is as critical a skill to reading as knowing the symbols involved.

It isn’t even a skill that I can say I no longer need. For my work, I read a lot of technical, jargon heavy materials, often in disciplines I am not an expert in. Being able to infer meaning from sometime obscure technical vocabulary is essential, since dictionaries of jargon are pretty uncommon and hard to find.

Bootstrapping meaning based upon context is a crucial part of reading. It’s certainly as fundamental to “true reading ability” as having a lot of vocabulary at your fingertips.

Reading isn’t about knowing every word, it’s about building an understanding of the text based upon what you know, and that includes inferring meaning for content that you might not have encountered before. Extensive reading and reading native materials is all about developing the skill of building meaning despite any knowledge gaps and developing the intuition of how and when to “guess”.


Ah yeah, from a pronunciation perspective, it feels a bit different. Especially with furigana being a thing, its really easy to see a word, be like ok yeah thats the exact reading I expected, and then know how a word is pronounced with 0 effort just because you are familiar with the kanji.

Surely you understand that children have a much higher vocab in their native language and much more exposure to their language than you do in your l2 right now. Besides, I was talking about beginners and intermediate learners in your l2. Your entire second paragraph is about you (who is native level). Like syncro said, meaning guessing is mostly useful at a more advanced level.

Mate, we’re talking about being new to a language and not knowing half the dang words. Theres only so much of an understanding you can build off of what you “know”. Point is, if you know the kanji in a word but have never learned the word, you don’t “know” the word. No one is saying that taking educated guesses is a bad thing. We’re saying that its not a replacement for actually knowing the word.


My position might be a different from you all. I have come to WK after years of failed personal study. I have words floating in my head without a strong visual image in my head.

Take for example 兄 (older brother) and 弟 (younger brother) I couldn’t get these kanji to stick in my head at all in their chinese readings. It is a repeated problem I have had as the first time I encountered vocab came without association to kanji but rather conversation and language study. (This has siginificantly slowed down my WK study as I am often fighting kunyomi readings in my head)

Not too long ago I was sitting down with my wife and I exclaimed “ah! 兄弟!” Without the help of the vocab section and from the kanji section alone I made that connection. And I haven’t had trouble with those kanji after. I was able to put a visual representation to the kanji was learning and they stood out.

I tend to think of x meaning = x kanji. Not x kanji = x meaning
I do the same with english as well. That does not mean I treat kanji like letters. But rather I treat kanji like compounds.

So to answer the question of the thread.

“What’s the use of learning a kanji basic meaning?”

The answer is very simple, for the same reason you learn huge, gigantic, or titanic. It increases your ability to know what you read and why you read it.

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Yes, I realize there’s a big difference between learning to read in your native language and an L2. There are also a lot of similarities, especially when reading text that uses vocabulary that the reader hasn’t seen before. The language being L1 or L2 or L7 is irrelevant to the fact that you need to develop skill in inferring meaning for words you don’t know.

And I’m saying that it’s exactly how you learn to “know” the word in the first place if you don’t look it up in a dictionary. This isn’t something that is a “replacement”, it is a method of learning new words. A method every one of us used in our L1 and that humans have used for the entire history of languages pre-dictionaries. And one that learning the meanings of kanji is well suited to supporting. Which is this thread’s topic, after all.

To give an L2 example, years ago before WK I did Heisig. So no readings, just meanings, and those an imprecise English gloss. From that, and some very basic Tae Kim grammar, I could “read” a lot of manga. This is at a ‘beginner’ level. Essentially nothing. Certainly not advanced.

Could I pronounce the words? No (unless there were furigana). Could I use it in conversation? Absolutely not. Could I get every nuance? Of course not.

But, could I identify it on the page and know what it meant? Absolutely yes. Did I “know” it (in the context of reading)? Yes. So could I read it? Absolutely. Reading is at its most fundamental the ability to get meaning from written text. The essence of reading is being able to understand what is written. And to do that, you don’t need to “know” the words, whatever that means. You need to be able to understand them. Which, it turns out, is a very different thing.

Which is why I disagree with you what “true reading ability” is. True reading ability comes from being able to extract meaning from text, however you get there. So knowing a word before reading it isn’t required (though helpful in the extreme!).

In any case, this a whole big derailment from the initial topic, which is whether knowing the kanji meanings and readings is actually valuable or just a waste of time. As far as I can see, it’s a huge advantage when it comes to reading, since it takes what would be incomprehensible and makes it approachable. By analogy, it is like encountering a word you haven’t seen before in a language in which you are fluent but is made up of components you have and being able to piece together the likely meaning. Like, you know, a child reading a book too old for them or a person reading jargony technical texts. :wink:


While I don’t think you can truly infer the meaning of a word by just knowing the meanings of the kanji that compose it, I do believe that they can help remind you of the meaning of the word after you have already learned it. From that, I think that it is not useless to learn meanings of kanji.


Well 乒 really doesn’t make any sense on its own, without 乓

(乒乓 = ping-pong, aka table tennis)

But outside of that exception, it really doesn’t make sense to say that characters don’t have individual meaning. They might not be used individually, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a common thread of meaning that can be used as scaffolding while learning vocab.

Sounds like your teacher is being pedantic to an extreme, in a way that hinders learning.

He is correct. To get far fast it’s the way to go. I now focus on vocabulary, skipping WK vocab. I only use WK for reinforcement, to recognize, and to differentiate visually similar kanji. I already got 6K vocab for my level, not even on half WK levels - no need to be level 60 to get to that point. WK is slow and inefficient for gaining vocab, with no context, no sentence audio, and only one meaning.

I think it’s an overstatement from your teacher, yet understandable.

It’s like English learner could learn Aquaphobia, acrophobia, or arachnophobia vocabs, and never learn what aqua, acro, arachno, and phobia actually mean. It’s fine and totally acceptable. However, I still would love to learn them and they help me memorizing these set of vocabs better.


This is the best description here. Kanji do have meaning on their own, even if they aren’t technically words; the linguistics term is “morpheme” and it’s the smallest unit of meaning in a language. Think of all the prefixes and root words that aren’t necessarily whole words on their own but still have meaning that you can understand. Saying those things “don’t mean anything” is nonsense.

OP I think your teacher is throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. 99% of the time a word is written with kanji the link with the meaning of it’s characters is clear and straightforward. Examples like 皮肉 where the connection is not obvious (or ateji, where the characters are actually meaningless and are simply used for their phonetic value) are very much the exception, not the rule. Saying based on that 1% of exceptions that kanji are “meaningless” while completely ignoring the 99% of the time that they very clearly do mean something is kindof ridiculous.

Yes, you should focus on vocabulary because that’s what language is actually made out of. But I find that learning what each kanji means makes learning the vocabulary MUCH easier because, again, 99% of the time the meaning of the word is very closely tied to the meaning of its characters. I actually find it much harder to memorize Japanese words that don’t have kanji specifically because I can’t tie those words back to the meanings of those kanji. For example it’s much easier to remember 診断 (診=diagnosis, 断=determination, so 診断 means diagnosis!) than to remember that the sounds しんだん happen to mean diagnosis.

I also think the argument that you “can’t guess a words meaning from it’s characters” is not true. I often find I can guess the meaning of words that I don’t know based on their characters and the surrounding context, if I know the characters already. That wouldn’t work nearly as well if I decided that the characters were “meaningless” and didn’t bother to learn them.


Yeah I agree with this.

The best example is how could you understand the long-ass over-the-top super move in super robot and shonen manga, if you don’t know the meaning of those kanji. They just scrambling kanji together to create a new flashy name lol.

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I think it’s usually the opposite in that case though? The kanji are used for describing the move while the pronunciation tends to be English or (for flavor) another language.

For example


山吹き色の波紋疾走(サンライトイエローオーバードライブ) (波紋(はもん) is the name of the power the character has)

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Yes, but knowing kanji giving them extra meaning behind the moves.

Many flashy move in SRW game also have a lot of those super move names. With many Kanji scrambling together.

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If you timestamped the video, it didn’t work on my end. :sweat_smile:

I disagree about it usually being kanji randomly scrambled together. I think they usually have a bit of order to them.

No, I just copy the video.

May be I use the wrong word for “scrambling” lol. My point is as what OP asked if the learner don’t learn the onyomi and basic meaning they won’t be able to read those special moves and know their meaning.

The other funny thing is many special move in manga like onepiece the translator just give up and translate both katakana and kanji name of the move (in my langauge). Like (Metal King (this one is Kanji)) Punk Gibson.

So my point is if they don’t know what those kanji onyomi and meaning just memorize vocab. It’s fine, they still could read the furigana but they won’t be able to read the kanji one, can they? It’s not important but still good to learn kanji basic meaning and onyomi.

As I mentioned above

His/her teacher is not wrong about just focus on learning vocab would be more efficient. However, I’m happy to learn kanji basic meaning and onyomi due to my goal in learning Japanese.


Oh wow that comparison is superb.
Looking at that list as a native English speaker is amazing, as many of those meanings I know but I never learned them specifically, instead I’ve inferred them from seeing lots of vocab that use them as a component.

OTOH I feel like that has taken me a very long time to get to in English, and required a lot of exposure, which would be very hard for me to get in Japanese.

+1, I find learning vocab words much easier when I have names / references for the pieces involved, like when I look at 無罪[むざい] (innocence/acquittal) I see “without” and “wrongdoing/sin/crime”.
In this case they happen to line up with the overall meaning, but even when they don’t I often find this process helps me process the vocab word as more than just scribbles.

+1, I think this is kind of the worst case (e.g. for Kanji which don’t contribute meaning obviously).
Naively this is similar to how in English for the word “fire” I can talk about the letters “f, i, r, and e”, even though they don’t contribute to the meaning, I am able to process the whole because I can understand the parts.

Compared with something in Arabic for which I have no process to break it down مرحبا.


There’s a section of the upper levels of Eiken (standardized English test in Japan similar to a reverse JLPT for junior high level English all the way through university level English) that quite literally quizzes English prefixes, suffixes, and roots, in a way very similar to this list, and even draws parallels to kanji that might share meanings with them (anti- and 不 for example). So, I think this is a moot point, as it’s not only something that native speakers definitely study in school, but something that Japanese students also study for exams.

As for the OP, your teacher isn’t completely wrong, as many people have stated already.
Put simply, if you want to know/memorize kanji, spend time studying kanji. If your goal is to learn vocab, spend time studying vocab.


Actually what means “learning”?

There is the learning as in memorizing and Bering able to recall all details (with regular drills and exercises). That is 習う like learning.

And there is learning as in being aware that it exists, having a grasp of, and beeing able to search the the details if needed.
That is, 知っている like learning.

Doing 習う of kanji isn’t the most useful indeed (particularly, as Jonapedia explained well, the real meaning/essence of a kanji is not only in itself but also, and mainly, in the network of associations with other kanji).
But 知っている-ing them is definitely important. So when you see something as “war of of the sun and the rice crop” you are not completely thrown off, and properly understand japan-usa war and can guess にちべい

Any other thing is that wanikani is not teaching kanji MEANINGS but ENGLISH APPROXIMATIONS of those meanings.

Yeah, gonna have to call bs on that one dawg.

Like it or not, you can’t read a lot of manga just off of some heisig and basic grammar. You can take guesses at what’s going on, but you won’t know. I’m sure you think you knew what was going on, but in a lot of cases you probably weren’t reading what you thought you were.


How would you even figure out you didn’t know what was going on. You need some kind of foothold to be able to grasp that much.