Yale Language Faculty Attend Princeton Japanese Pedagogy Forum

The report of the 17th PJPF (Princeton Japanese Pedagogy Forum), held on May 8-9 at Princeton
Koichi Hiroe
Senior Lector, Japanese
East Asian Languages and Literatures

The traditional Japanese orthography employs three different sets of letters in writing: two sets of phonograms, and one set of logogram. When writing, these letters are mixed. Hiragana (50 letters), one of the phonogram sets, is predominantly used for transcribing most words, including functional words. Another phonogram set, Katakana (50 letters), is reserved for transcribing only foreign loan words. The logogram of kanji (2,000-3,000 common letters), Chinese characters, is used for writing content words such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. On top of that, unlike Chinese language, the pronunciation of Japanese kanji differs depending on the context. All of these unique writing system features challenge learners to read and write Japanese.

This year’s PJPF (Princeton Japanese Pedagogy Forum), held on May 8-9 at Princeton, focused on kanji. Thirteen out of  eighteen presentations concerned kanji, including two workshops. I would like to summarize some of the kanji presentations that may be directly applicable to our program.

Yoshikazu Kawaguchi of Waseda University gave the keynote speech, and held two workshops on kanji. He introduced three steps to tackle kanji: recognition, contextualization, and individualization.

1) Recognition of kanji starts with dividing kanji into smaller units. Free from the traditional analyzing method introduced by Xu Shen (58-147) in Shuo Wen Jie Zi, he further subdivided kanji into much smaller units, focusing on spatial construction.
2) As a logogram, each kanji has sound as well as meaning, which indicates that  studying kanji is actually vocabulary learning. He introduced the method of contextualization of kanji using several categorizations that include number, pictograph of nature terms, suffix and prefix, common action verbs, part of speech, daily vocabulary, emotions, newspaper, etymology, and so on.
3) The more advanced the language learner is, the more diverse the vocabulary. Equally, the variety of kanji needed among advanced learners differs quite substantially. For individualizing kanji, he introduced several techniques to facilitate learner’s autonomous kanji study: categorization of kanji depending on needs, giving extra points for new kanji acquired by learners themselves, mapping kanji concept, and using internet based kanji tools.

Miharu Nittono of Columbia University introduced her fourteen kanji teaching methods used in studying kanji in her childhood. She reported on her successful teaching experience at Columbia. Of the fourteen methods, students ranked high in the three writing techniques: Space Writing, Finger Writing, and Sound Writing. Other than these three techniques, techniques that employ calligraphy will also be beneficial for kanji study.

In addition to the two presentations mentioned above, Michael Dixon of Indiana University at Bloomington gave a presentation on the study of kanji typing errors. This study may lead to the development of a new approach to teaching some critical pronunciation of Japanese through typing.

The attempt to use Twitter for teaching kanji, presented by Naoko Nemoto and Daryl Beres of Mount Holyole College, will be the first of its kind using mobile devices to assist kanji learning. I felt that this new field should be explored more in the future.


Overall, this forum provided ample ideas for learning and teaching kanji. One thing I recognized most throughout all these presentations, was the importance of raising awareness for learning strategies used at each stage of kanji study. Considering the aspect of pictorial imagery of kanji, development of learning strategies focusing on visual, sensorial cognition will be of great importance as well.

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