Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

Cognitive strategies and self-regulation of learning character based scripts as a second language: The learning of kanji and hanzi (Japanese and Chinese characters) by alphabetic first language users

Final Report Summary - KANJI HANZI LEARNING (Cognitive strategies and self-regulation of learning character based scripts as a second language: The learning of kanji and hanzi (Japanese and Chinese characters) by alphabetic first language users)

The research project investigated challenges of the Japanese written language faced by second language learners, focusing on the learning of kanji (Japanese written characters). Previous research has shown that kanji learning poses a formidable barrier to the L2 learner, because it requires the memorization of more than 2,000 morpheme-based characters, which have multiple readings in the Japanese language. The difficulty of kanji learning has been attributed to high attrition rates in Japanese language courses, and a 3 to 4 times slower rate of language development when compared to other modern languages. This research investigated, via a series of in-depth qualitative studies, the L2 cognitive processes of kanji learning in order to highlight ways in which learners deal with memorizing kanji. In particular, the studies examine memory strategies of L2 learners, including mnemonic, pictorial association, and component analysis strategies. Data were collected in the form of interviews, stimulated recall sessions, and questionnaires across three continents from beginner elementary school learners to advanced university level learners.

The initial study proposed to also investigate the learning of hanzi (Chinese characters), however, after initial investigation of possible research sites in Ireland, it was discovered that Chinese language courses were still in their infancy in terms of their development. As a result, very few advanced learners of the Chinese language were present. In addition to this, travel to foreign research sites in both China and Japan was financially unfeasible. This meant that there was an insufficient number of participants for the hanzi part of the study. Thus, the project shifted from its original focus on both hanzi and kanji to predominantly examining the learning of Japanese writing by second and foreign language learners. However, a small-scale study of Chinese character learning was carried out by a doctoral student under the supervision of the Principal Investigator. In total 4 studies were conducted to answer different facets of the research questions.

Study One involved an intervention study of 118 school aged learners of Japanese. This study investigated whether strategies could be taught to beginner learners to improve kanji memorization. The study design followed that of a quasi-experiment, with 6 in-tact classes of Japanese students of approx. 20 students in each (118 students in total). The study involved 3 experiments of 2 classes (an intervention and comparison class), using a repeated measures design for the lists of kanji studied to control for differences in kanji difficulty. The results indicated that the intervention of strategy instruction had a significant effect on kanji memorization for all intervention groups, compared to their comparison groups who received no strategy instruction. The long-term effects of strategy instructions were not tested via a delayed post-test due to ethical implications of withholding strategy instruction for the comparison groups in light of the positive effects observed. Nevertheless, the results of this small sub-study indicated that strategy training for learners in beginning stages of kanji learning could have positive educational effects.
This study also revealed a reliance on pictorial association by most learners, with more advanced associative strategies deployed by the most successful learners.

Study Two involved an in-depth, longitudinal study of 12 learners of Japanese, in order to reveal a more nuanced understanding of how learners adapt to learning unfamiliar writing systems. One part of the study focused on mnemonic strategy use in order to evaluate the effectiveness of mnemonic strategies. The study found that while mnemonics were useful to memorize kanji and kanji components when applied in a meaningful way, an over-reliance of this strategy could have negative effects for the learner. The study highlighted numerous accounts of the meaning of certain kanji being lost in overly complex mnemonic strategies. Another limitation of mnemonic strategies was associations being made with the meaning of kanji and not with how it was read, causing an inability to read kanji in Japanese.

Study Three used the same participants in Study Two, but examined a separate aspect of the learning process—that of self-regulation. The participants were interviewed 10 times throughout the year in order to provide insight into the issues surrounding self-regulation of kanji learning. The interview questions were derived from focus groups with two groups of five students during a pilot study. This method followed that used in a study by Tseng et al. (2006), which examined self-regulation in vocabulary learning—a process not dissimilar to the learning of kanji. The study aimed to answer two questions:
In terms of self-regulation, how do learners of Japanese from alphabetic language backgrounds learn kanji? How does self-regulation develop over a year of kanji instruction? This provided insight into the struggles of students learning the Japanese writing system from various perspectives including challenges in setting goals, controlling procrastination, dealing with emotional aspects connected to learning Japanese, as well as negotiating the time-consuming and arduous task of learning lists of hundreds of kanji. The study found that self-regulation of kanji learning was incredibly complex, and that only students of high self-regulation could be successful in reaching higher proficiency levels in kanji. Self-regulation appeared to be a good predictor of kanji learning success, concurring with recent findings in other Second Language Acquisition research.

Study Four was a the smaller-scale study of hanzi learning, where 8 students in Ireland were involved in an in-depth investigation which examined the learning of hanzi by novice learners of Chinese language, who were from an English-speaking background. The findings of this study echoed those of the kanji Study Two and Three. A questionnaire was also conducted with 137 learners of Chinese learners across Ireland, which allowed generalizability of the findings.