Writing kanji on the air is even better practice than writing on paper

Margaret Thomas, Air Writing as a Technique for the Acquisition of Sino-Japanese Characters by Second Language Learners.

Summary: When studying a kanji, native Japanese speakers often trace its strokes with their fingers on the air, palm, or thigh, while keeping their eyes fixed on the source model. (They do it for recalling, too, often closing the eyes or averting the gaze). This is called “air writing” (kūsho 空書 or karagaki 空書き). Thomas experimented with 75 non-native learners, of 22 different mother languages, and found that air writing helped retention significantly more (p < 0.01) than pen writing or visual memorization—though the effect size was modest, and only noticeable when memorizing harder kanji (some 15.43% more hits for the hardest kanji set).

Interestingly, six participants who were told to not use kūsho still did it spontaneously during recall tasks; either with their hands, or by mimicking kūsho patterns with subtle head or torso movements.

Thomas tested only kanji recall, not recognition (which is likely the most important task in the modern age). However, she does mention a couple studies suggesting that native speakers can recognize kanji more easily when allowed to air-write (Matsuo et al, Dissociation of writing processes: functional magnetic resonance imaging during writing of Japanese ideographic characters, 2000; and Matsuo et al, Finger movements lighten neural loads in the recognition of ideographic characters, 2003).

I think it’s reasonable to suppose that, for non-native learners, too, air-writing helps with both recall & recognition. This is good news because you can practice anywhere with your own body.

2 thoughts on “Writing kanji on the air is even better practice than writing on paper

  1. Blog note: My dissertation is in its final sprint, and it’s metaphorically killing me—a stress compounded by serious personal problems, and by the bitterness of having my Monbushō application rejected (aka “no Japan for you”). What I mean to say is, I don’t have the energy for long essays these days. Figures I’ll go back to posting quick excerpts and summaries of interesting papers, because these are doable.

  2. Also of notice is a paper she cites on the limitations of repeated-writing methods, Xu et al’s Reading, Writing, and Animation in Character Learning in Chinese as a Foreign Language. They compared reading, writing, and watching animations, and found out that

    the three learning conditions facilitated character learning in different ways: Writing and animation both led to better form recognition, while reading produced superior meaning and sound recalls. In addition, the effect of animation in meaning recall was also better than writing. In developing the skill of reproducing characters from memory, writing was superior.

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