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


  • Margaret Thomas

    Corresponding author
    1. Boston College
    • Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Margaret Thomas, Program in Linguistics, Department of Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467. E-mail:

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  • I am grateful for the generous support of the Japan Foundation, which allowed me to gather these data. I also deeply appreciate Waseda University and my official host, Professor Fusa Katada, who helped me forward in many ways. Also instrumental to this research for both professional and personal assistance are Professors Kazuko Tanabe of Japan Women's University, Makiko Hirakawa of Bunkyo University, Yahiro Hirakawa of Tokyo Institute of Technology, Michael Carroll and Kevin R. Gregg of Momoyama Gakuin University, and Shoko Ikuta of Meiji Gakuin University. In addition, I acknowledge Yumi Iizuka of Sophia University, Sarah Castricum, Keith Chan, Matt Gregas, Helen Haskin, Kazuko Oliver, Junho Song, Ritsuko Sullivan, the organizers of ICPLJ8, and the editors and three anonymous reviewers for Language Learning. Finally, my sincere thanks go to the 75 learners of Japanese who shared their knowledge with me, especially those who agreed to let me display their expertise in the accompanying video files, and to the late Hamako Ito Chaplin of Yale University, an enduring inspiration.


This article calls attention to a facet of the expertise of second language (L2) learners of Japanese at the intersection of language, memory, gesture, and the psycholinguistics of a logographic writing system. Previous research has shown that adult L2 learners of Japanese living in Japan (similarly to native speakers of Japanese) often spontaneously produce highly articulated movements of the fingertips or hands when learning or recalling Sino-Japanese orthographic characters (kanji). These movements, known in Japanese as kūsho (air writing), trace out abstract representations of kanji, or parts of kanji, presumably as a kinesthetic aid to learning and recall. The current study tests that presumption with respect to learning, by comparing the accuracy with which adult L2 learners of Japanese (N = 75) memorize the shapes of complex, novel kanji under three different learning conditions. Results show that kūsho is associated with a small but statistically significant advantage in accuracy of recall, compared to either passive visual inspection or the conventional technique of memorizing the shapes of kanji by iterative paper-and-pen copying.