More Heisig Musings


I never learn, so “once more unto the breach..”

I am interested in how people learn and the problems of kanji and language in particular.
The topic rises again and again on forums so I’ve been thinking a bit more about it. Instead of a long post into threads that have strayed and grown too long I thought I’d make it into a post here.
It has stayed in draft form for a long time but between a comment about Heisig on this blog recently and trying to catch up with half finished posts, I’ve revisited it. Hopefully this will put Heisig to rest for me, it becomes a little frustrating to have my kanji studies defined in reaction to a method developed 33 years ago by someone who self-admittedly knew nothing about Kanji or Japanese when he first developed it.

First I think there may be a mismatch with what people are calling having learnt a kanji. For people who have used RTK1 “learnt” seems to be writing a kanji linked to a keyword. Quite an achievement and useful in and of itself. Another group perhaps equate “learnt a kanji” with being able to use it. ie linking it to actual words in Japanese, reading and writing. And yes RTK users will progress onto this at which time they will fully “own” those kanji.

Here may be the difference in style. RTK users are learning a larger chunk at once concentrating on two tasks, writing the kanji and an English meaning. They are deferring putting the kanji to Japanese, with the hope, or certainty, that this will be easier further down the road. Traditionalists, for want of a better term, want to have usage of a kanji all at once for the Japanese they know at a given time. They may have to deal with more at once but they deal with it in smaller chunks at a time, and have more immediate full use of a given kanji. They may concentrate more of kanji they immediately need. I also get the feeling that self-directed learners tend to use the Heisig method and those that attend classes tend towards more traditional methods. I feel it’s a bit swings and roundabouts though.

As far as I am aware, other than anecdotes and opinion there is no evidence or studies one way or another about effectiveness or time taken to be literate using any method for non-natives. (Literacy being able to read and write Japanese to a particular standard; the end of formal schooling before high school, being a reasonable benchmark perhaps.) Also while we seem to be discussing two styles of learning I’m sure there are many more styles of learning a language and many approaches. The problem is finding the approach that will work for you.

This is what I’ve found with Heisigs order. Which I followed for a while. I constantly came across kanji that as yet I have no use for and this inhibits my memorising of them. I have far more success with those I can link to Japanese I already know or see some more immediate use to. Now of course there’s no reason I have to stick to the order, but then I’d lose the advantage of taking something off the shelf rather than having to work it out for myself. Catch22 it seems. But if you take away the strict order and learn components as and when you need them it would be easier to use for kanji you need to learn, for the grade school and JLPT orders, or based on frequency of use. There are diminishing returns in learning kanji. The most frequent 1000 are used 90% of the time.

Another thing I’m noticing is the keywords. I’ve noticed a couple of things here. Ambiguity; I don’t make the same connections as Heisig. For example, Spring can have 4 meanings for me; season, water appearing from the ground, metal coil, the action of jumping. I’ve got to go the usage of the kanji to clarify it. Then I feel fountain gives a better prompt for 泉[いずみ]The other thing I’ve noticed is less common links being made. For instance 頂, “wear on head” an idea which I’d more commonly associate with 冠, made more useful links when I saw it was いただく or ちょうだい. humbly receiving. I suppose in one respect it makes these kanji stand out but it also erodes what confidence and trust I have in the author and I’m back to not being able to use something off the shelf. Nor am I alone in noticing this and I wish Kanjidic would cull the Heisig keywords or at least note them as such rather than having them as the first meaning.

Whatever way you look at it these keywords are giving meaning to a particular kanji. I’d also go further and say the stories are giving meanings to the kanji. Often meanings that don’t exist. It may not be the intention but I feel it is a by-product. This suspicion is one reason I dislike the stories. I’m more interested in the actual derivation of a kanji. That helps me more than making something up. In any case I’m not very good at making up stories like this.

Writing out kanji as the alternative to Heisig is a common misconception. Yes at first it does look like that is the alternative. Especially if you use Japanese classroom like materials with all those practice boxes.
Traditional isn’t write repeatedly and cram readings in (IMHO). Yes on Japanese school books or handouts there is usually space for 12 characters but it’s very important that a child learns neat handwriting. And yes the action of writing helps you learn it. But… The learning of meanings and readings seems more to do with hanging the kanji on example vocabulary the student already knows, combined with a definition and possible etymology of the character. Because of traditional dictionary usage, stroke count and radical are taught although I would guess this might tend to be ability to count and identify rather than rote learning. It’s more based on understanding than on rote. The characters are also broken down into specific elements much the same way as spelling in English. So in explaining 明,it might be described as 日 and 月

That breaking down is one part of the key, yes just as ol’ H does it. I just prefer to use the actual names and not use a story. にちへん、つきへん。If I can I prefer to hang it on a Japanese word. 明るい in this case. The other part is putting it to words rather than trying to remember a complete picture.

A more interesting Japanese approach is in the books by 下村昇, a Japanese teacher whose writings predate Heisig’s. His method uses pictures to explain the etymology of the forms (although he does ignore the difference of phonetic components and semantic components) This at least gives you an understanding of the character. Then having broken down kanji into about 36 basic components and 24 common radicals he can write out in a sentence of about 4 steps how to write any given character.

From an article about EFL I read recently.

Alas, the perfect method is an illusion. A chasing of the wind.

And the problem may be that on the Internet there are very many students and very few teachers. The Internet while of fantastic value is full of amateurs (like me and many blogs and forums) groping for direction in the dark. Often the value of a good teacher isn’t recognised. I think some good kanji teachers are needed.
下村昇 is one, so is隂山英男 (of Kakitorikun fame), and 加納千恵子 the author of the Kanji Book series and a researcher into teaching Japanese to foreigners is another.

07. January 2010 by ロバート
Categories: 02 reading • 読む事 | Tags: , , | 6 comments

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