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

Comments (6)

  1. I’ve been studying Japanese for a little over a year now. I started my journey by studying Kanji using the Heisig method. After about 4 months and many hours and practice sheets I completed RTK1. For a number of reasons I stopped reviewing the kanji until recently and my Anki deck basically reset itself.

    Over the last few months I’ve been going through my Anki deck again to relearn the RTK1 Kanji. This time around it’s with a working vocabulary of about 1800 words. Although my vocabulary is still very limited I’ve noticed a few things. As I go through the deck again I already know at least one word or reading for maybe half of the characters. Because of this a lot of the keywords have become ambiguous like you mentioned. My current strategy is to supplement the keyword with either a reading or a full Japanese word. I think this is probably because once you’ve developed a Japanese lexicon the keywords start transforming into possible Japanese words automatically.

    In retrospect I’m not sure I would have done anything differently (with the exception of dropping reviews for a while. Clear mistake there). When I started my studies I found it incredibly difficult to learn vocabulary words. When I “finished” RTK1 the first time I felt utterly inadequate and unbalanced from my lack of vocab. The result of this was that I binged on vocabulary words for a while (in full Kanji). Now I’m bringing RTK back into the picture, albeit in a slightly augmented way.

    I agree with your intuitions that there must be a better and more balanced way to learn the Kanji and voacbulary concurrently. For now I suppose I’m still overwhelmed and in over my head learning the language so I’ll just keep plodding along and try to cover as much ground as possible.

    This was an interesting post, thank you!


  2. I am a self directed learner who has also chosen to shun Heisig, in part inspired by some of your earlier posts on the subject and I don’t regret it, so I wanted to thank you for that! I feel distinctly uncomfortable about the way that the Heisig method is often suggested as the one true way, never mind the fabled alternative given of writing out characters many times.

    I often wonder if the success reported by many Heisig users has more to do with their use of an SRS system, which is a method that I have bought into. I don’t write characters out hundreds of times, only as often as Anki tells me I need to.

    I think part of the issue is Heisig defines the kanji “problem” as one where you have to know 2000 characters to be literate, and offers a solution to memorising the lot. I know how to use perhaps around 500 kanji now. I’m not literate enough to read a newspaper but I’m fine with e-mailing and text chatting and can use a dictionary when I get stuck. I realised that usually, if I see kanji I don’t recognise and look the word up in a dictionary, I don’t actually know the Japanese word anyway and since then I’ve been quite relaxed about kanji. I don’t have a kanji problem as much as I have a vocabulary one. I think this is quite hard to explain to someone who is just starting out and has read many times over, as I did, that you need 2000 kanji to be able to read Japanese, which I think is something of a half truth.

    Of course there is no one true way to learn anything and part of the joy (and the frustration) of self study is finding out what works for you. However I think there is probably some space for a decent, comprehensive kanji resource. On my wish list is something that combines the well-thought out order for introducing kanji, exercises and reading passages in the Basic Kanji Book, the detailed information about breaking kanji down into parts, radicals and strokes in Let’s Learn Kanji and the breadth of coverage of Kanji in Context. But despite all of this, a couple of hours paid for with a Japanese tutor who taught me how to recognise and draw the different types of strokes and corrected my penmanship, and a brief conversation with a Chinese friend who helped me break 議 into it’s component parts, which subsequently enabled me to do the same with any complicated looking kanji, proved more invaluable than any book time.

  3. Thank you both for your thoughtful comments.

    My wish for a kanji learning resource would be this.
    For 2nd language learners initially focus on the 500 kanji that make up 70% of usage. Then progress to the 1000 that make up 90% of usage.
    As to the book. I too would like a mix of Basic kanji, Let’s Learn Kanji, and a reader, broken down into manageable chunks. I’d also like exercises and games and SRS. Kakitorikun v3. And a good learner dictionary. I also want it all on an iPad device with pen input. Except for clearances, and a pen enabled iPad, it’s feasible but unlikely. ….

  4. Hi Robert,

    Great article. I’ve steered clear of Heisig myself and just relied on Anki very heavily this last year, but like Owen above, I’ve noticed a trend in my learning of kanji that is interesting. If you learn enough words, the kanji start to converge enough that you can start learning new words with less effort.

    For example, I learned the word 光栄 (kōei) recently. I had see 光 from many other words (e.g. 観光, 光明 (buddhism), etc) and 栄 I learned from another word, 栄達 (eitatsu), so when I saw this word, it was easier to put together right off the bat and have a reasonable idea what it meant.

    To get to this stage, you definitely have to learn enough words to reach critical mass, and that’s hard. People want the easy way out, and then you see these amateur efforts like you’re talking about, but if you can take the “high road” long enough, it really, really pays off. :)

  5. I know what you mean about that critical mass of ability that makes it easier to add new knowledge to your store.
    I’ve have the odd ability now where I can often guess the readings correctly without actually knowing the correct meaning of the word!
    Vocabulary is certainly the key. When you think about it few kanji exist in isolation, even single kanji often have okurigana. All too often I think I lose sight of the goal, which is to read and write Japanese, when concentrating on individual kanji and their components.
    I think overall it needs an integrated approach, where you need some grammar, some vocabulary, some kanji, and you build up your reading and writing ability across the board bit by bit.

  6. Indeed! I realized this trap of studying in isolation recently as well when studying for the N2, as my wife pointed out my frequent mis-use of vocab words. Dictionaries are only so useful. You’ve got to just learn to read Japanese until it becomes rote. It’s uncomfortable at first, since it’s so unfamiliar, but that’s true of any skill in life. :)

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