Notes from the classroom: Trying out the Heisig method with 'Remembering the Kanji'


Kanji is a pain in the ass. There's no two ways about it. But it's something that you need to learn, one way or another. There's a hundred different methods, but most of them, especially what is normally taught in classrooms, produces half-baked results. That's certainly true of me.

I've frequently heard people touting the Heisig method as one of the best ways to learn kanji, and the book itself claims that you can rapidly progress through, depending on your level of dedication, and possibly mastering all the basic kanji within a few months. That's certainly a tall order order to fill. Could it possibly fulfill the hype that surrounded it?

Well, I'm not done with the whole book, but I've made some headway into it, and I'd like to share my experience with you thus far.

[Thanks to Joe In Japan for the image]

In most any classroom setting, kanji is taught in conjunction with vocabulary. The idea being you build up your vocabulary, and at the same time learn how to write the associated kanji. Most often, some of the vocabulary in a chapter will be based around the kanji section, where you learn a few words associated with each character to give you an idea as to its meaning.

But for the most part, it's just rote memorization. You need to learn its meaning, reading, and strokes all at once, and more often than not, part of that gets lost in the shuffle. There's no way the kanji sticks in your mind, so you end up forgetting a stroke here or there, and things go wrong. When you look at kanji, you'll see parts that are similar, but you can only guess at why that is.

Well, the Heisig method decides to focus on fewer things in order to make the kanji stick better in your mind: it teaches you the strokes and the meaning of the kanji, and that's it. In the beginning of the book, the author says:

When Chinese adult students come to the study of Japanese, they already know what the kanji mean and how to write them. They have only to learn how to read them...It is their knowledge of the meaning and writing of the kanji that gives the Chinese the decisive edge. My idea was simply to learn from this common experience and give the kanji an English reading. Having learned to write the kanji in this way...one is in a much better position to concentrate on the often irrational and unprincipled problem of learning to pronounce them.

And so, the book focuses on teaching you the radicals and basic elements in akanji, introducing a few at a time in each chapter, and building as many examples as possible out of them. Once those options have been exhausted, he introduces more radicals or basic elements, and the pattern continues.

Memorization works through the paragraph-long stories Heisig tells as an attempt to invoke strong imagery in your head in order to keep it stuck in your head. It's actually an old memorization trick: the stronger and more outlandish the imagery, the better it'll be stuck in your head. And so you can blaze through a number of kanji -- I'm about 150 kanji in after a few weeks of slow-paced progress, although I'm sure it's easy to do much more in that time.

Just as a sidenote: this book is intended to be for self-study. Attempting to use this in conjunction with a classroom setting just sets you up for failure. This single volume won't teach you the kanji you need in the "right" order, nor will it give you the readings. Those aren't present here. The idea here, like I quoted before, is that you learn everything behind the kanji, and then you can pick up the readings fairly quickly. You'll pick that up through reading things. Plus, this will allow you to guess at the meanings of things that you don't know.

How have I been faring with it? Well, my progress has been slow-paced, but I've found that most of the kanji have been sticking with me fairly well. For just about all of the characters I can remember them with little to no trouble. So, I'm rather happy with this book. I went ahead and took a peek at the later volumes, just to see what I was in for. The second volume focuses on the readings, giving you a truly "complete" look at the kanji, while volume three attempts to bring you to a more full literacy by introducing you to about another 1,000 kanji that frequently appear in modern literature.

So, would I recommend it? Most certainly. I'm sorry I disregarded this series for so long, especially when I was more fervent about my Japanese education. Hopefully, though, I'll be done with this first volume by the end of the summer, and finding myself enjoying novels by the end of the year. Because this book has been so effective, I would honestly feel bad if I didn't keep up with my progress. So go, pick up these books. They'll be an essential part of your shelf.

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Brad Rice
Brad RiceFounder   gamer profile

Brad helped found in 2006, and currently serves as an Associate He's covered all aspects of the industry, but has a particular preference for the business-end of things, more + disclosures



Filed under... #books #Japanator Original #learn japanese



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