Tuesday, September 01, 2009

what the Heisig method is NOT

There is a series of books for mastering Chinese characters that takes an unusual approach and is often called the Heisig method because the author's name is Heisig. The books were first published as Remembering the Kanji and now there are Hanzi editions for Simplified and Traditional Chinese.

If you are not familiar, you can find some good posts to explain it such as this one. My post is not to explain the method but rather to clarify one of the misconceptions; one which the author himself has led everyone to believe.

The first book in the series is subtitled, How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters, and this is where the misconception begins.  The book does not have the meanings of the characters.  What people think are the meanings are called keywords and they are in English.

Chinese characters do not have English meanings. They are not used in the English language. They are only used in Chinese and Japanese, and formerly Korean and Vietnamese too. A word's meaning in one language does not encompass the exact same meaning in another.  Even between the Japanese and Chinese languages, some or many of the same characters have different meanings! In English, the characters have no meanings. Just ask any English speaker at random.

You are not learning the basic meaning or base meaning of each character with the Heisig method. So what are you learning besides writing individual characters? This is the other misconception that I would like to clarify.

Instead of learning a meaning for each character, you are in fact, learning a character for an English keyword until you know 1500, 2042, or 3000 characters.  Let me put it another way: You are not answering the question, "What is the meaning of 通?" Instead, you are answering, "What is the character for 'traffic'?"

What this means is that when you finish volume 1, it is a fallacy to say, "I know the meaning of all the characters." What you can say is, "I know a character for 2042 English words and I can write them too." You still have yet to learn the meanings.

A person saying that he knows the meaning of a character but is only able to give you an English word for that character is analogous to saying you know the meaning of a Japanese word via a translation.

It's OK to be able to write a few thousand Chinese characters assigned to English keywords.  I'm not sure what good that is, however. For a beginner studying the language it is just a distraction. Heisig did it before he started studying Japanese.

A word of caution: If you are thinking about acquiring Chinese through the TV method, don't learn the characters first. Most Chinese programs are subtitled with hard-coded subs and those characters will be a big distraction.  You're better off not understanding a single character so that you can easily ignore those subtitles.  Don't say I didn't warn you!


  1. Interesting thoughts :-). Still, I came to the conclusion that exact subtitles helped me learning Spanish, so why wouldn't it help me with Mandarin?

  2. Ramses,

    Subtitles will make you translate. Learning to translate is not acquiring a language.

  3. Subtitles in the same language do not make you translate. You're thinking of subtitles in your native language. And that's questionable, too.

    Native language subtitles are definitely a hindrance, once you can understand the language. Before that... Well, there's a LOT of argument about how useful they are.

    As for Heisig... I didn't do RTK (for Japanese) but I did something similar. Just as any single line in a dictionary's definition of a word doesn't encompass all the meaning and nuance of that word, the Heisig 'meanings' don't encompass the entire meaning of the character. They do, however, give you a rough idea.

    I have been helped so much from this method that I am actually considering going back and completing it, as I only got to around 1300 character. Characters that I did by this method are -really- easy to recognize and remember. Characters I didn't get to are amazingly hard, even if the character itself is very simple to write.

    It's a crutch, certainly, and if you take it as a religion and keep practicing it after you have 'learned' all the characters, it will interfere with your language acquisition. But it's a very, very nice boost when you are first starting.

  4. Keith, I wasn't talking about stuff in ENglish with Mandarin subtitles, or Mandarin stuff with English subtitles. I'm talking about Mandarin with MANDARIN subtitles, so no translation here.

    I'm with Khatzumoto on this one, sorry.

  5. Presently in my german project, i find that german subtitles are a bit distracting from the actual show, but i turn them on occasionally when i want to try and pick out some of the new words that i've heard, or if i can't quite figure out what they just said.

    often, the subs don't match what the dubbed voices said anyway, but this gives me an opportunity to learn some synonyms. Generally, occasional use of german subtitles does increase my comprehension of the show, but it feels more relaxing when they're off.

  6. Ramses, why are you learning mandarin if you already understand it?

  7. Why all the negativity? I'm pretty sure the author and those that use the book are aware that it's primer, a preface, to Kanji and not the end.

    I hope you realize how sensitive of a subject this is Keith. There's a -lot- of supporters of Heisig out there that read your blog.

  8. I've participated in Heisig arguments before and in the end no one ever wins. On one side you have those who have completed the method and will defend it to the death. On the other side you have those who have either never opened the book, or who have only completed a few hundred before giving up, that are calling it useless. I hope you see the issue.

    I'm am a strong supporter of Heisig and his method and would not, for anything in the world, trade away the time I spent completing book 1.

  9. Ramses, that was not me. I know what you meant because I am the one who said the shows have Chinese subtitles. Still, my caution remains in effect because you may try to figure out the meaning of words if you are looking at the characters and try to recall the keyword. For Spanish, if you looked at the subs it would not give you the meaning or an English keyword, so there is a big difference here. Spanish writing is just a phonetic representation of the spoken language, is it not?

    @5, I'm not positive, but I think the Chinese subtitles are exactly what is spoken because the writing system is so compact, it makes this possible.

    @7, I have no negativity against the book nor its author. No, most of the people who finish vol. 1 do not realize that it is a primer. Instead they claim to know 2,042 Kanji.

    @8, I am on neither of the sides that you have described, and I am not calling the book or method useless.

  10. By the way, this is not a Heisig argument post. I did not state that RTK is bad or good, works or doesn't work, should or shouldn't ever be used. To anyone who thinks I am for or against the Heisig method or RTK, you came by that idea through your own interpretation. So there will be no need to start any arguments about whether the method is good or not, effective or not, and so on.

    Any comments on what I actually posted about, including whether or not Chinese subtitles in Chinese TV shows are helpful to the beginner who wants to acquire the language naturally, are welcome.

  11. "@8, I am on neither of the sides that you have described, and I am not calling the book or method useless."

    "calling it useless" was the wrong phrase to use, I should have said "dismissing it". (Having clicked preview I just saw your post 10 so I'll make some additions here). The reason, I and presumably others, assumed you are against Heisig is due to the overall tone of the post. It has the feeling of a hand waving dismissal. You may not have intended it, but that is how it came across. The rest below is the comment as it was written before I made changes, and since they relate not to the effectiveness of Heisig but more specifically to the points of your post, I'll leave it as is.

    The keywords themselves do not interfere with reading or the understanding of the language. In fact, it is exceptionally difficult to recall the keywords while reading at full speed. They are only there to give you a general idea of the kanji when you need it.

    Something to note about the keywords, their intended meaning is the abstract meaning of the word, and not the more specific colloquial usages of today. For the example of 通(traffic), the meaning is certainly not a bunch of cars stuck on the I-5 north-bound at 5pm on a Friday night. Instead the intended meaning is passing along or through something. Unfortunately it is easier for our brains to attach new data to something with already strong connections like a word than it is to attach it to something with weaker connections like a phrase. That is why keywords are used.

    Just out of curiosity, what makes you say that someone who has completed Heisig does not know 2042 kanji? Let's say an American man and a Chinese man were both intending to learn Japanese. The American man followed Heisig and knows how to write and the general meaning of the 2042 kanji. The Chinese man, having lived in Hong Kong all his life, knows the writing and the meaning of at least those 2042 and quite a lot more. Both men are in the same boat. They both know how to write the kanji and they both know the meaning in their native tongue. Does the Chinese man not "know" the kanji?

  12. "You are not answering the question, "What is the meaning of 通?" Instead, you are answering, "What is the character for 'traffic'?""

    I seem to be confused, are you trying to say that the English keyword does not encompass the meaning of the kanji, or that the recall process only works in one way?

  13. The Chinese man has an advantage that the American man (in your example) has not caught up with. I am surprised by your question, that you would ask me if the Chinese man does not "know" the Kanji. Kanji come from the Chinese culture and someone who grows up in China knows the Kanji, understands the Kanji, and can easily add to his knowledge.

    If you are Chinese, you can look at a character and recognize it in an instance. The person still learning Kanji has to take a good look at the character and verify that it is the one he thinks it is.

    Being able to decode a character and come up with an English keyword does not qualify as knowing the character yet. Someone who finishes RTK1 still has to learn how the characters are used, which vocabulary uses which characters. Some vocabulary has two different ways to write it. In speech, it is the same word, but in writing you should use a certain Kanji for certain uses of that word. These are points that Japanese people have to learn and there are such quizzes and things because of this difficulty.

    So how could anyone realistically claim to know characters if they don't know vocabulary, usage, and the full range of meaning that the character encompasses? If RTK1 is all a person has done, it's a good start but not a level to say "I know 2042 Kanji." It would be more honest to say something like, "I can recognize all the Joyo Kanji and I know how to write them from memory."

    Again, Kanji do not have meaning in English so you cannot say an American knows the meaning of Kanji in his native tongue. Kanji have not been adapted into English. Kanji have not acquired English meanings.

    My post does not dismiss the Heisig method. I wrote it to bring up a couple of issues that I see promoters of the method not acknowledging. I would not have posted a link to a good description of the method that gives it favorable treatment if I had intended to dismiss the method.

    Most of the keywords are fine. And if two characters have the same meaning, you cannot give them the same keyword. All the keywords must be unique.

    You gave a reason why keywords are used. One of the keywords is "place on the head." Another is "but of course." Another is "sort of thing." Another is "make a deal." Another is "by means of." Another is "how many." Another is "too much."

    The examples above discredit your reason for not using phrases. Instead of "too much" why didn't Heisig use "excess" or "extra" or some other single word?

    The keywords did not come from the abstract meaning of the Kanji character. They simply came from one of the translations of a vocabulary word they were in.

    I do not have "already strong connections to words" like precipitous, astringent, wisteria, auspicious, stratum, hillock, sagacious, entrails, ardent, venerable old man, promonotory, and others of similar low frequency.

    But most of the keywords are fine. I am not dismissing the method at all.

  14. @12, Neither. What I am trying to point out with the statement you have quoted is the structure which you are creating.

    The structure is not that you learn a Kanji character and then learn the meaning for it. Instead, you take an English keyword and attach a Kanji character to it. Actually, you attach a story to the English keyword and that story allows you to reconstruct the Kanji character. And guess what language your story is in? For English natives, it is going to be in English.

    What do I think of this? I haven't really said, have I? I'll save my better ideas for another post instead of a comment.

  15. I do know that the Kanji/Hanzi came from Chinese. I was using a Chinese man as an example to illustrate the point that while he most certainly knows the hanzi, he has no experience of how they are used in Japanese, and as you had mentioned, even the usages and meanings tend to differ between languages.

    Having already reached the point of literacy, maybe I have blinders on. I no longer remember how lacking my knowledge was upon just finishing Heisig. Either way, I know for certain that it gave me the base I needed to start reading and get to where I am now. Literacy in under a year's time isn't bad.

  16. I went through heisig with the English keywords. I didn't like it, and I found that reviewing the kanji via those keywords got in the way of the actual reading that I did of actual Japanese.

    That's why I plan on going through Heisig with the Japanese keywords deck that the clever people over at the rtk forms put together ;) That might solve the problem :D

  17. Kanji is considered the hardest part in the Japanese language, Heisig suggests to learn the writing then the pronunciation and meaning, which will make Kanji much easier.
    Learning Kanji in a systematic and easier way will make those strange Chinese drawings words in no time (20-30 characters per hour is no time)
    Then the rest of the task comes.
    I've tried it, and it's working.


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