Saturday, February 06, 2010

should I learn to write Chinese characters from the beginning of my studies?

In Chris' blog, he noted that in order for Heisig to be successful in selling his books, he must market to the beginners in the language. As you can well imagine, if Heisig's advice was like mine, which is to learn reading and writing after you've become fluent in listening and speaking, he would lose 95% of his customers! Now, I'm not implying that this is the reason for Heisig's advice, but this is also the reality of language learning. Many people start, but few make it to fluency.

Greg noted in his blog that because he knows the meaning of 拼 and 音, he can put two and two together and suddenly he can read this word without having to learn the pinyin of the word. I have two comments about this. My first comment is that not all words are like that. Perhaps most aren't? I won't bore you with examples. It would be beneficial if some linguist would conduct some research and see how many compound Chinese words can be understood the first time from the meanings of their component characters. And then give us a percentage. The fact is, however, there is not one unique Chinese character for every idea.

My second comment about the above phenomenon is that it was greatly facilitated by the fact that he already knew the actual word in Chinese. If it had been a word he had never heard of before, then he would have the extra step of learning the new word. Because it is so much easier to learn to read Chinese after you know most of the words, it makes more sense to wait.

If you come across a word like SHENZHONG and you already know what it means, you will have the Chinese characters in front of your eyes to spark your memory of a word that you know.  But if you need to learn the meaning as well, then you are trying to do too many things at once. You cannot figure out the meaning of every character-compound as you come across it. Usually, after you know what that word is supposed to mean, THEN the characters will make sense and you can easily remember it. But only if it is not a new word. Before that, I think you will be looking at each one and saying, This means this and that one means that, and it is pronounced like this, but I still don't know what it means!

Do you want to be able to read more than you can understand? Or do you want to start with understanding and then learn to read? The more complex your path is, the slower you will be going. Language learning is all about gaining momentum. If you deliberately pick a slow path, it will take much much longer to gain any momentum. I can't think of anything slower than trying to read Chinese before you understand Chinese. If you want to spend your time on the slow stuff, that's your choice.

Sometimes it is much better to go slowly, though, than to go through so much new material that you can't keep up. I say this here, because some of you would point out that the TV method goes so slowly. But who is doing the going? With the TV method, it is not the learner doing the going. The language is going by itself and the learner learns to go with the flow. Eventually, the learner will be flowing at the same speed as the natural language.

What's the least used skill in a foreign language? Handwriting. What's the hardest part of learning Chinese? Handwriting. The answers are the same. Handwriting ranks as number one for the least useful and the most difficult, hands down!

What does Heisig encourage you to do at the onset of your Japanese or Chinese language studies? His advice is to learn how to hand write the characters! Brilliant! Let's master as the first thing that which is least beneficial and easiest to forget. Slow... slow... slow...

Does this not remind you of another brilliant method of traditional classroom language learning? Let's master as the first thing in the first class, pronunciation and speaking! But teacher, we don't know how the language sounds yet. It doesn't matter! You can borrow sounds from your own language and spend the rest of your life with an accent. Ha... ha... ha...

They say, It does not matter what the children do. It does not matter how you learned your first language. We're adults! We'll do it differently!

And off they charged into battle.

Yes, there are many casualties of language learning. And for the rest of their lives, they carry the scars and walk with a limp to prove it. Their accents are the scars. Their slow speech is the limp. And their final ability in the language is the amputated legs!

Yes you've seen them. You've worked with them. Sure, they can communicate quite well. But do you want to be one of them? Do you want to be obviously foreign? If so, then this blog isn't for you.

This blog, my friends, is for people who have the desire to acquire a second native language and also believe they can do so! If you believe it is possible, then this blog is for you!

Up next...
SRS bashing


  1. I think the Heisig method has some merits, but they are a little different than most of its proponents claim.

    It is a tremendous confidence booster to view Kanji as symbols you understand rather than random squiggles.

    Being able to pick up a little meaning from native subtitles is a LOT easier than trying to just hear the words.

    Of course, different people will have different levels of success from the above. I'm very happy that I decided to learn all of the kana and some of the kanji before digging deeply into vocab.

    But then, even in my native language, I use text to communicate more than I use voice... So it's pretty obvious that I learn towards that anyhow.

  2. You know.. accents can be learned. I think you're seriously underestimating the flexibility of the human mind. After all, we only really make use of a small percentage of our brains. For anyone to make claims like "you'll forever have a foreign accent" is just cruel and without any real proof. And, for all anyone knows, your TV Method and the ALG Method could possibly have other pitfalls that other ways of language learning shine in. I think that your opinions would carry a lot more weight if you could actually demonstrate that the TV method works. Which would mean to stop making false claims about how students that learn other ways are doomed to fail and to actually invest that time watching more TV, listening to more music, and actually hanging out with real people in your target language.

    So, just quit being so close minded and negative. No one wants to hear "you can't do it (that way)" when they're just starting off. You have to let people come to their own conclusions.

  3. I'll second what David said. Moreover, I learned English through reading, and I'd argue that I did pretty well with that. Also, for the Chinese their language is the characters, rather than what is spoken, which makes learning the writing system even more important than for many other languages. I do agree with you on the handwriting though..

  4. Thanks all for reading my blog. :)

    I know accents can be learned, but fixing your accent is a lot of work that obviously, most people are not willing to do. Some learners say they don't care, which is fine, but if it were easy to fix they probably would go ahead and fix it. It doesn't take much effort to find someone who has a TOEIC score over 900, has spoken English for over 10 or 20 years, and is not interested in the work necessary to get rid of their foreign accent.

    I am the one who does not underestimate the flexibility of the human mind. I am one of the few people who does NOT believe that the plasticity of the brain affects language learning later in life. I believe anyone at any age can learn a new language like a native.

    If you haven't seen my hours spent watching TV, you should look. I am making progress. I am on course.

    I don't know who David is, but maybe if he had a blog, his "opinions would carry a lot more weight."

    For your information, the TV method is based on ALG principles. ALG has been used for over 20 years. Thousands of students have been observed and their results have shown how ALG works.

    If you want results from the TV method, you'll just have to be patient. Growing a new language takes time.

    Nobody said, "you can't do it (that way)." You can do it whatever way you want. If you're not interested in thinking about how languages are acquired and what kind of results come from different actions and different sequences, then you'll just likely fall into the trap of doing whatever sounds the best at the time.

    Let us continue forward and not argue like we're going to change somebody's mind. I'm sure you will have plenty to say about my next post.

  5. Quiet an interesting article. Thank you for that. It is very interesting to learn & know more languages. Second language learning is always the best way for people who are involved in global aspects to excel.

  6. Intuitively, it doesn't make much sense to me to learn to read and write Chinese characters before you know the words and how to use them. It seems to be inconsistent with an input-based approach.

    It's the same in other languages, isn't it? Unless you have a writing system that is completely phonetic (eg., Hungarian?), it's probably more efficient to postpone reading and writing until you understand the language to some extent. Once you've reached a certain level of understanding (and have had enough exposure to the phonetics of your target language), reading is a great source of getting comprehensible input.

    Keith, I'm looking forward to your post on SRS :)

  7. "I think that your opinions would carry a lot more weight if you could actually demonstrate that the TV method works."

    Of course it works. Thanks to the "TV method" or simply watching TV and not doing anything else to improve my English from 1990 to 1993/4 I've acquired enough English to be able to say or write almost everything in it. I have never took classes nor have been in English speaking country, the first time I used English was in late 2001 with a Dutch businessmen who were trying to invest in my town. I have a close friend of mine who did the same with English in his childhood and later with German. It's worth to mention too, that English is quite foreign to us - the Slavic people.

  8. How do Chinese kids learn Chinese? By learning the characters first?:-))
    It makes much more sense to learn Chinese the way Chinese kids do it, isn't it?
    Congratulations for this great post Keith!

  9. Keith, I asked directly to David Long what's his opinion on the TV-method. Here is his answer (link:

    Could you tell me your opinion on the TV-method? Do you think watching movies in the target language from the beginning could be beneficial, even if you don’t understand a word of it?

    Comment by Julien — February 7, 2010 @ 4:33 am | Reply

    The key is finding input (experiences) that are understandable. The language as a focus, must always remain in the background as it were. The question with any activity, including movies, would be this: How much of what’s going on, do you understand? There are many sorts of input, and it can be experiences in which you are a passive, third party, such as watching TV or a movie. The problem with many forms of input for adults is that it’s based on the verbal too heavily. In other words, if you don’t understand the words, you won’t know what’s happening and this quickly gets very boring. There are some forms of input however, that offer high understanding even when you don’t know the words. Take a look at our level 1 videos at for example. What ever the input is, make sure that you’re understanding at least 70% – otherwise, you may just find that you train yourself to ‘tune out’ and this can actually be a problem.

    A related aspect to your question is this – As adults, we normally focus on the verbal – so much of your ability to understand what’s happening depends on how much you turn off that focus. Instead of listening for meaning – try looking for meaning while ignoring the language. Don’t worry about ignoring language (another adult problem to be overcome) it all goes in and stays in your head as a part of the experience.

    Comment by longinasia — February 7, 2010 @ 5:03 am | Reply

  10. Thanks for the David Long answer. There are 2 things to note for those who tend to misunderstand. When he talks about understanding 70%, this is not 70% of the words or language. It is 70% of what's going on. Obviously, at ALG World, you ideally start with understanding zero words, and they make what is going on 70% percent understandable as best as they can.

    The other thing to note is why. Why is 70% recommended? Just as David Long answered, adults get bored when they don't understand, they tune out, and they give up.

    TV dramas are the best for understanding because you see a story going on. TV news, talk shows and the like, are just people talking, so they are not the best to start with. I have been exclusively watching dramas. As for movies, they are a little too brief. They take a story and cut it down to 90 minutes. Some have too much action, not enough dialogue. Like David Long said, find the right type of input and that's all that matters. ALG World provides that in a classroom.

  11. heisig only takes 3 months or less to finish using anki, then do another 3 months of listening saving worsd/phrases.. and youll be able to pick up a comic book and read a bunch of it and thus increasing your input potential. Im so glad i got a bunch of characters out of the way first

  12. That's not all the truth.
    Let's put it in perspective.

    You have 2 tasks that can be done simultaneously. 1 takes longer than the other.

    Which one do you start first?

    Remembering the Kanji may not be the best from a purist perspective, but from a pragmatic standpoint it is perfectly sound.

  13. Consider it this way:

    How much easier of a time do Chinese people have learning Japanese than English speakers? How easier is it for them to cope with kanji after already having a familiarity with the orthographic and semantic properties of Chinese characters? It's vastly easier for them. Spending a couple of months on RTK puts an English speaker in a similar situation.

    Having a good mental map of the characters makes it possible to do things like read children's books much sooner than would be possible otherwise. Since (both Chinese and Japanese) children's books include phonetic symbols next to the characters, this allows learners to not only build their reading vocabularies, but also to learn how the words are said and then recognize them in other people's speech.

  14. Hi Keith I have been off-line for a bit blog-wise but about to return and still enjoying lots of language learning. As you may expect from my posts on Heisig I agree totally, just to respond to Mark's comment above.

    Firstly the Chinese person in the situation described reads Characters fluently, a big big difference from what you will get from RTK (I mean without thinking and in chunks etc. etc.) Secondly I have spoken to a number of people including a lecturer in Chinese at the London Confucius institute (She has years of experience teaching Europeans, Koreans and Japanese ) who when probed are of the opinion that actually the biggest advantage that Asians have when learning another Asian language is the passive exposure to sounds (and probably some limited vocab) that they will have naturally accumulated from exposure over their lifetime plus of course some cognates (I have a similar accumulation of many European languages without having studied them). On top of that they will naturally do better in education tests on character recognition (that may not directly correlate to other skills in the language).

    Of course all these factors make it too complicated for most people so they prefer a simpler explanation.

  15. Keith - another good thuoght-provoking post.

    I just got back from two weeks in Asia, and can confirm (a) if I already know a word, then when I am piecing hanzi together when reading, I get a 'click' and I get it more easily, and (b) even when I don't know the words, there were plenty of signs & headlines that I could work out without knowing the compound words.

    However, since I had been learning Chinese for a year or two before attempting Heisig, this gave be a great advantage when actually applying what I had learned.

    I continue *not* to recommend Heisig to pure newbies. Thanks, Greg


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