(Updates to this post here)
Recently I celebrated my 35th birthday,1 and I was treated to a nice gift-card to the local Japanese bookstore (thank you!). The following day I went to that bookstore with my wife and daughter. At first, I thought about getting some books for the JLPT N1 exam, which I’ve been debating about. However, instead, I decided to try something different and pick up the famous and controversial book “Remembering the Kanji” (RTK) book by Heisig. Heisig’s method had controversy from the beginning but his book has been a popular among Japanese language students for 40 years.
Until now, I’ve been studying Kanji using a method I like to call the “convergence method“. I feel it’s helped me a lot in some ways because I can read Japanese somewhat comfortably (even though conversation skills need a lot more work) and I feel comfortable learning new words quickly.
However, although I can read kanji, I cannot write most of them. It’s hard to explain. When I see them in Japanese writing, I can understand them and how they’re read, but I can’t recall most of them. This is becoming an embarrassing problem for me, so I tried to solve this by practicing handwriting. However, my study wasn’t very structured so far, and I needed something that would allow me to read and write all 2000 of the Jōyō kanji reasonably.
Heisig has really helped me fill the gap. Heisig’s method is highly unusual because of three reasons:
- You learn the kanji meanings in your native language. You do not learn the Japanese readings at all. Heisig explains his reason like so: Chinese students who learn Japanese already know the kanji, but they just don’t know how to pronounce them. So, you can learn kanji and learn the Japanese pronunciations as two separate steps. Divide and conquer, in other words.
- Heisig uses a system of breaking down kanji into simple pieces or “primitives”. Primitive here means “simple”, not “backward”. These primitives are sometimes the same as kanji radicals (部首 bushu in Japanese), but oftentimes they are not. Also, the meanings of the primitives is always something very Western.
- The order you learn kanji is very non-standard. You learn the kanji as a “family” using the same primitive, starting with simple ones, and moving to harder ones. For example, for the primitive 十 you start with simple kanji like 古 and then move onto more complex kanji like 専 and 博. In another example, you learn 旭 and 胆 before you learn 上 and 下. The order is very non-standard, but if you follow it strictly, you can see how it makes sense.
So basically the trick is to see a kanji as a bunch of simpler pieces, and build a story for each. Heisig strongly focuses on making good stories for each kanji, rather than rote practice. He discourages excessive writing practice and insists that if you focus on the primitives and making a viable story, you can recall the kanji more effectively. I still practice anyway because I want to fix my handwriting anyway. But his method kind of makes sense. If you have a story as a mnemonic, chances are you will remember it more easily.
Sometimes, Heisig’s suggested stories were great and fit very well, sometimes they feel like a stretch for me. So, I just make up stories of my own. I believe Heisig would endorse this because the story has to be something personal to you. Otherwise you may not remember it.
Knowing the kanji in English (or your native language) also makes it much easier to learn in other languages too such ad Chinese or Korean hanja or classical Vietnamese.
So far I’ve only had enough time to learn about 100 kanji in 2 weeks, but a lot of them were new to me, and I am surprised that they stick in my head even after a week. If you do it right, it really does seem to work. However I want to know if I can still remember them 3-6 months later. That’s the real test of Heisig’s method I think.
There’s nothing really mysterious about Chinese characters. Many different people have learned them for centuries. Westerners can learn them just as easily. The key is learning them the right way.
1 Happy Belated Bday to an old friend who’s birthday was 2 days before mine. I didn’t forget. Just busy in Arizona. 😉