As readers probably remember, I started learning Japanese kanji using the Heisig method almost 3 years ago. Some people can learn all 2,200 kanji in 4-6 weeks but I work full-time and raised a daughter so progress was much slower but I still made pretty good progress. However when Little Guy was born, progress stopped. I was too tired for the first year and lost motivation. Once I lost motivation, I started to fall behind, and my kanji studies were neglected.
So I stopped around 1260 kanji and haven’t resumed. 1260 kanji is pretty good for a foreigner who doesn’t even live in Japan but it’s still not enough. Plus, after several months I started to forget many of the kanji. Lately, I started to get back into Heisig, and trying to remember all the kanji I forgot, but at the same time, I find myself getting frustrated with the Heisig method. There’s a few reasons for this:
- The English words used for the kanji are not always the best choice for a kanji. For example the word “I” in this 吾, but usually in Japanese it is 私, 僕 or 俺 or some other kanji. Also, in Heisig’s system prosperous is 昌, but usually I expect it to be 栄. These often confuse me because I already know some Japanese, and I tend to pick the wrong kanji based on what people natively use, not what’s in the Heisig system.
- Some of the word-choices are strange or awkward. For example, the 又 in Heisig’s system is “crotch” as in the crotch of the elbow, but frankly it sounded kind of weird. So, I changed the meaning to be a “dude” as in yatsu 奴 and I was able to make better stories from that. Other Heisig veterans have noted that they often have to change the primitives to something easier to remember. I also changed 隻 from “vessel” (too vague) into a Klingon Bird of Prey from Star Trek. It’s different and I could make more fun stories for each kanji.
- Many of the English words are very, very similar, but the kanji look completely different. For example “yearn” is 憧 while “pining” is 慕. Then there’s kanji for admonish 警, criticism 批, rebuke 諭, and so on. When you first do the Heisig system, you only know a few kanji, so there’s not much confusion, but as you learn more and more words, there’s more and more risk of getting confused. Heisig doesn’t give you much advice either in remembering the differences. You’re expected to somehow imagine stories for each kanji that avoid confusion.
- The system often begins with obscure kanji, then gradually moves into more useful kanji. You have to be pretty patient, because if you learn Japanese at the same time, you’ll find that you won’t learn the kanji that you should learn first. This can be pretty frustrating. This is why learning it the grade school way is often useful.1
I’ve been contemplating giving up on the Heisig method and using the grade-school method instead. I know the 1st and 2nd grade kanji pretty well, so I have a foundation at least.
On the other hand, I read a really good critique of the Heisig Method, and I was surprised to see that this person had the same frustrations that I had. But he argues that the Heisig method is still worth it.
I’m still thinking about it. We’ll see.
1 When I mentioned all these complaints to my wife, she said I was thinking too much, and should just learn the same way my daughter does: the grade-school method.