Frustrated with the Heisig Method

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.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

8 thoughts on “Frustrated with the Heisig Method”

  1. Hi Doug,
    As someone who is just starting to learn Japanese I was very interested to learn of your experiences with the Heisig method — thank you for the article. One flaw: the link to “grade school” in your third bullet point seems to direct to a nonexistent page.
    Thanks again and good luck with the kanji!

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      1. Hi Doug,
        Thanks for your reply. I just tested the link and it works for me now. I have no idea what the earlier problem was but it seems to be gone.
        Thanks again.

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  2. I started learning kanji when I started learning Japanese at a language school in Japan. That was long ago, so I don’t remember exactly what order I learned them in, except that it was probably the order in which they were introduced in the textbook that was used in that course.

    The “grade school method” is advocated by many people, but it has the possible disadvantage that it was designed for grade school kids, after all, not adults, so it might not introduce the kanji in the order that an adult student would want.

    Theoretically, I think, the best approach would be to start reading whatever Japanese one is interested in and finds useful, including geographical names, if one is currently in Japan, names of persons (although these usually have very irregular readings), manga, newspaper articles or web sites, etc. I’m not sure that any “system” devised by an educator is necessarily better than the method of simply diving in and learning what you need as you need it.

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    1. HI Jonj,

      Yeah the grade-school method, based on what I see from my daughter (currently learning 2nd grade kanji) has the following advantages:

      Learning kanji words at their level (she’s too young to know what “rebuke” means for example).
      Learning a more gradual pace than the 2,000+ kanji by Heisig.

      But the disadvantages seem to be:

      No logical progress/connection between kanji, like Heisig’s method: go from 言, to 計 to kanji like 警. You learn each kanji in isolation from one another. That may be the biggest weakness.
      Learning everything at once: writing, reading, pronunciation, etc.

      So, there’s definitely pros and cons. Since I don’t live in Japan and can read “enough” to get what I need, the writing isn’t so critical that I need to learn all 2,000 joyo-kanji anyway. Heisig’s method is very useful because it teaches you how to learn new kanji effectively, but tries to cram all of them at once, and that maybe a problem with teh book, not the method. So, I may be happy being proficient in, say, 500-1000 kanji if it lets me do what I need.

      I guess time will tell. 😀

      In any case, need a break from Heisig really bad.

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      1. Of course, the ideal way to learn kanji is to learn everything at once — all the pronunciations, the stroke writing order, and the most common compounds in which each kanji is used, and of course that’s a real pain. I think that’s the most difficult thing about learning Japanese. But after all, if the ultimate goal of learning a foreign language is to approach using it the way native speakers do, that’s what you have to do — learn everything about the kanji. You can even tackle learning to recognize handwritten kanji, but that’s always defeated me, except for the most clearly written handwriting. (But then we English speakers usually can’t read each other’s handwriting either!)

        I really envy folks who grew up in Japan (children of missionary parents, etc.) and were bilingual from toddler age on. As a translator, I meet them all the time, and it embarrasses me no end that I can’t keep up with them at all.

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  3. I’ve been have a good time slogging through kanji over at wanikani.com. After a year and a half, I’m 60% of the way through the levels there. The game-ification of learning seems to help keep me at least partially motivated. It cost $80 for a year, but it works for me.

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