Lately, as I wrote before, I’ve been getting frustrated with the Heisig method for learning Kanji, and then switched to learning kanji using the classic grade-school method (1st grade, then 2nd grade, etc).
What I found was neither system worked perfectly. The Heisig method, that is to say the method for breaking down Kanji into simple units that you can re-use for other kanji, is quite useful. However, the book and the underlying assumption that you have to “learn all kanji” has a lot of problems and I finally gave up. I just have no motivation to finish the book.
On the other hand, the grade-school method works for children growing up in Japan, but without the Heisig method (or living in Japan), it is almost impossible to remember beyond the first 300-500 kanji unless you actively use them in Japan all the time. Even then, the learning-curve gets pretty steep one you get into 5th grade kanji and beyond.
For foreign-students of Japanese language, both methods are tremendously time-consuming, and sometimes even detract from actually learning Japanese.
I was inspired recently by an article by Tae Kim which explains that some aspects of kanji really aren’t that important to learn. You eventually learn them through exposure to Japanese language, so spending countless hours memorizing them is not worth the time.
Instead, he suggests investing that time in learning Japanese vocabulary (i.e. whole words) first.
This is pretty similar to my old post about the Convergence Method (which I made up).
Reading his article made me feel a lot better about quitting Heisig. It was nice to reaffirm from an experience Japanese-language student that studying kanji in isolation isn’t very useful. I’ve since stopped learning altogether, and spend my time focusing on vocabulary so I can take the JLPT N1 later this year. 🙂
The reaction to Tae Kim’s article shows that a lot of people are still hesitant to study Japanese without learning Kanji first, but I know from first-hand that it does work. When I was living in Ireland for a year, I was just learning to read Japanese, and so I was learning a lot of basic vocabulary. I had used flashcards before, but I quickly forgot them after a few weeks. Instead, reading very basic texts (with pronunciation guides) helped me more because I could see them in context.
As time went on, I started learning enough words that I could see them overlap. That’s when I really felt things paid off.
Even now when I read something much more difficult, like the novel Dune in Japanese, I see difficult adult words but can often intuit the meaning because I’ve seen those kanji before. I still have to use a dictionary to look up the words, but often I am correct. This is a good feeling.
So, really, the key is vocabulary, not kanji.