Heisig’s Method For Learning Kanji and Hanzi

NOTE: This file was created by gathering together different text comments and conversations that I’ve had with people about the method, and I still have yet to clean the file up and reorganize all the text to make everything flow better, hence why it says things out of order and repeats itself quite a few times.

1. The Best Way To Learn Logographic Writing Systems: Heisig’s Method

The Chinese and Japanese writing systems (Hanzi and Kanji) can be learned much faster when someone uses James Heisig’s Remembering the Hanzi book series, although the learner has to be at least at adolescent age in order to have the mental faculties necessary for using the pedagogical process utilized in the books. Heisig’s Method is not meant for children.

James Heisig’s Method is revolutionary and pedagogically innovative. I argue that most of academia within the SLA field has neglected to research more effective approaches to learning logographic writing systems since most of the world does not use them, even though there are up to two billion people who use them (across China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, SL speakers, and to a lesser extent: South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, and East Asian diasporas) to warrant researching this to a great extent.

There is no quick and effortless process to mastering a logographic writing system, and such a task would easily require at least a few to several hundred hours to master, depending on how many characters one wishes to learn. The difference between Heisig’s Method though is that it relies on imaginative and critical thinking skills (along with a familiarity of many concepts existing in the world necessary to form the stories used in the method) that a child would not possess, so it’s not really a viable strategy until someone is at least a teenager (the 20-page introduction to both book series explains how the method works and why).

The method is so remarkably efficient for learning kanji that many people have testified that they learned the most frequent 2000 kanji in just four to six weeks, working on a full-time basis. In comparison, it takes native Japanese students in Japan about nine years to learn approximately the same amount of kanji since they learn using rote-memorization almost exclusively. But as effective as Heisig’s method is, it is unlikely that China, Japan, and Taiwan would ever accept this method as a way to teach in their public schools since their cultures have such a strongly ingrained cultural norm to obey tradition, as irrational as it might be. I’ve only started learning kanji myself, but I did manage to learn about 200 using the method within a month (about an hour each day) before I had to set it off to the side to focus on finishing college.

2. Why This Method Is Broken Up Into Two Books

The first book teaches you how to write the first 2000 characters (and their approximate meanings), and the second book teaches you all the readings. And then if you get the third book, it will teach you both the writings and readings of the next 1000 characters if you want to go further. You can also get the iOS/Android app that will help you memorize the contents of all three books.

While many people might argue that it’s counter-intuitive to break the writing and reading up between two books, that’s actually one of the reasons why Heisig’s Method works so well. When native Japanese/Chinese speakers learn how to write kanji/hanzi for the first time, the memorization that they have to do is already broken down because they already know how to speak the language, they’re just learning how to write it. Second language speakers that try to learn the traditional way have to learn how to speak and write the language at the same time, which adds extra overhead. The same can be said for all other languages too, but this is especially apparent for languages with logographic writing systems or languages with difficult spellings like English.

Context defines the finer nuances that usage and tradition have affixed to the kanji, but the compounds themselves still need to be learned. For this reason, if you go through the books frame by frame, it isn’t really a big deal that the context is absent, provided that you don’t abandon all reading practice in the process.

If you try to learn both the readings and the writings at the same time, then when you take a standard Japanese course, you won’t be introduced to the easier-to-write kanji first. Instead you’ll be introduced to lots of complicated characters that you’ll be expected to memorize upon first learning the words. RTK Volume 1 teaches the simpler characters and radicals first, and then it introduces newer characters/pieces (which Heisig refers to as “primitive components”) gradually over the chapters until it teaches all of them.

For example, an introductory Mandarin course will teach you how to say “I” 我 (wŏ) as one of the very first words, but it would be easier to learn how to write this character if you learned the hand character / radical (手) on the left side first, before learning how to write the whole character. In both the RTH and RTK series, you are introduced to the hand character (手) first, and then you learn all the words containing the hand radical/component after that. The order that the characters are taught in RTK I and RTK II thus makes the learning easier, but it wouldn’t be possible to order everything this way if the characters were taught using only one book.

3. Special Note On Learning Languages with Logographic Writing Systems

If the target L2 is Mandarin, Japanese, Cantonese, Hokkien, etc, or any other language that uses a logographic writing system (which link meaning to writing instead of sound to writing), then the best way to learn the entire written AND spoken language for beginners would be to: 1. learn how to write 2000-3000 of the most important, commonly-used characters and their meanings in the L1 language, 2. learn the pronunciation(s) for each characters in the L2 language after becoming acquainted with the L2’s pronunciation, and 3. proceed with finally learning how to speak the L2 as it would be use in natural everyday settings within its culture.

I know this seems rather counter-intuitive, but I have done my research, and there is no better way to learn Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. Learning how to write every character of a logographic writing using rote-memorization and constant, unforgiving repetition is literally the worst way to learn it. The most effective way is to learn character components and create stories in one’s mind for each character to memorize how the components assemble together to form each character. This way, you will learn a hanzi/kanji character, and you won’t forget the stroke order. Breaking up how to write the characters into a two-step process also avoids the confusion that will inevitably occur if someone tries to learn how to write and pronounce each character at the same time. At the same time, this enables the learner to learn the characters in a more efficient order for reasons that would take an entire page to explain.

3.1. TL;DR On Learning Logographic Languages

Read James Heisig’s Remembering Traditional Hanzi 1 and Remembering Traditional Hanzi 2 for Mandarin and Sinitic languages. Read James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji 1 and Remembering the Kanji 2 for Japanese and Japonic languages. These books are the best, most efficient way to learn the logographic writing systems, whereas you will easily forget how to write all the characters if you learn them by rote-memorization. The introductions written in these books explain why they truly work as well as they do. I believe that Heisig’s method is revolutionary, and that it should be discussed far more in the academia of SLA, so I gave a special mention to it here since the class textbook doesn’t talk about it. The textbook kind of just assumes that we are trying to learn / teach languages that are written using alphabets / abuguidas / abjads / syllabaries, so given the massive length of the textbook, it’s rather disappointing that it doesn’t talk about a specialized and efficient way to learn logographic writing systems that are used by up to 2 billion people.

4. Other Resources For Learning Languages With Logographic Writing Systems

Last Modified: 2023 October 03, 10:14

Author: Zero Contradictions