Heisig Hate

I just read an old thread over at Tae Kim’s Blog. Tae Kim runs a very useful website for learning Japanese, but in this particular thread he wrote rather dismissively of the Heisig approach to learning kanji. (If you are not familiar with the concept, here is a brief description). Tae Kim invited comments from Heisig fans, and it is the thread of comments under his post that provides the most useful insights.

Tae Kim opened his post with a condescending truism:

Just a quick post since I’ve been very lazy lately. I just wanted to ask: Is there anybody in the world that learned how to write Japanese with James W. Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji? And notice I didn’t say Kanji because I’m sick and tired of hearing people say, “Yeah, I learned like 2,000 kanji in like three weeks!” Wow, that’s awesome. Now you can start actually learning Japanese!

With these comments, Tae Kim might as well be criticising KSP, which adopts an approach similar to Heisig. And guess what? His truism is, well, true! Knowing 2000 kanji is nothing like knowing Japanese.

If you are wondering if KSP will be useful for you, read the comments below the post. If the criticisms of Heisig seem to resonate, KSP probably won’t be your thing. KSP does nothing more than take a Heisig approach to kanji and add a range of memory-enhancing tools: motor involvement, spaced repetition with automated revision scheduling, automated hints, incorporation of images in mnemonics, and (eventually) a full supply of mnemonics for the entire joyo kanji. After all, if you do have to learn more than 2000 symbols, you might as well make it as efficient as possible.

Just like Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, you need to be mindful of what KSP doesn’t do – and doesn’t even try to do – and that’s teach you how to use kanji in context.

It’s not that Heisig or anyone else has forgotten the gulf between knowing kanji and knowing Japanese. Far from it. The idea is that you’ll use other resources to learn Japanese – after you’ve learned your kanji, perhaps, or concurrently with your kanji learning, if that’s your preference. But as you “start actually learning Japanese”, you’ll have the advantage of seeing familiar kanji everywhere you look, and of knowing one meaning for each kanji. That one meaning will provide you with a cognitive hook, making the task of learning contextual kanji that much easier. Basically, it is a strategy of divide and conquer. Learn one set of symbol-meaning mappings first, and add the vocab later. The alternative is to try to link each meaning with an unknown symbol and an unknown pronunciation all at once – which is famously difficult.

Of course, this divide-and-conquer approach doesn’t suit everyone. But it makes perfectly good sense in terms of the neuropsychology of memory. And it’s downright silly to imagine that proponents of the divide-and-conquer approach have somehow forgotten that the divided task is not the full task. In fact, it’s the whole point of the approach.

More on this later… But feel free to comment.