Of crystals and choirs: the Heisig method of learning kanji

When I took a Japanese-language class while working at Tōhoku University, my Chinese-speaking colleagues seemed to make much more rapid progress than me. Although the grammar of Chinese and Japanese are very different and the characters are pronounced differently for the most part, the meanings of most characters in the two languages are the same or similar. Even when characters are different – for example, there are differences between character forms in Simplified Chinese, Japanese and Traditional Chinese and there are certain characters that exist only in Japanese – people who have grown up learning a language that requires several thousand characters to write have already acquired the facility to assimilate characters and fit them into their ‘mental map’. Those of us who grew up learning an alphabetic language only had to learn 50-odd characters and then we were set to go – although, in the case of English, we had to spend the next years learning irregular spellings!
The aim of James W. Heisig’s method in his “Remembering the Kanji” series is to bridge the gap between people with an alphabetic-language background and those with a Chinese background by teaching the characters, each associated with an English meaning or keyword. No Japanese pronunciations, compound words or examples are included in Part 1, which instead concentrates on teaching simple kanji and elements and using these to build up more complex kanji. For example, the first chapter includes the numbers and the relatively simple kanji:

口(くち) kuchi: mouth
日(ひ) hi: day, sun
月(つき) tsuki: moon, month
田(た) ta: rice field
目(め) me: eye

(but without the pronunciations) and the second chapter introduces more complex kanji using these elements, such as the following, given with their Heisig keyword:

品: goods
明: bright
朋: companion
昌: prosperous
唱: chant
晶: sparkle

Each of these kanji is assigned a keyword in English and there is a mnemonic ‘story’ suggested to help remember how the meaning of the kanji is related to those of the component parts. In my experience, some of these stories are helpful, particularly when they relate to the etymology of the words – after all, the kanji are not arbitrary series of squiggles but were developed as symbolic representations of objects and concepts and some insight into the way of thinking in ancient China can sometimes be enough to make certain characters meaningful and memorable. However, others of the keywords and stories were much less helpful for me personally. For example, the character 九(きゅう) (kyuu, nine) is introduced with its simple meaning, but when this character is used to make up other characters, it is assigned the meaning of ‘baseball’ , something which has resonance for US readers but means very little to those of us from the non-baseball-playing part of the English-speaking world and made me constantly fight against the ‘obvious meaning’ of the character when it appeared subsequently. (Interestingly, I had fewer such problems with the use of the character ‘ten’ to mean ‘needle’.) The French version of the book (a sample chapter of which can be obtained here) has eliminated the baseball references and instead used the element to mean ‘new’, a play on neuf which actually works a lot better than the original in that the character 旭(あさひ) (asahi: morning sun) can then be remembered as a new sun rather than a sun rising over a baseball field!)

One of the results of this methodology is that the kanji are not taught in the usual order used by textbooks (e.g. the order used by the Japanese Language Proficiency Test or the Japanese school system or frequency of usage). This is not necessarily a problem since all commonly used kanji are eventually covered in Part 1 (and Part 3 introduces some rarer ones). However, it does mean that the book is not especially useful as the companion to a more standard Japanese or kanji course and is perhaps best tackled before starting such a course. (This was the exact context in which Heisig developed his method.) Of the compound kanji listed above, for example, 明 is taught in Grade 2 of Japanese schools and at JLPT level N4 (it does, however, have 13 different possible pronunciations in jisho.org – hoorah for Japanese for keeping things interesting!) , 唱 is taught in Grade 4 and at level N1 (example usage: 合唱団(がっしょうだん)gasshoudan: choir) and 晶 is taught at junior high school and at level N1 – and has only one pronunciation in jisho.org (example usage: 結晶(けっしょう)kesshou: crystal).

To avoid potential future confusion it should also be borne in mind that the keywords do not reflect the full range of meaning and nuance of the kanji, and were additionally influenced by the need to find a unique keyword for each kanji. It’s perhaps easier to think of them as a kind of hook to hang the kanji on than as “the meaning” of the kanji. If you come across this book part-way through your kanji studies, as I did, you may find these keywords conflicting with the meaning you already associate with the kanji or the associations that you have built up around it.

What of the mnemonics? As I said before, some were helpful and some less so. The author does encourage readers to make up their own mnemonic stories as they progress through the book but there seems to be no way to change the keywords if they do not work for you, so English-speaking readers are stuck with having to develop stories based on baseball. I have also heard criticism of the stories (unfortunately I don’t remember from where) for relying too much on Judaeo-Christian cultural heritage in developing the stories. Since this is my own culture this is not a problem for me personally but I could see how this could be difficult for those who have grown up in other cultures. As with the baseball, it is not so much the idea of a foreign culture (after all, if we are learning Japanese then chances are that we are interested in getting to know other cultures) so much as of the basic associations we make in our minds. In the main, I found the mnemonics most helpful when they were derived from the etymology of the characters rather than invented stories, as I felt that I as learning something more about the characters rather than having to remember a mnemonic story in addition to the character itself, its pronunciation, etc. Presumably the mnemonics are intended as staging-posts, and the ultimate aim is that we see the character and remember its meaning and pronunciation without (conscious) recourse to a mnemonic, otherwise we are still at the equivalent stage as reading alphabetic words letter-by-letter.

Personally, I am much more able to remember bizarre and unusual words and kanji than mundane, everyday ones and I don’t believe that I am alone in this – in “Use Your Head”, Tony Buzan points out that, given a list of common words and the name “Leonardo da Vinci” to memorise, participants always recall the famous name. (In fact, until referring to it just now, I had not looked at the book “Use Your Head” for at least ten years and did not remember the book title but I still recalled the fact that there was an exercise involving memorising a list of mundane words and “Leonardo da Vinci”.) As a result, interesting kanji tend to stick in my head fairly readily, while the ones for which I really need helpful mnemonics are the somewhat more dull words – or rather, I need the mnemonics to make the seemingly dull characters interesting, and this is what Heisig is striving to provide.

In short, the Heisig approach is based on an interesting concept and does take the very important step of saying that the most effective approach for adults is to learn kanji in a systematic way rather than ‘picking them up as you go along’ and developing such a system. The difficulty for those who are already part-way along the kanji-learning journey by the time they encounter the book is that it is very much an all-or-nothing approach that is not easy to integrate with other books or approaches.

There are various websites devoted to the Heisig approach and mnemonics including Kanji Cafe.
I’d be interested in hearing about your Heisig experiences and any other links in the comments!
And finally, how about a Heisig haiku? The rules are: only the characters in the first two chapters of Heisig, plus kana, are allowed!