Saturday, September 26, 2009

Heisig for Chinese Deconstructed Part 1


The Heisig method for learning of Chinese Hanzi seems to be causing some controversy at the moment, the title of the first book for simplified Hanzi is "How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Chinese Characters". The intention of this post is not to discuss the detailed mechanics of the method but to simply state some facts about what the method claims to (and actually does achieve). Some information on the original method via. wikipedia describes learning the Kanji, it should be noted that the method was originally designed for learning the Japanese Kanji (which map approximately in meaning and form to a subset of traditional Chinese characters) this was back in the 1970's. I will focus heavily on what Heisig method gives to a beginner in Chinese (it appears to be recommended to a lot of beginners these days).

Heisig uses memorization techniques to allow you assign an English meaning and to learn to handwrite Chinese characters, you do not learn the pronunciation.

A good post to read alongside this one would be Keith's what the Heisig method is NOT post.

My next post will describe the method in more detail and provide more of a critique, in that post I will also describe at what stage I think Heisig method should be used (if at all) and start to introduce an alternative approach for consideration.

How dare I Deconstruct? .....

Someone is bound to question my right to deconstruct a method I haven't followed through, particularly as I am not an academic linguist etc. etc. My response is simply how could I not deconstruct any method that I may intend to use to help me learn language. Personal deconstruction to draw my own conclusion is faster than the effort needed to put together a blog post of course but in the final analysis a blog post is a blog post, not an academic paper. If you believe any of the facts are wrong then please comment. My next post will have more subjective elements than this one.

In case you feel I am over-analysing and "navel gazing" I should point out I am listening to Chinese content whilst writing this and one reason I don't post more frequently is simply that spare time is usually put towards learning Chinese. I am a strong believer in doing and getting stuck in but also believe that a self-learner of anything should constantly examine the learning method.


Upon completion of Heisig you will be able to assign an English meaning to the majority of Chinese characters you come across. The English meaning will be an approximation of one of the (sometimes many) meanings represented by an Chinese character. You will usually not be able to read even an approximate meaning of the mostly multi-character Chinese words and phrases and in many cases may completely misunderstand multi-character words. The inability to understand multi-character words is compounded by the fact that there is no word separation.

You will have no chance of understanding the many transliterations used in Chinese for names (countries, politicians, brand names, famous people etc.) because these are based on the phonetic (sound) represented by the character.

Your readings of the characters to approximate English meanings will still be based to some extent on analysis, not the fluid instant recognition required for real-time reading.

In summary you will be able to read meaning into simple short phrase and perhaps the odd very simple sentence, apart from that mentioned above the lack of knowledge of measure words and various characters that serve grammatical functions in the sentence will mess with your head.

A person using a combination of Google translate and a mouse-over pop-up dictionary will completely own you in generating an English summary of a Chinese web-page they will require a mere half-an hour of training to kick your butt. If you combine your Heisig derived skills with their tools you won't really perform any better than they can. Of course someone who can speak and write both languages will kick both your butts to the moon and back.


You will be able to hand-write a vast number of Chinese characters, if given the English keyword (often an English meaning if we are feeling generous). This is not to be under-estimated you have learned one of the significant elements of the character, at some point if you wish to be able to hand write Chinese you will have to cross this significant hurdle. You also have a great party trick...

Somewhat bizarrely you have absolutely no ability to write Chinese on a computer (assuming we discount a writing tablet and handwriting recognition for Chinese). You have gained no advantage in interacting with Chinese writing on a computer (none that I can see anyway).

Wrap up

I appreciate Heisig is not intended to be studied in isolation, however most seem to approach it pretty intensively and taking into account the time requirement for Heisig study and review a learner that starts with Heisig isn't realistically going to have progressed very far at this point (Heisig study time eating into other en-devours as well) unless they do Heisig really slowly (which doesn't appear to be the point).


Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin said...

Very interesting. I have commited myself to completeing the first couple of lessons this week, I am still dubious.

BUT... lets give it a go. I will pop back when I have started.

Greg said...

Hey Chris

Thanks for this post - there's obviously a lot of material going around on the Heisig method, and your post is certainly helping clarify the approach.

As you know, I'm a fan of this approach to learning to read Chinese.

My conclusions are:
- If you're NOT aiming to learn Chinese properly, then DON'T bother with Heisig. Knowing 1500 (or 3000) characters means little (not 'nothing', but 'little') unless you've also learned hundreds or even thousands of compound words.
- Even at only 500 characters under my belt, I was still able to get a rough idea of the text of The Little Prince, but a BBC News article left me befuddled.
- Definitely do not start Chinese by learning Heisig. At least be conversational first. (Hmmm, unless you live in China, where basic Heisig will certainly help you understand simple signs much more easily.)
- I agree with the other flaws you list (Heisig doesn't help you write using a computer, etc.)
- If you are going to learn to read Chinese, you WILL have to know the meaning of the individual characters - and Heisig is REALLY good at teaching that. (i.e. necessary, but not sufficient)

Ultimately, in order to be good in Chinese, you need to be able to read, write, listen, speak, etc. Heisig gives you some of the skills you need, and if you're going to learn to read, you may as well use Heisig. It's not all you need, but as you learn the other stuff, Heisig will cover some important bits.

Knowing what I now know, I wouldn't give up Heisig for anything.

Chris Hall said...

@Charlie let me know how you find it :)

@Greg I still haven't reached any final conclusions but I think I would have to agree that Heisig has application for those that have a solid grounding in Chinese. That actual bit about learning to handwrite the characters is a tough nut to crack and seems to be an area where Heisig method excels. To some extend it probably doesn't matter where the reading familiarity comes from if you are building on base of other Chinese ability.

Erick said...

I am currently on character number 1401 and it has been amazing. I'm an advanced learner, and I'm pretty much fluent in spoken Mandarin but characters, especially writing, have always been a challenge (especially remembering how to read a character and its meaning, but forgetting how to write it). Now, the Heisig method is NOT the be all end all to language study, its a way to tackle a facet of the language that is difficult. It HAS gotten me to remember and retain many many more characters, and recognize components and radicals in others I come across.

Coupled with a good SRS (in this case Anki)I've been unbeatable. I've also noticed that when I learn the writing and reading first, the pronunciation sticks to me much easier.'s got a pretty good rundown on Heisig and why it works.

Ted said...

I think you've provided a pretty fair assessment of the course. My experience is with his course for kanji, so it varies slightly (I think one might be a little better off with regards to picking out meanings for multiple character words, for instance).

I undertook this study at the beginning--I knew essentially NO Japanese at that point. (Well, that hasn't changed much.) In retrospect, I would probably have preferred to have gained some verbal fluency before anything else. I noted this about halfway through the 2000 characters, but at that point I was committed and felt that I definitely should finish then lest I never.

Your comment on being a party trick seems pretty spot on for me right now--I can't advance without learning the actual language. Kind of like learning to land a plane without learning first how to fly.

So, yeah, don't do Heisig first, unless you've got a good idea otherwise.

Dennis said...

If one bothers to read the introduction, the authors clearly state that the purpose of the book is to learn to write Chinese characters. It states that you will still have to learn pronunciation and build a vocabulary, but you won't have to learn to write. Writing consumes much more time to to learn with other methods. As far as text entry on a computer? Why should the book have to do this? The title isn't "Remembering Pinyin"