Sunday, October 18, 2009

Heisig for Chinese part2 Knowing a character

Summary

Been busy and as always sparetime priority is learning Chinese rather than blogging, but got some time now. I think the series of Heisig related posts will continue for a fair while longer, the debate touches on some fundamental learning issues and besides the background reading (both directly related and less directly) is interesting. My schedule for these posts will be a little random and I will start mixing some more interesting posts back in, like how to get into Chinese conversations with real people for example.

So what does it mean to know or read a Chinese character.

Seemingly not very much, many of the posts I have read about using the Heisig approach talk about knowing X amount of characters or the advantage of being able to read Chinese now before you start the rest of the language.

My position would be that someone who starts with Heisig, even after they have completed the course actually knows diddlysquat (a relatively small amount ;)) about each individual character, or perhaps to put it another way they know the character in the same way that many of those friends in their Facebook or similar friends list are actually their friends.

Add to this the fact that in my experience the main thing that you do know about the character (how to handwrite it) I haven't found particularly useful yet...

Ultimatately you could say that discussing the meaning of "know" and "read" is pointless, those using these words know what they mean particularly if they have been studying Chinese for some time already. Unfortunately I remember what it was like to start from scratch and I would have been misled at that point, and based on some the Heisig related posts my expectations would have been much too high.

Reading

I don't want to go into too much depth here, but just consider the stages that you and others went through to learn to read English (I assume your mother tongue), painfully assembling each letter, reading out slowly aloud, sub-vocalizing ("hey that kid's lips are moving when he reads"), internal voice (many adults still stuck here), straight to meaning (you can read far faster than you could speak and receive pictures and ideas etc.).

The process with Chinese will have differences however I am saying that with Heisig alone you have barely (made the first step). Of course someone may post a comment below that shows I am wrong (I will be interested to read it).

Many Heisig related posts still refer to reading characters however, combined with other acquired Chinese knowledge this may be the case but in isolation ....

Knowing

I could leap into a lengthy discussion of various aspects of Chinese but I will just ask you imagine a hypothetical conversation with a new Chinese friend. She writes out a character on a piece of paper to try to illustrate something, you look at the character and although there are vaguely familiar aspects you come up blank, it looks kind of squiggly and squashed becasue she has handwritten it in a cursive style. Realizing your predicament she writes it out again slowly and kindergarten style (like a Child would learn it). Ahhh bingo "I know this character" you say with relief (you told her you have been learning Chinese for 4 months but so far you feel like a loon). "Ohhh you know how to pronounce it?" she asks, ohh dear, "well actually no, but I know it means XXXX in English". Your new found friend frowns a little and consults her electronic dictionary, "well kind of she replies, do you know it's other meanings and did you know we don't use it on it's own". No you didn't, "do you know any words it is used in" she asks helpfully, no you don't. You begin to wonder that if you had spent the Heisig time on learning more Chinese and listening etc. you may have been able to have some sort of conversation in Chinese by now.

Contrived I know, but I hope it illustrates my point, she could have asked you about a grammatical useage or many other things you wouldn't be able to answer, yet somewhere you have ticked a box that indicates that along with 1499 other characters you know this one.

Wrap up

I think that the clue-stick here is in one of the rationales that the Heisig system itself uses to justify learning the characters the Heisig way, the strong dislocation between the characters and the spoken language. If you learn the traditional characters for example much of what you have learned in isolation from the language would be equally applicable to Japanese and Chinese (two very different languages) and in the case of Chinese could be used to write in two mutually unintelligible dialects.

If you read carefully the introductions to the Heisig books this is made quite clear but many blog posts written about Heisig by people who already have a strong grasp of Chinese or Japanese do not address this at all (they are assuming that the reader has a similar domain knowledge, if that is they even take the time to think about it). The average westerner has no grasp of the Asian writing systems (why should they) and nothing really to base informed decisions about study method on. If you are a beginner then use Google by all means read the enthusiastic posts, but as I would always do make sure you read some opposing views before you make a decision about where and when to spend all those hours studying.

7 comments:

Greg said...

Agree completely Chris, and thanks as always for thought-provoking posts.

The problem is not really with Heisig (after all, it does what it says on the box) ... the problem is with how it's applied.


Greg from Mandarin Segments

ChineseQuest said...

The real problem is people thinking it does more than it claims to. Nobody (that I know of) pretends that once you finish any of Heisig's books that you know anything of the language itself other than how to write the characters and a loose "meaning." Only people who oppose this method seem to think that. :)

If you take the method at face value, and think outside the box as far as how languages can be learned, it makes a lot more sense. Doing Heisig is not considered "learning the language." It's like the pre-learning stage. It makes the actual learning much easier.

As far as handwriting not being a useful skill, it may not be if taken on its own. But the ability to write by hand makes you much more familiar with the characters, making you much less likely to get similar characters confused. And that IS a useful thing.

I don't think that a Chinese person's opinion of how a foreigner should learn Chinese should have any bearing whatsoever on how that person chooses to learn. If the method you're using works, who cares what a native speaker thinks of it?

I'll end by saying that the approach followed by many Heisig advocates (something along the lines of AJATT/the sentence method) is made much easier if you already recognize/can write the characters, whether you know the readings or usages or not. And this (the sentence method) is an approach that is well-supported in modern second language acquisition theory, since it is a practical application of Krashen's theories.

Chris said...

We probably agree on more points than you would expect, I do learn to write some characters and usually for the same reason you suggest (to clarify for reading, for example recently 特 持 待 寺 诗 侍。

Also I wouldn't advocate relying on Chinese people to give good advice, my story only illustrates the expectation arising from the word "know" (our Chinese friend doesn't offer up any learning advice). I only really care about what a native speaker thinks about the results of my learning.

My overly negative outlook (I do have some positives to raise eventually) is simply due to finding evidence in forums etc. of beginners who have expected far too much. Whilst it is easy to take a "buyer beware" stance, I know that when I first started I could easily have been in the same boat.

Chris said...

forgot to add I have an alternative to the AJATT sentances, that I think is better (at least for intermediate and above) but I am trying it out on me first before I dare describe that in public.

ChineseQuest said...

Ah, gotcha. I think there is too much expectation from some people, but that stems from ignorance of the method's intent rather than the method itself. That's something nobody can remedy because it's up to the learner to inform himself on what he's doing.

One thing I would point out is that just because the results of your approach seem odd to the Chinese person doesn't mean the approach isn't working, and it's no reason to change the results. The endpoint is the main thing, and if the means make for weird middle stages but get you to the end faster or more efficiently, then it's worth the awkward middle stages.

ChineseQuest said...

Ah, didn't see your second post. Looking forward to hearing about that method. I also don't agree with AJATT 100%. I like the approach that many at the RevTK forums take of "learning" the characters (via Heisig), then some basic material that gets you comfortable with the grammar (many there use Tae Kim's Guide to Japanese for this...I haven't found an equivalent resource for Chinese yet), and then moving on to acquiring large amounts of vocab through sentences, usually from a frequency list of some sort.

Many who have followed this approach are then able to start reading newspapers and manga in Japanese with little problem. It seems a much more efficient way than just going out and buying a bunch of native Japanese material and just figuring it out on your own like Khatzumoto recommends.

Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin said...

As a begginer to the language. I am more than happy to learn basic meanings and start to stop the Chinese blindness that I and most westerners have. (where characters look the same and have no meaning past being very foriegn)

I am under no illusion that the method will somehow make me fluent in Chinese. But for me it is something to boost my awareness of characters alongside the vocal aspects I have been picking up.

I like the fact that I can see progress and slowly begin to see characters I recognise.

I think the Heisig method is more magical for Japanese as John @ ChineseQuest has pointed out in his posts, that the Japanese RTK books allow you to reach a more fluent position in reading, whereas it makes you fairly ordinary* in Chinese.

*凡 fán​ 'a drop in the bucket' (62 - RSH) ;)

To me it is a way to see progress and get a feel for how the characters are made up. The real learning will be learning how to put all these characters in sentences and talking to others.

I agree it is a prelude to proper language learning, but a good motivator to achieve goals.