Monday, December 07, 2009

Heisig for Chinese part 3 A Comforting Approach?

Not for me but maybe for you

Continuing my thoughts on the Heisig method for learning Chinese Characters, Ultimately it is not for me but maybe for you. Have a look at various posts on Mandarin Segments for reports from someone who is getting on well with it. As always make up your own mind.....

Comfortable Progress

It seems that people have an irrational expectation that processes are linear, that progress (or change) is directly proportional to input, this unreasonable expectation has adverse affects on many areas from financial analysis to education. It seems that when people study or teach they tend towards methods that appear linear, methods that appear to reward X amount of effort with a directly proportional Y result.

In reality many things are not linear, many language learners are familiar with the situation where they suddenly feel they made a huge gain in a very short period of time, then again they may also experience plateaus where progress seems slow or non-existent no matter what they do for a long period of time.

The Heisig approach to learning hanzi appeals to this desire for linearity. I put X effort in each day and I know Y more characters, it is therefore highly motivational (not always a bad thing). If you scratch beneath the surface however it is not so linear as it appears. if you have studied 1000 characters and it turns out the retention rate is actually 95% you know 950. The real problem of linearity is that the range of what it means to know a character extends far beyond a simple boolean known/unknown. Some characters you will know the sounds of some you will read without thinking and without even resorting to stories, some you may know the function of in a number of compound words or in a grammatical context. Therefore if two different people tell you they know 1500 from Heisig study you actually "know" very little about their comparative Chinese level.

Motivation is important, but I suspect that those who have been motivated by Heisig may have a tendency to oversell it, those that are already highly motivated may not actually need it.

Heisig has to market at beginners

One aspect that initially annoyed me when I read about Heisig in the introductory download, was the very weak argument for why a beginner should use it at the start of their learning, this argument is primarily based on the following sentence The truth is, written characters bring a high degree of clarity to the multiplicity of meanings carried by homophones in the spoken language. The argument that follows is fairly weak after all people don't speak with subtitles so you are going to have to deal with homophones. Besides modern technology offers a number of ways to working with hanzi without having to actually learn them.

The issue of course is that most language learners (in any language) give up fairly early, so if you are in the business of selling books then there is a very real pressure to make your sale at the earliest stage possible.

Dislocated from the language

What you get from Heisig is related to the language you are learning but also somewhat disconnected from it. There was an excellent post on the Global Maverick blog (I highly recommend reading this blog), that mostly agrees with the impression that I am forming about Heisig for Chinese.

Suppose for example that you were spending some time investigating whether to learn Chinese or Japanese (perhaps even both). Then during your investigations it may be beneficial to study the traditional Chinese characters with Heisig (will give you a huge boost on your kanji learning if you pick Japanese)

3 comments:

Niel de la Rouviere said...

I debated the Heisig method on a Mandarin Segments blog.
http://mandarinsegments.blogspot.com/2009/10/pinyin-proves-that-heisig-is-right.html

I'm with you on the Heisig method. I'm still not sold. Perhaps because I come from a formal chinese education background.

Greg said...

Hey Chris, another good post. (And thanks for the link-back.)

I found your comment about linearity quite interesting - because sometimes I feel like I'm defending Heisig against people who say it's too linear, and then also against others who say it's not linear enough :-)

Overall, I agree it's not linear - as I recently discussed, where I'm happy to learn things in multi-passes, rather than pretending that once I've been through the book from cover to cover, it's done.

Finally, your comment about "motivation" reminds me of a saying I heard: "The average photo you DO take is better than the GREAT photo you don't take." For me, I had been threatening to learn to write & write for ages, but it was Heisig that finally made it happen. For me. Whether it's because I was coforted by the apparent linearity, or because it simply worked - the point is I got going.

Thanks again
Greg

Matt Whyndham said...

I agree with you on the linearity thing. In a more general sense, it's to do with needing to have some reward for the effort of learning.

As a teacher, I find that having some acheivement programmed in there is beneficial to all sorts of learners, even the sort of people who mught be expected to defer gratification.

But the reward that you give (learning a scale, say, to use a musical analogy) doesn't have to be the same as the eventual aim (improvisation).