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January 25, 2007

The Heisig method as a means, not an end

When we English speakers teach kids to read, we start by teaching them the entire alphabet at once. Instead of beginning with the letter E and then teaching them a bunch of 'E' words, then moving on to T, then A, then O, etc, kids start by learning the alphabet and then learn to read words constructed from that alphabet.

This isn't (or shouldn't be) a time-consuming process: the goal is to teach the alphabet so kids can start using it on real words and real reading as quickly as possible. They don't learn every aspect of the language when they learn the alphabet; they're learning the infrastructure they need so they can begin.

The Heisig method is similar. It doesn't create instant kanji experts, nor does it claim to. Instead, learning the kanji via the Heisig method is akin to learning the alphabet: Heisig learners acquire the ability to recognize and write the kanji, along with a semantic hook for each one. By simplifying the work (limiting the task to one kanji + one meaning), the kanji "alphabet" can be learned quickly--and should be. Once this kanji "alphabet" has been learned, the real work of learning readings and compounds begins, and that work should be easier: the learner is already familiar with the kanji and has an approximate meaning, so the rest is often easier to learn.

Heisig's book points out that it's usually quicker for Chinese to learn to read Japanese than for English-speakers. Why? Because they're already very familiar with the kanji forms and approximate meanings, so they can move right on to the good stuff. The Heisig method seeks to provide that same infrastructure for those who don't have that pre-existing kanji familiarity, and to do so quickly.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at January 25, 2007 09:57 PM


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