A Brief Word on the Heisig Method

I don’t think I can reasonably pester everyone learning Chinese or Japanese to use Heisig’s books without a quick explanation on what they are.

Heisig, for the uninitiated, is a self-study textbook for mastering the writing and meaning of Chinese characters.  I completed the Japanese version (containing 2045 characters) in just under three months, whilst working full-time, so it’s not too time intensive given the scale of the task.

His method involves taking recurring components of Chinese characters and assigning them concrete meanings that are (usually) logical; these concrete meanings can then be used in mnemonics to remember how to write a character.  As a simple example, he assigns the meaning “sun” to 日, and “moon” to 月 (in this case, the Heisig meaning is the same as the actual meaning, but this isn’t always the case).  “Bright”, 明, can be remembered with the mnemonic “sun and moon are always bright, whether it be day or night”.  The method becomes more helpful with more complex characters, like 戀 (Heisig components Spiderman, words, Spiderman, heart).  He also encourages the student to imagine the mnemonic for better retention – imaginative and visual memories are far better for remembering information than word-memory.

The beauty of Heisig is his divide and conquer approach – learning the writings and meanings of characters separately to the readings is something of a masterstroke, because it doesn’t overwhelm a student with too much information at once.  Once warmed up to the shape of the characters over a period of weeks, it’s much easier to then learn how to pronounce them.  There are different ways of learning the readings after the writing and meanings – you can either learn them in context, or group the characters by pronunciation and look for patterns.  Personally, I use a combination of the two.

Anyway, that’s just my thoughts on why you should use Heisig’s method for learning Chinese characters if you can’t already read and write.  My best advice though?  Try it, even if you don’t think it’ll be useful, and see for yourself.  I was annoyed I’d deferred getting it for a year because I’d read a couple of bad (and, as it turns out, entirely unjustified) reviews, since Japanese felt like it was an impossible marathon right up until I finished the book.  Turned out reading Japanese and Chinese weren’t impossible after all…


5 thoughts on “A Brief Word on the Heisig Method

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